In Hard Times, what is the significance of the book's structure?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Hard Times is divided into three books, entitled respectively "The Sowing," "The Reaping," and "The Garnering." These titles correspond to three stages in a child's upbringing and education. The child is father to the man, as Wordsworth once famously said, and the grounding that children receive in their formative years determines what kind of adults they will grow up to be.

In the case of the children taught by Mr. Gradgrind, they become adults just like him. Given a narrow, utilitarian education in which the rote-learning of facts is everything, they lack the imagination and the experience to deal with real-life situations. No wonder that Tom and Louisa Gradgrind are so keen to have a sneaky peak at what's going on in the circus; they have a deep hunger for an imaginative engagement with the world around them of which they've been deprived for so long by their dull pedant of a father. But even if Tom and Louisa hadn't been caught in the act, it's unlikely that they would've been able to make sense of what they were seeing. This is the garnering, or gathering in, of the poor harvest of learning sown and reaped by their father.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

This is a great question! Well done for noticing the curiously entitled headings given to each section of this great novel. I guess one way to approach this question is to consider a wider theme within the novel which is that of clocks and time. Throughout this text, mechanical time and natural time is juxtaposed and contrasted. In Coketown and in the household of the Gradgrinds, time is severely mechanised - it is monotonous, structured and inexorable. Consider such quotes as "Time went on in Coketown like its own machine." Think too of how this concept is symbolised by the "deadly statistical clock" in Gradgrind's study.

However, opposed to this ruthless view of time is the structure of the novel that you have identified that divided the overall action by natural time. Thus the three book titles, "Sowing," "Reaping," and "Garnering," refer to agricultural labour and to the natural processes of planting and harvesting in accordance with the natural passing of time in the seasons. Likewise the narrator comments on the change of seasons even in Coketown's miasma of smoke and red-brick buildings. According to the narrator, these changes of season amount to "the only stand that ever was made against its direful uniformity."

Dickens seems to create this contrast throughout this novel with the purpose of emphasising how industrialisation has mechanised the human experience as well as heightening the opposition between agricultural labour and labour in a town such as Coketown, which, as we can see through characters like Stephen, only destroys and grinds down humanity.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial