Hard Times Themes
The main themes in Hard Times are hard times, a complete human being, and class conflicts.
- Hard times: The characters in the novel all experience their own particular hard times, from poverty and oppression to emotional turmoil.
- A complete human being: Dickens suggests that in order to be a complete human being, an individual needs to embrace the wisdom of the heart as well as the head.
- Class conflicts: Coketown is riven by conflict between the upper-class factory owners and the working-class people they exploit.
Last Updated January 12, 2023.
Charles Dickens’s Hard Times announces one of its major themes right in its title. Nearly all of the characters in this story are plagued by hard times of some sort, but these can and do look very different based on the characters’ circumstances. Some characters overcome their hard times by changing to meet them. Others fall prey to their difficulties due to a stubborn resistance.
Hard times can indicate poverty. Stephen and Rachael have very little in the way of money or material possessions. They work very hard for low wages, and along with the other Hands, they are often oppressed by the owners. Stephen has the added difficulty of a drunken wife who is unable to make any effort to overcome her addiction and reach out toward something better. Stephen’s marriage prevents him from being with the woman he truly loves: Rachael.
Yet Stephen and Rachael are able to overcome their hard times. Stephen courageously sets out to find a new job after Mr. Bounderby fires him, keeping Rachael and her love firmly in his mind to support him. Even as he lies dying in the mine shaft, Stephen finds hope in prayer and in the vision of a single star that reminds him of how beautiful life can be. Rachael, too, holds on to love and trust and stands by Stephen to the very end, determined to clear his name.
Yet hard times are not limited to poverty and oppression. There are other “hard times” that actually run deeper than mere physical hardship. The Gradgrind family is plagued by these. Mr. Gradgrind prides himself on being “an eminently practical” man devoted to facts. He raises his children on facts, forbidding any imagination or wonder or sentiment. As such, his children, especially Louisa and Tom, end up stunted as human beings. Louisa becomes apathetic toward life and enters into a marriage with a man she does not love because nothing really matters to her. Tom rebels and falls into gambling and debt, eventually robbing the bank. This family is highly dysfunctional, and Mr. Gradgrind learns too late that his system has failed and created some of the worst hard times imaginable for himself and his children. Over time, however, Mr. Gradgrind and Louisa learn that there is more to life than facts, and they overcome their hardships by broadening their perspectives. Tom, unfortunately, dies in exile, although he does rediscover love in the end.
In a twist on the “hard times” theme, Mr. Bounderby has created a set of nonexistent adversities for himself. Presenting himself as the ultimate self-made man, Mr. Bounderby tells everyone who will listen about his horrible childhood. Born in a ditch, abused by all, left to himself, Mr. Bounderby has risen up from the bottom to what he considers the top. The problem is that it is all a lie. Mr Bounderby’s lies are exposed by Mrs. Pegler, who turns out to be his loving mother. His “hard times” were not hard at all. In his pride, he just wants people to think they were.
A Complete Human Being
Hard Times encourages readers to reflect on what it means to be a complete human being who can function well in any circumstances. Mr. Gradgrind raises his children on facts, but in so doing, he neglects other critical aspects of humanity. Louisa and Tom do not learn how to love or imagine or enjoy themselves. Their whole world is demonstration and reason, and they are scolded for even such normal curiosity as peeping at a circus show. When Louisa finds herself in the predicament...
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with Mr. Harthouse, she is completely at a loss about what to do or how to handle herself, and she laments that she has been robbed of training and experiences that would have made her “wiser, happier, more loving, more contented, more innocent and human in all good respects.” Mr. Gradgrind himself comes to realize that the head is not enough by itself. The heart is also required to make a full human being.
Sissy Jupe stands as an example of a complete human being. While she fails rather miserably at the facts set before her in school, she grows into a competent, compassionate, innocent, loving person who knows how to use her head and her heart to the best effect for herself and others. With her practical common sense, she understands what must be done at any given point. She hurries to get help for Stephen, keeping her head about her as best she can, when she realizes that he has fallen down the shaft. She also arranges for Tom to escape to Mr. Sleary. Yet at the same time, Sissy cares deeply for other people. She loves Louisa even when Louisa is cold to her, and she takes it upon herself, acting out of her love, to confront Mr. Harthouse and tell him to leave Coketown. Indeed, while Sissy is no more perfect than any other human being, she strives for a balance of head and heart that makes her complete and most often happy, even in difficult situations.
Hard Times does not shy away from depicting the class conflicts that were intensified in the industrial English cities symbolized by Coketown. There is a large gap between people like the Gradgrinds and Mr. Bounderby and people like Stephen, Rachael, and even Sissy. The Gradgrinds largely ignore the lower classes. To them, they are out of sight and out of mind, not really people perhaps, if they think of them at all. This changes a bit when Sissy comes to live with the family, especially since she shows herself to be a kind, compassionate person who is intent upon caring for others.
People like Mr. Bounderby, however, are highly prejudiced toward the lower classes. He advises Mr. Gradgrind against accepting Sissy. He is constantly blustering about the Hands wanting more than they deserve, but he is not willing to provide what they really need. The workers in his mill, like Stephen, work long hours for little pay and survive on the thinnest of means. Mr. Bounderby has no trouble dismissing them without cause, as he does with Stephen. This is quite ironic since Mr. Bounderby claims to come from the poorest class himself (although he actually does not).
It is little wonder, then, that the working-class people begin to unite and organize to pursue better conditions. However, the narrator suggests that they are going about it in the wrong way. Organizers like Slackbridge are all talk. They get the people riled up and turn them against each other, especially when some, like Stephen, do not want trouble.
Stephen, perhaps, has the deepest insight into the class conflicts. Punishing the workers with a heavy hand will not work, he says. Organizing with anger and causing trouble will not work either. The only thing that will work is for people to treat each other as human beings, and this is what Stephen prays for as he lies dying in the mine shaft, that people will come together and strive together to make things better for everyone. This is the only solution to the class “muddle” that he can see.