Of the several calamities of the mid-Victorian era, the one that provoked and inspired the satirist’s pen the most directly was the utilitarian system of education, the Gradgrind regime. Clearly Dickens abhorred the system that fed young minds an unrelieved diet of statistics and facts, as he showed in his harsh treatment of the characters affected by it.
Whatever other class stratifications prevail, all the characters in Hard Times fall into two contrasting classes: the propounders and products of Gradgrindism, who are devoid of real feelings or with emotions so corrupted as to render them almost inhuman, and those who mercifully escaped it, or, like Sissy Jupe, failed it, and are therefore more recognisable as humans with real feelings and normal failings. The very names of the characters belie the class to which they belong. Louisa, Tom and Bitzer are the products of the regime, and their characters and destinies are doomed because of it. Louisa, punished with a loveless marriage to a self-made humbug from whose “braggart humility…she shrunk as if every example of it were a cut or blow” (p.161) is tortured by the inner conflicts produced by her father’s regime and sunk to the role of “Loo Bounderby” mistress of a “cheerless and comfortless” house (p.161), which, for all her “expensive knowledge” (p.161) she has neither interest nor ability to improve by embellishment. But Louisa, unlike her beloved brother, that “dissipated and extravagant idler” (p.151) and the insidious Bitzer, is the one character Dickens might have liked to have escaped the crushing consequences of the grindstone. Her plight is the saddest reproach to the system only because, with a little more spirit, she could have failed it.
Her creator allows her some insight into her deficiencies and sufficient sensitivity to provoke the reader’s sympathy: her love for her brother, her sensitivities offended by her vulgar husband and her endearingly non-Gradgrind recurring habit of reflection, about which we can only speculate as “shut…up within herself” she gazes into the fire “for an hour at a stretch” (p.168).
Tom and Bitzer have no such redeeming features. Self-interest alone motivates them. Tom urged his sister into marrying his patron, for whom he knew “she never cared” (167), to promote his own interests. “I persuaded her” he boasts to Mr Harthouse. “I told her my wishes and she came into them” (p.167), conceding only of Louisa’s acquiescence that it was “a good thing in her”. Tom, “whose imagination had been strangled in his cradle” (p.165), is sullen and contemptuous towards “old Bounderby”, his employer and brother-in-law, seemingly indifferent towards his sister for all her sacrifices, and simpering and indiscreet towards that “easy swell” (p.165), Mr Harthouse.
Another product of the system is Bitzer, porter at the bank and “general spy and informer” (p.149) – a voluntary position with remuneration. Bitzer, with a mind “so exactly regulated that he had no affections or passions” (p.150), having put his mother in the workhouse, is the callous model product of Gradgrindism.
Dickens attacks the effects of industrialism on the country and the people and the production and uneven distribution of wealth rather more obliquely, yet savagely. His compelling imagery of Coketown defies us to find anything admirable in the place, or in those responsible for its ugliness. These propounders of Gradgrindism, he treats with scathing irony. His contempt for all their weaknesses contrasts markedly with his indulgent and perhaps even sometime fulsome portrayal of all the better qualities of the ‘real’ people: the labouring classes.
The author presents Coketown as a functional town of unalleviated ugliness, cowering under omnipresent serpents of soot and smoke, unmitigated by the seasons. On a hot summer day “the whole town seemed to be frying in oil” (p.146), but the smoke was “meat and drink” (p.159) to the mill owners, caricatured by Mr Bounderby. The relentless drum of their barbarous machines, likened to “melancholy-mad elephants” (p146) was the only language they cared to hear. These princes of the “fairy palaces” (p.146) were the friends of the laissez-faire system, who, at any hint of dissatisfaction or interference, fell to pieces like “fragile china-ware” (p.145).
Enforced safety measures in their factories and compulsory education of their cheapest labour force were seen as unnecessary pampering of the poverty-stricken workers, who were already (according to Mr Bounderby) employed in “the pleasantest work… the lightest work… and… the best paid work” (p.159). The single ambition of these down-trodden workers was “to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon” (p.159). And how the mill owners marvelled that the Hands who, “wasting with heat, toiled languidly in the desert” (p.146), were not all “accomplishing the little feat” of making “sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence” (p.152) after their own fashion!
These masters then are a ridiculous and paranoid lot, but they are too large and ruthlessly powerful, capable of terrifying even the Home Secretary “within an inch of his life” (p.146) with their threats, so what chance do the Hands, for all their contrasting simple goodness have of victory? According to Bounderby's scheming housekeeper, Mrs Sparsit, combining forces is a privilege only to be allowed to the masters to protect their stronghold against the “restless wretches [who] must be conquered… once and for all” (p.149).
Dickens’ description of the events of the trade union meeting adopts a convention of realism, but the author manipulates this setting to bring the qualities of the workers into fine relief and adroitly uses them as a platform from which to expound his own opinion that trade unions were a mistake of the times, from which little good could come. In short, his direct commentary is an effective polemic on their evils.
Stephen Blackpool is the representative working man, and the author’s compassion for men like Stephen is made clear. The workers are portrayed as an honest and loyal race, striving to maintain personal dignity and respectability in the face of appalling poverty. Dickens does not ridicule Stephen, yet nor does he offer him a chance in love or life.
Gathered together at the meeting is a crowd “gravely, deeply, faithfully in earnest” (p.171) whose “general sense of honour was much too strong for the condemnation of a man unheard” (p.172), and yet this is really what Dickens allows to happen, in particular to Stephen Blackpool.
Agitated by the outside orator, Slackbridge, (portrayed as an unwholesome trouble-maker, inferior in appearance and intellect to his submissive, captive audience) to rise up in brotherhood against their oppressors’ “iron-handed and grinding despotism” (p.169) these “down-trodden operatives of Coketown” instead turn against their workmate in whose plight they were “more sorry than indignant” (p.173). Dickens, despite his compassion, does not allow Stephen to give a satisfactory account of his reasons for not joining the union and contributing to its funds, but only allows him, overburdened already with trouble, to submit to his fate with quiet dignity. This is all Dickens has ever accorded these folk. By bringing in Slackbridge, who is among them yet not of them he has successfully linked their proceedings to the grotesque and immoral, in accordance with his line of argument.
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Page numbers refer to the Penguin Classics edition of Charles Dickens' Hard Times (Revised Ed. 2003).
A free online version of Hard Times is available from Project Gutenberg.
Some suggested further reading:
Charles Dickens Info (June 2020)
For a plot summary and list of characters in Hard Times: The Charles Dickens Page
Tomalin, C., Charles Dickens: A Life, Penguin (2011)
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