‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’
If Hard Times had been given an alliterative title along the lines of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, it would have to be Fact and Fancy*. Dickens sets up a strictly utilitarian education and point of view, and then shows its terrible consequences. These consequences are to be found both in the moral and emotional destruction of children educated along utilitarian lines, and in the industrial wasteland created for workers by those same principles.
I should point out that not only does the plot betray those principles, Dickens also undermines them with his prose at every opportunity. As soon as Thomas Gradgrind finishes demanding Facts and only Facts, Dickens describes him:
The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall.[…] The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside.
Firs… planted on a plum pie… on a warehouse…over a cellar wall? Okay, Charles. This is why I love you. Facts!
This short novel — a quarter the length of the ones that precede and follow it — has the feel of a fable or a parable. The characters, especially the antagonists, have names that suit their characters: Gradgrind, Bounderby, M’Choakumchild, Sparsit. (Where else does Dickens do this? Trollope does it all the time, but Dickens? Mr. Murdstone comes to mind.) Old Stephen, who lives according to his conscience, is named for a martyr. We are in Pilgrim’s Progress territory: the three sections of the novel are Reaping, Sowing, and Garnering.
One part of Hard Times describes the education of three young people. The two who are most intelligent and absorb the education are ruined: the young man becomes a thorough egotist, free of integrity, morals, or even gratitude (because they are not Facts), and eventually sinks into crime. The young woman is as close to soulless as Dickens will permit a woman to be, never having learned an emotion (which, of course, is not a Fact.) She is less selfish (probably because Dickensian women are Naturally Unselfish), but she has no warmth or happiness in her makeup. The third — who, being less intelligent, was unable to make much of her education — is imaginative, warm, happy, and domestically inclined. Parents! Let your children read story-books! Take them to the circus! Let them use their imaginations! Avoid this dreadful fate!
The other part of Hard Times is less warmly personal, but it is bleaker, and it is uncomfortably modern:
The wonder was, [Coketown] was there at all. It had been ruined so often, that it was amazing how it had borne so many shocks. Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke.
Through the characters of Old Stephen and his friend Rachael (perhaps the only strong female character in the book, and she doesn’t get a lot of page-time), Dickens shows the disastrous consequences of the working conditions in Coketown. Worse, he shows the consequences of the deep chasm of distrust and suspicion between master and man. Bounderby, a deeply-self-interested and offensively bumptious mill-owner, repeats his claims that all his hands want to “feast on turtle soup and venison, served with a golden spoon,” and that he will not be taken in by such nonsense. Stephen’s mild, bewildered requests for help and justice meet with no help from that quarter, and eventually the ruination that the mill-owners have been claiming for so long, falls elsewhere.
I’ll repeat that this book feels like a fable, with more archetypes and fewer characters than I’m used to. (Mr. Sleary, of the circus, is a happy exctheption.) It’s so short that the resolution comes quickly on the heels of the problem, and if it’s not exactly a happily-ever-after ending, then at least we do have bread and (literal) circuses to amuse us on the way. It’s a harsh book, too, as fables and fairy tales can be harsh, with punishments for the bad: put him in a barrel and poke out his eyes! But that doesn’t make it simplistic. Dickens wrote this book in between two of his great novels: Bleak House and Little Dorrit. He was at the height of his narrative powers. The plot and the symbolism of Hard Times may not be developed over as great a field as those two books, but the characters, the prose, the artistry, and the moral force are just as strong. (It is also, in parts, extremely funny, as Dickens always is.) This book isn’t just for Dickens completists (are any of his novels really just for completists? I don’t know.) It’s a powerhouse, and at less than 300 pages, what are you waiting for?
*… and Frankenstein’s creation?