Hard Times of Dickens, and Harder Times of deciding on three stars

A rather longer title than usual, isn’t it?

I finished reading Hard Times by Charles Dickens yesterday, as those aware of my Goodreads account might have spotted. I really enjoyed it, but it was not as brilliant as Dickens usually is.

The setting of Coketown is very bleak, in fact, so bleak that it reminded me of the setting of Bleak House (where Mrs. Jellyby lives). Coketown is a town wholly created by Dickens, based on his visit to the industrial Manchester. The town is home to what seems like only two classes of people: the Hands, and the upper classes. The Hands are workers who toil away on mills and in factories; they work from dawn ’till dusk everyday for the rest of their lives.
Some of them work under Mr. Bounderby — a hypocritical businessman who never ceases to proclaim himself a “self-made man”, always noting that he was born in a barn, abandoned by his mother, and beaten by his grandmother…All of which is not true. This is the type of character Dickens criticizes, and one of my favourite retorts to Bounderby’s  prattling comes from a circus worker:

“Nine oils, Merrylegs, missing tips, garters, banners, and Ponging, eh!” ejaculated Bounderby, with his laugh of laughs. “Queer sort of company, too, for a man who has raised himself.”
“Lower yourself, then,” retorted Cupid. “Oh Lord! if you’ve raised yourself so high as all that comes to, let yourself down a bit.”

Now, Mr. Bounderby has engaged Louisa in a loveless marriage with himself. Louisa’s father, Mr. Gradgrind, preaches Facts, Facts, and Facts only! There is no place for fancy, imagination, or a simple head in the clouds — oh no! For what is a horse, if not quadruped and gramnivorous with forty teeth, and shedding coat and hoofs? (A similar definition of this quadruped animal is given to us by Bitzer.) And so, Louisa and her brother Tom were both raised by this system, learning Facts and many ‘ologies’ as their  mother would say. Facts ruined both siblings: Louisa finally realizes this when the charismatic Mr. Harthouse shows signs of affection towards her—she does not love Bounderby and she does not even know what it is to love! And young Tom gradually falls into gambling and even thievery. Here, I believe Dickens criticized the utilitarian education system of industrial towns, where I would naturally assume, children did not learn art or music, but only maths and sciences. However, Dickens hints that there is hope in redemption and change of principles, as Mr. Gradgrind finally sees the flaws of his “system” and begs Louisa to forgive him for bringing her up this way; he also promises that the same mistake will not be repeated with Jane (the youngest sibling, only twelve).

There are many other things I can discuss and point at, but then this post will turn into an essay… As a final remark, I will bring your attention to Mrs. Sparsit — Bounderby’s housekeeper, born a lady, with a Coriolanian nose and other Roman features. Through her, Dickens criticizes sneaky and spying persons: Mrs. Sparsit is the one to find out that Mr. Harthouse fancies Louisa, she is the one to immediately report this to Mr. Bounderby (who is very thankful for that!); Mrs. Sparsit is also the one to find out that Mr. Bounderby is a liar, and not a self-made man, he has a mother who brought him up with love and care into an apprentice (Mr. Bounderby is not grateful for this information!). Upon being found out, with a feeling of angry embarrassment, Bounderby sends Mrs. Sparsit to one of her horrible relations, and she is thus punished.

If you have read the title, you already know what rating Hard Times squeezed out of me. It was hard to decide on three stars, this never happens between me and Mr. Dickens, but the decision is final. It is three-and-a-half stars, to be precise; and perhaps on future re-reads it will be upgraded further.  The novel ends with and I shall end with:

Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn grey and cold.

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2 responses to “Hard Times of Dickens, and Harder Times of deciding on three stars

  1. He’s an amazing writer, Dickens: but just sometimes he can be grim reading. His plots are just superlative, and they had to be, serialised as they were in the magazine published by his own company. I think yours is a very fair assessment!

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