Hard Times by Charles Dickens
Hard Times was not on the BBC Top 100 Books List of 2011, but it was in the book Charles Dickens; Greenwich Unabridged Library Classics along with Great Expectations, A Christmas Carol, and A Tale of Two Cities. It is, however, on my large list of about 500 books to read. So I have adequately checked it off.
Hard Times – For These Times (more commonly known as Hard Times) is the tenth novel by Charles Dickens, first published in 1854. The book appraises English society and is aimed at highlighting the social and economic pressures of the times. The novel is unusual in that it did not contain illustrations; nor is it set in or around London (both usual in Dickens’s novels). Instead the story is set in the fictitious Victorian industrial Coketown, a generic Northern English mill-town, not unlike Manchester, partially based upon 19th-century Preston. As typical with his novels, he wrote in phonetics, as the character would have sounded like, and I found it very hard to understand what the character was trying to say when read silently in my head.
Dickens’s reasons for writing Hard Times were mostly monetary. Sales of his weekly periodical, Household Words, were low, and he hoped the inclusion of this novel in installments would increase sales. Since publication it has received a mixed response from a diverse range of critics, such as F.R. Leavis, George Bernard Shaw, and Thomas Macaulay, mainly focusing on Dickens’s treatment of trade unions and his post-Industrial Revolution pessimism regarding the divide between Capitalist mill owners and undervalued workers during the Victorian era.
The prevalence of utilitarianism shows it was one of the targets of this novel. Utilitarianism was a prevalent school of thought during this period, its founders being Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, father to political theorist John Stuart Mill. Theoretical Utilitarian ethics hold that promotion of general social welfare is the ultimate goal for the individual and society in general: “the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people.” Dickens believed that in practical terms, the pursuit of a totally rationalized society could lead to great misery. Bentham’s former secretary, Edwin Karbunkle, helped design the Poor Law of 1834, which deliberately made workhouse life as uncomfortable as possible. In the novel, this is conveyed in Bitzer’s response to Gradgrind’s appeal for compassion.
Dickens was appalled by what was, in his interpretation, a selfish philosophy, which was combined with materialist laissez-faire capitalism in the education of some children at the time, as well as in industrial practices. In Dickens’ interpretation, the prevalence of utilitarian values in educational institutions promoted contempt between mill owners and workers, creating young adults whose imaginations had been neglected, due to an over-emphasis on facts at the expense of more imaginative pursuits.
Dickens wished to satirize radical Utilitarians whom he described in a letter to Charles Knight as “seeing figures and averages, and nothing else.” He also wished to campaign for reform of working conditions. Dickens had visited factories in Manchester as early as 1839, and was appalled by the environment in which workers toiled. Drawing upon his own childhood experiences, Dickens resolved to “strike the heaviest blow in my power” for those who labored in horrific conditions.
John Stuart Mill had a similar, rigorous education to that of Louisa Gradgrind, consisting of analytical, logical, mathematical, and statistical exercises. In his twenties, Mill had a nervous breakdown, believing his capacity for emotion had been enervated by his father’s stringent emphasis on analysis and mathematics in his education. In the book, Louisa herself follows a parallel course, being unable to express herself and falling into a temporary depression as a result of her dry education.
The novel was published as a serial in his weekly publication, Household Words. Sales were highly responsive and encouraging for Dickens who remarked that he was “Three parts mad, and the fourth delirious, with perpetual rushing at Hard Times“. The novel was serialized, every week, between April 1 and August 12, 1854. It sold well, and a complete volume was published in August, totaling 110,000 words. Another related novel, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, was also published in this magazine. It follows a classical tripartite structure, and the titles of each book are related to Galatians 6:7, “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Book I is entitled “Sowing”, Book II is entitled “Reaping”, and the third is “Garnering.”
Relating back to Dickens’ aim to “strike the heaviest blow in my power,” he wished to educate readers about the working conditions of some of the factories in the industrial towns of Manchester, and Preston. Relating to this also, Dickens wished to confront the assumption that prosperity runs parallel to morality, a notion which is systematically deconstructed in this novel through his portrayal of the moral monsters, Mr. Bounderby, and James Harthouse. Dickens was also campaigning for the importance of imagination in life, and not for people’s life to be reduced to a collection of material facts and statistical analyses. Dickens’ favorable portrayal of the Circus, which he describes as caring so “little for Plain Fact”, is an example of this.
The theme of “Fact vs. Fancy” is developed early on, the bastion of Fact being the eminently practical Mr. Gradgrind, and his model school, which teaches nothing but Facts. Any imaginative or aesthetic subjects are eradicated from the curriculum, but analysis, deduction and mathematics are emphasized. Conversely, Fancy is the opposite of Fact, encompassing, fiction, music, poetry, and novelty shows such as Sleary’s circus. It is interesting that Mr. Sleary is reckoned to be a fool by the Fact men, but it is Sleary who realizes people must be “amuthed” (amused). This is made cognizant by Tom’s sybaritic gambling and Louisa, who is virtually soulless as a young child, and as a married woman. Bitzer, who has adhered to Gradgrind’s teachings as a child, turns out to be an uncompassionate egotist. Head versus Heart: Hard Times shows the inadequacy of an approach to life that emphasizes only the human intellect at the expense of the imagination and the heart. The character who most embodies the false approach is Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind worships facts and figures and prides himself on being very practical. He thinks that the only things valuable in life are those that can be objectively measured. He believes that human behavior can be shaped for the better by the rational application of practical knowledge. Gradgrind refuses to accept the validity of “fancy” or imagination; only practical things matter, and he puts his faith in abstract theories rather than direct observation of how real people behave, and what their real needs are. In his satirical portrait of Gradgrind, Dickens is taking aim at what he saw as the underlying principles operating in the industrial England of his time. It was a lop-sided approach to human life that denied some of the basic needs of human beings. The qualities of imagination and heart are found in the circus folk that Gradgrind despises. Sissy Jupe in particular embodies the values of a heart-centered life. It is for that reason that she does not thrive in Gradgrind’s school. Louisa is another victim of Gradgrind’s repressive philosophy. She grows up emotionally stunted because she has not been allowed to develop her natural qualities of heart and imagination. The philosophy that acknowledges the value only of the intellect leads to impoverished, inadequate lives. While Mr. Gradgrind insists that his children should always stick to the facts, Hard Times not only suggests that fancy is as important as fact, but it continually calls into question the difference between fact and fancy. Dickens suggests that what constitutes so-called fact is a matter of perspective or opinion. For example, Bounderby believes that factory employees are lazy good-for-nothings who expect to be fed “from a golden spoon.” The Hands, in contrast, see themselves as hardworking and as unfairly exploited by their employers. These sets of facts cannot be reconciled because they depend upon perspective. While Bounderby declares that “[w]hat is called Taste is only another name for Fact,” Dickens implies that fact is a question of taste or personal belief. As a novelist, Dickens is naturally interested in illustrating that fiction cannot be excluded from a fact-filled, mechanical society. Gradgrind’s children, however, grow up in an environment where all flights of fancy are discouraged, and they end up with serious social dysfunctions as a result. Tom becomes a hedonist who has little regard for others, while Louisa remains unable to connect with others even though she has the desire to do so. On the other hand, Sissy, who grew up with the circus, constantly indulges in the fancy forbidden to the Gradgrinds, and lovingly raises Louisa and Tom’s sister in a way more complete than the upbringing of either of the older siblings. Just as fiction cannot be excluded from fact, fact is also necessary for a balanced life. If Gradgrind had not adopted her, Sissy would have no guidance, and her future might be precarious. As a result, the youngest Gradgrind daughter, raised both by the factual Gradgrind and the fanciful Sissy, represents the best of both worlds.
During the Victorian era, women were commonly associated with supposedly feminine traits like compassion, moral purity, and emotional sensitivity. Dickens tried hard to stress the importance of said femininity. Hard Times suggests that because they possess these traits, women can counteract the mechanizing effects of industrialization. For instance, when Stephen feels depressed about the monotony of his life as a factory worker, Rachael’s gentle fortitude inspires him to keep going. He sums up her virtues by referring to her as his guiding angel. Similarly, Sissy introduces love into the Gradgrind household, ultimately teaching Louisa how to recognize her emotions. Indeed, Dickens suggests that Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy of self-interest and calculating rationality has prevented Louisa from developing her natural feminine traits. Perhaps Mrs. Gradgrind’s inability to exercise her femininity allows Gradgrind to overemphasize the importance of fact in the rearing of his children. On his part, Bounderby ensures that his rigidity will remain untouched since he marries the cold, emotionless product of Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind’s marriage. Through the various female characters in the novel, Dickens suggests that feminine compassion is necessary to restore social harmony.
Prying and knowledge is key to several characters, namely Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby. They seem to live off of officiousness and spying. Mr. Bounderby spends his whole time fabricating stories about his childhood, covering up the real nature of his upbringing, which is solemnly revealed at the end of the novel. While not a snooper himself, he is undone by Sparsit unwittingly revealing the mysterious old woman to be his own mother, and she unravels Josiah’s secrets about his upbringing and fictitious stories. Mr. Bounderby himself superintends through calculating tabular statements and statistics, and is always secretly rebuking the people of Coketown for indulging in conceitful activities. This gives Bounderby a sense of superiority, as it does with Mrs. Sparsit, who prides herself on her salacious knowledge gained from spying on others. Bounderby’s grasp for superiority is seen in Blackpool’s talks to Bounderby regarding divorce proceedings and a union movement at his factory, accusing him that he is on a quest ‘to feast on turtle soup and venison, served with a golden spoon.’ All “superintendents” of the novel are undone in one way, or another.
Honesty is closely related to Dickens’ typical social commentary, which is a theme he uses throughout his entire œuvre. Dickens portrays the wealthy in this novel as being morally corrupt. Bounderby has no moral scruples; he fires Blackpool “for a novelty”. He also conducts himself without any shred of decency, frequently losing his temper. He is cynically false about his childhood. Harthouse, a leisured gent, is compared to an “iceberg” who will cause a wreck unwittingly, due to him being “not a moral sort of fellow”, as he states himself. Stephen Blackpool, a destitute worker, is equipped with perfect morals, always abiding by his promises, and always thoughtful and considerate of others, as is Sissy Jupe.
Another of Dickens’s purposes in Hard Times was to attack industrialism and the conditions of life in England’s industrial cities. His fictional town of Coketown was in fact modeled on Manchester, in northern England. Towns such as these helped to produce the wealth that made England the foremost industrial power in the mid-nineteenth century, but the cost in human happiness was great. In Coketown, the needs of the factories dominate everything else. The town is an unnatural place, awash in industrial pollution, an “ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in” (Book 1, chapter 10). The factory hands work long hours in oppressive and dangerous conditions, and they live in cramped, unsanitary houses. Their lives are monotonous; every day is exactly like every other day, just as all the houses and streets look alike. In Coketown, there is a strict uniformity in everything. The workers have little time off to relax and enjoy themselves.
Dickens also wanted to expose the bad state of relations between factory employers and their employees. His sympathies are clearly with the workers, as his portrait of Stephen Blackpool, the honest factory hand, shows. Dickens also believed that employers showed little if any interest in the welfare of their employees and often regarded them with contempt. In the novel, this kind of employer is represented by Bounderby, who gets rich on what the factories produce but has a low opinion of the workers, even though he does not bother to get to know any of them at a personal level.
Although Dickens presents the problems of industrialism and industrial relations very acutely, he does not propose any solutions. Stephen Blackpool’s comment that the bosses should simply treat their employees better, remembering that they are real people with real feelings, strikes many critics as inadequate, given the vastness of the industrial machine, the continual need for profits, and the disparity in power between employers and employees. The obvious solution, that workers should organize collectively in trade unions to protect their interests, was not one that Dickens embraced. In Hard Times, his portrait of the trade union, led by the fiery Slackbridge, is not an attractive one. Slackbridge himself is an unpleasant character, and the workers are all too ready to exert a tyranny of their own when they collectively shun Stephen Blackpool.
Hard Times suggests that nineteenth-century England’s overzealous adoption of industrialization threatens to turn human beings into machines by thwarting the development of their emotions and imaginations. This suggestion comes forth largely through the actions of Gradgrind and his follower, Bounderby: as the former educates the young children of his family and his school in the ways of fact, the latter treats the workers in his factory as emotionless objects that are easily exploited for his own self-interest. In Chapter 5 of the first book, the narrator draws a parallel between the factory Hands and the Gradgrind children—both lead monotonous, uniform existences, untouched by pleasure. Consequently, their fantasies and feelings are dulled, and they become almost mechanical themselves. The mechanizing effects of industrialization are compounded by Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy of rational self-interest. Mr. Gradgrind believes that human nature can be measured, quantified, and governed entirely by rational rules. Indeed, his school attempts to turn children into little machines that behave according to such rules. Dickens’s primary goal in Hard Times is to illustrate the dangers of allowing humans to become like machines, suggesting that without compassion and imagination, life would be unbearable. Indeed, Louisa feels precisely this suffering when she returns to her father’s house and tells him that something has been missing in her life, so much so that she finds herself in an unhappy marriage and may be in love with someone else. While she does not actually behave in a dishonorable way, since she stops her interaction with Harthouse before she has a socially ruinous affair with him, Louisa realizes that her life is unbearable and that she must do something drastic for her own survival. Appealing to her father with the utmost honesty, Louisa is able to make him realize and admit that his philosophies on life and methods of child rearing are to blame for Louisa’s detachment from others.
One defense of the new economic conditions created by the Industrial Revolution was its expansion of individual opportunity. The wealthy could justify the condition of the poor by pointing out that if the poor worked industriously, they could work their way into a fortune. Dickens implicitly mocks that idea by presenting one such supposed self-made man as a blundering braggart. By exposing Bounderby as a fraud who did not actually start from nothing, as he so often claims, Dickens questions the validity of that entire justification for poverty. If the self-made man is a lie, then what can the poor hope to achieve? Moreover, Dickens raises the question of whether the self-made man owes anything to the rest of society. Are the wealthy under any obligation to help the poor? Or must the poor help themselves?
Hard Times is a novel about the social condition of poverty, but very few of its major characters are actually poor and comparatively little time is spent with the poor characters. It may be that Dickens chose to center his novel on the wealthy -middle class rather than on the lower classes he sought to defend because he realized that most of his Victorian readers would come from the middle classes and that very few of his readers would come from the lower classes. By centering his book on characters with whom his readers could identify, he was better able to awaken their feelings for characters with whom they might otherwise be unable to identify—namely, the poor of Coketown and of England in general. In that sense, the book does its job. Of course, the contrary argument could also be made that the novel simply reinforces comfortable middle-class stereotypes about the noble poor, and it offers no real solution or possibility for change.
Although Mrs. Sparsit is a relatively minor character, her pride drives much of the action in the second half of the novel. Originally from an aristocratic background, Mrs. Sparsit has fallen on hard times, and she must work as Bounderby’s housekeeper for a living. Because she wants to marry Bounderby so that she can share his wealth, Mrs. Sparsit secretly connives to destroy his marriage to Louisa. Yet even while she panders to Bounderby, Mrs. Sparsit considers him an upstart “Noodle,” and considers herself his superior because of her aristocratic blood. Although she is a proud aristocrat, Mrs. Sparsit shares the calculating self-interest of capitalists like Bounderby. Thus, Mrs. Sparsit illustrates the transition from a social hierarchy in which aristocrats hold the power to one in which the wealthy middle class holds the power. In her attempt to retain her power within a new social order, Mrs. Sparsit simply ends up looking ridiculous.
Dickens also wanted to attack the failings of education and the wrong-headedness of the prevailing educational philosophy. He believed that many schools discouraged the development of the children’s imaginations, training them as “little parrots and small calculating machines” (Dickens used this phrase in a lecture he gave in 1857). Nor did Dickens approve of the recently instituted teacher training colleges. These had been set up in the 1840s, after the British government acknowledged the need to raise the standard of education in schools. The first graduates of these training colleges began teaching in 1853, a year before the publication of Hard Times. M’Choakumchild, the teacher in Gradgrind’s school (which was a non fee-paying school that catered to the lower classes), is Dickens’s satirical portrait of one of these newly trained teachers. Many educators at the time shared Dickens’s view of what was wrong with the schools. They believed there was too much emphasis on cramming the children full of facts and figures, and not enough attention given to other aspects of their development.
According to Dickens, Coketown is always covered by clouds of smoke, an image that conveys the murky, polluted nature of this industrialized town. The phrase Dickens uses is “serpents of smoke,” a sinister image that conveys the idea that something evil hovers over Coketown. Dickens uses another sinister image to describe the pistons of the steam engines; they constantly go up and down “like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness” (Book 1, chapter 5). This unusual image suggests awesome amounts of energy and strength trapped in meaningless repetitive activity-which rather sums up the life of the factory.
The smoke that suffocates Coketown is contrasted with the image of fire. Fire represents the creative imagination, or “fancy,” and it is used in the novel only in association with Louisa. Louisa often sits in the corner of the living room gazing into the fire, because it stimulates her thoughts and her imagination. But in the environment she finds herself in, that fire cannot flourish. A telling image comes in the scene in which Gradgrind informs Louisa of Bounderby’s marriage proposal. In speaking to her father of how she is not, given the kind of education she has received, in a position to know much about matters of the heart, Louisa makes an unconscious gesture. She closes her hand, “as if upon a solid object, and slowly opened it as though she were releasing dust or ash.” The fire of life cannot burn brightly in this environment; it turns to nothing. When Louisa is first introduced, in Chapter 3 of Book the First, the narrator explains that inside her is a “fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow.” This description suggests that although Louisa seems coldly rational, she has not succumbed entirely to her father’s prohibition against wondering and imagining. Her inner fire symbolizes the warmth created by her secret fancies in her otherwise lonely, mechanized existence. Consequently, it is significant that Louisa often gazes into the fireplace when she is alone, as if she sees things in the flames that others—like her rigid father and brother—cannot see. However, there is another kind of inner fire in Hard Times—the fires that keep the factories running, providing heat and power for the machines. Fire is thus both a destructive and a life-giving force. Even Louisa’s inner fire, her imaginative tendencies, eventually becomes destructive: her repressed emotions eventually begin to burn “within her like an unwholesome fire.” Through this symbol, Dickens evokes the importance of imagination as a force that can counteract the mechanization of human nature.
At a literal level, the streams of smoke that fill the skies above Coketown are the effects of industrialization. However, these smoke serpents also represent the moral blindness of factory owners like Bounderby. Because he is so concerned with making as much profit as he possibly can, Bounderby interprets the serpents of smoke as a positive sign that the factories are producing goods and profit. Thus, he not only fails to see the smoke as a form of unhealthy pollution, but he also fails to recognize his own abuse of the Hands in his factories. The smoke becomes a moral smoke screen that prevents him from noticing his workers’ miserable poverty. Through its associations with evil, the word “serpents” evokes the moral obscurity that the smoke creates.
Bounderby frequently reminds us that he is “Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.” This emphatic phrase usually follows a description of his childhood poverty: he claims to have been born in a ditch and abandoned by his mother; raised by an alcoholic grandmother; and forced to support himself by his own labor. From these ignominious beginnings, he has become the wealthy owner of both a factory and a bank. Thus, Bounderby represents the possibility of social mobility, embodying the belief that any individual should be able overcome all obstacles to success—including poverty and lack of education—through hard work. Indeed, Bounderby often recites the story of his childhood in order to suggest that his Hands are impoverished because they lack his ambition and self-discipline. However, “Josiah Bounderby of Coketown” is ultimately a fraud. His mother, Mrs. Pegler, reveals that he was raised by parents who were loving, albeit poor, and who saved their money to make sure he received a good education. By exposing Bounderby’s real origins, Dickens calls into question the myth of social mobility. In other words, he suggests that perhaps the Hands cannot overcome poverty through sheer determination alone, but only through the charity and compassion of wealthier individuals.
Dickens contrasts mechanical or man-made time with natural time, or the passing of the seasons. In both Coketown and the Gradgrind household, time is mechanized—in other words, it is relentless, structured, regular, and monotonous. As the narrator explains, “Time went on in Coketown like its own machine.” The mechanization of time is also embodied in the “deadly statistical clock” in Mr. Gradgrind’s study, which measures the passing of each minute and hour. However, the novel itself is structured through natural time. For instance, the titles of its three books—“Sowing,” “Reaping,” and “Garnering”—allude to agricultural labor and to the processes of planting and harvesting in accordance with the changes of the seasons. Similarly, the narrator notes that the seasons change even in Coketown’s “wilderness of smoke and brick.” These seasonal changes constitute “the only stand that ever was made against its direful uniformity.” By contrasting mechanical time with natural time, Dickens illustrates the great extent to which industrialization has mechanized human existence. While the changing seasons provide variety in terms of scenery and agricultural labor, mechanized time marches forward with incessant regularity.
There are many unequal and unhappy marriages in Hard Times, including those of Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind, Stephen Blackpool and his unnamed drunken wife, and most pertinently, the Bounderbys. Louisa agrees to marry Mr. Bounderby because her father convinces her that doing so would be a rational decision. He even cites statistics to show that the great difference in their ages need not prevent their mutual happiness. However, Louisa’s consequent misery as Bounderby’s wife suggests that love, rather than either reason or convenience, must be the foundation of a happy marriage.
I loved the symbol of the staircase. When Mrs. Sparsit notices that Louisa and Harthouse are spending a lot of time together, she imagines that Louisa is running down a long staircase into a “dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom.” This imaginary staircase represents her belief that Louisa is going to elope with Harthouse and consequently ruin her reputation forever. Mrs. Sparsit has long resented Bounderby’s marriage to the young Louisa, as she hoped to marry him herself; so she is very pleased by Louisa’s apparent indiscretion. Through the staircase, Dickens reveals the manipulative and censorious side of Mrs. Sparsit’s character. He also suggests that Mrs. Sparsit’s self-interest causes her to misinterpret the situation. Rather than ending up in a pit of shame by having an affair with Harthouse, Louisa actually returns home to her father.
In a world of hard facts and figures, Dickens used the Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology, as a symbol of fancy and wonder. In Hard Times, Pegasus is associated with the circus people, who embody values that are quite different from those of Gradgrind and Bounderby. Sleary’s circus people live at an inn called the Pegasus’s Arms. The inn has a picture of Pegasus on its sign-board, and inside there is a portrait of one of the circus horses, which is described as “another Pegasus.” This Pegasus has “real gauze let in for his wings, golden stars stuck on all over him, and his ethereal harness made of red silk.” The circus horses, in conjunction with the skill and daring of their riders, create a sense of wonder in the audience, allowing them to escape the drudgery of the “hard facts” world served up to them by people like Gradgrind and Bounderby. Seen in this light, the existence of the circus horses is a direct reproach to Gradgrind, who in Book I, chapter 2 asks the children in class to define a horse. Bitzer gives a factual definition: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four-eye teeth, and twelve incisive.” This pleases Gradgrind, but it comes nowhere near to suggesting the capacities of the horse as symbolized by Pegasus. Mr. Sleary’s circus entertainers stay at an inn called the Pegasus Arms.
Inside this inn is a “theatrical” pegasus, a model of a flying horse with “golden stars stuck on all over him.” The pegasus represents a world of fantasy and beauty from which the young Gradgrind children are excluded. While Mr. Gradgrind informs the pupils at his school that wallpaper with horses on it is unrealistic simply because horses do not in fact live on walls, the circus folk live in a world in which horses dance the polka and flying horses can be imagined, even if they do not, in fact, exist. The very name of the inn reveals the contrast between the imaginative and joyful world of the circus and Mr. Gradgrind’s belief in the importance of fact.
As in all the literary world, it is a curiosity how an author ranks with his or her peers. Unfortunately, George Bernard Shaw was critical of the book’s message while other critics have had a diverse range of opinions on the novel. Renowned critic John Ruskin declared Hard Times to be his favorite Dickens work due to its exploration of important social questions. However, Thomas Macaulay branded it “sullen socialism”, on the grounds that Dickens did not fully comprehend the politics of the time. This point was also made by George Bernard Shaw, who decreed Hard Times to be a novel of “passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world.” Shaw criticized the novel for its failure to provide an accurate account of trade unionism of the time, deeming Dickens’ character of Slackbridge, the poisonous orator as “a mere figment of middle-class imagination.” F. R. Leavis, in his controversial book, The Great Tradition, described the book as essentially being a moral fable, and awarded it the distinction of being a work of art, decreeing it the only significant novel of Dickens worth scrutinizing. Walter Allen, in an introduction to an alternative edition, characterized Hard Times as being an unsurpassed “critique of industrial society”, which was later superseded by works of D. H. Lawrence. Other writers have described the novel as being, as G. K. Chesterton commented in his work Appreciations and Criticisms, “the harshest of his stories”; whereas George Orwell praised the novel (and Dickens himself) for “generous anger.”
As for me, the story was a good read. It reflected an author’s view of the world around him that he felt powerless to change, and used his work to express his anger and disappointment at the “atrocities” around him. While off to a slow start, which I find to be the course for Dickens’ works, it kept me entertained, even through the rough reading of the dialects of an old English country bumpkin and a lisping circus entertainer. Containing a predictable number of twists and turns, Dickens tidies up the story with the a messy knot, leaving the reader to contemplate the future for all the characters.