Hard Times by Charles Dickens

December 19th, 2020

Hard Times is about what happens when, as one character puts it, a person (or a society, for that matter) thinks that “the wisdom of the Head” is “all-sufficient” and doesn’t think at all about “the wisdom of the Heart” (222). The lesson—that trying to live by rational self-interest alone is not the best path to happiness— is not much of a surprise; the pleasure of the book is seeing how different characters arrive at that conclusion, or fail to arrive at it. At the start of the book we see Mr. Gradgrind and his children and the school where they’re educated: “Facts alone are wanted in life,” Gradgrind says. “Plant nothing else, and root out everything else” (11). This is quickly carried to absurd conclusions: you shouldn’t have wallpaper with horses on it, or carpets with flowers on them, because you shouldn’t “have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets” (16). Gradgrind won’t let his children read fairy tales or go to the circus; there’s no room in his life for anything fanciful, and there shouldn’t be any room for anything fanciful in anyone else’s life, either. And yet: he ends up taking a girl from the circus, Sissy, into his household; she helps his wife and becomes part of the family—and when things get difficult, it’s Sissy, of course, who’s capable of being both loving and practical, showing that the wisdom of the heart and the wisdom of the head can work together, even without an abundance of facts and figures.

Much of the book focuses on two of Gradgrind’s children, Tom and Louisa, both of whom have been educated to value reason above everything else, and neither of whom is particularly happy. Their stories intersect with the story of Stephen Blackpool, a mill-worker who ends up having professional troubles added to personal ones. There are melodramatic moments and heavy-handed moments, and I could have done without the phonetic representations of Stephen’s accent and another character’s lisp, but I was engaged enough with the story and setting that I didn’t mind too much. (The book is set in a fictional town called Coketown—”a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled” (30). The descriptions of the travails of the mill-owners there cracked me up but also seems far too relevant, still: “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.” (115-116))

Also too relevant: a schoolroom exchange from early in the book where a teacher says this: “Now this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation, there are fifty millions of money. Isn’t this a prosperous nation, and an’t you in a thriving state?” (64) and a child later tells of her reply like this: “I thought I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine” (ibid.)

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