This story of class conflict in Victorian England serves as a powerful critique of the social injustices that plagued the Industrial Revolution. THIS ENRICHED CLASSIC EDITION INCLUDES: A concise introduction that gives the reader important background information A chronology of the author's life and work A timeline of significant events that provides the book's historical context An outline of key themes and plot points to guide the reader's own interpretations Detailed explanatory notes Critical analysis, including contemporary and modern perspectives on the work Discussion questions to promote lively classroom and book group interaction A list of recommended related books and films to broaden the reader's experience
What I do like is the humor. Dickens can be witty and sharp, and this satire of utilitarianism comes off in bright primary colors, and his distaste for the Industrial Revolution and Industrialists and members of Unions alike in sooty black. Yet in terms of this picture of the Industrial North of England I couldn't help contrasting it in my mind--unfavorably--to Gaskell's North and South. There are ways in which I do find Dickens the superior writer. He had the humor I remember lacking from Gaskell and goodness, Dickens can turn a memorable phrase. But Gaskell's is a much more nuanced portrait of the Industrial Revolution. She shows its dark side--she can't be accused, unlike Dickens' character Bounderby, of trying to claim the smoky, grimy air is good for your health! Or that factory work is "light" and "pleasant." But Gaskell also shows the dynamism of the new forces at work that empowered workers compared to what had come before or to the more agricultural, class-bound South.
Dickens' industrialist Bounderby is no more than a caricature--Gaskell's industrialist Thornton is a rounded figure, with virtues and flaws and a point of view that doesn't represent a straw man. On the other side of the class divide, Gaskell's workingman Nicholas Higgins to me represents a much stronger figure than either Slackbridge or the sentimentalized Blackwell in Hard Times. And I hate how Dickens represents the speech of the working class, though he's hardly alone in that in his era or ours. But it was a trial trying to make out Blackwell's speech: "I ha' hed what's been spok'n o' me, and tis' lickly that I shan't mend it." It's not as if educated speakers of English don't drop sounds. How would you pronounce "thought?" But it's not as if Dickens resorts to that kind of phonetic spelling above for upper class characters. Those caricatures, over-the-top characterizations and the hectoring polemics extend even to one of Dickens' most notable characteristics--the use of character names as tags for one-sided qualities--even if I do have to smile at names such as "Gradgrind" or "Bounderby" or "Harthouse."
If my rating doesn't fall below a three (and I didn't hesitate to give A Tale of Two Cities lower) it's because, reading Blackwell's dialogue aside, this is so very readable. So much of this book is very, very quotable. I also found Louisa Bounderby an interesting character. She's a much less pallid character than I usually see in Dicken's women characters--including the others within this book not out and out caricatures like Mrs Sparsit. Louisa's a kind of anti-Emma Bovary. If Flaubert's title heroine was a female Don Quixote, driven to destruction by too much fanciful reading, then Louisa is the other side of the spectrum--one made emotionally arid by strangling all imagination and playfulness out of her from an early age to suit her father's utilitarian principles. And at least in this novel I can't accuse Dickens of being verbose--this one is less than 300 pages. Worth reading, despite my reservations.
And like how we forgive Atticus Finch for not challenging Jim Crow, a current reading can easily enough put its hand over its heart and salute the good in Dickens for making a stand, without buying in completely--certainly we'll ignore his "let them eat Christianity" for the poor at every opportunity, his failure to really challenge class privilege--we'll read against him, and recognize with a righteous anger the way that class influences the fates, respectively, of Harthouse, Tom Gradgrind, and Stephen Blackpool. And acknowledge the truth of the representation.
My sister says that university students pick on Dickens because of that thing where you hate what you are--and what do they do but talk about the oppressed from a position of privilege? Dickens is of course guilty as charged on that score, Marx himself also gave him credit for making caring respectable for the self-interested middle classes. And Hard Times was his major salvo.
He fought the injustice he could see. Better champagne socialism than no socialism at all.
This book is unusual in comparison to most of Dickens' work. For one thing, it is set in the north of England and, other than one of the characters being a member of Parliament, no-one bothers with London. It is also quite a bit shorter than most of his novels but you shouldn't think it doesn't have depths. The setting is an industrial town that sounds frankly awful. Smoke stacks spew into the air all day and all night so there is never an unobscured view of the sky. All the houses and buildings are red brick with no decoration. To go with the surroundings the local school teaches only the facts and discourages children from "wondering" about anything. One of the eminent families is the Gradgrinds and Mr. Gradgrind is a trustee of the school. The book opens with the children being quizzed. Sissy, daughter of a man employed in the circus, is asked to describe a horse but she can't do it to the satisfaction of the questioners. She can't give just the facts. Bitzer, one of the star pupils, is able to give a complete description sticking only to the facts and Sissy is recommended to follow his example.
The Gradgrind children, Louisa and Tom, are also pupils of the school and their father is very proud of their learning. Louisa ends up married to one of her father's friends, Mr. Bounderby, mainly because she is unable to think of any other possibilty. She also is prodded into the marriage by Tom who is working in Mr. Bounderby's bank and thinks his life will be much easier if Louisa is married to Bounderby. Tom is a wastrel, given to gambling and drinking.
Dickens brings the working class into the story through the introduction of Stephen Blackpool. Stephen is in love with Rachel but is married to a woman who is a drunkard. Stephen tries to find out from Bounderby if he can dissolve his marriage but is told that he couldn't afford to get an annulment.
These main characters interact and Dickens shows how unsatisfactory utilitarianism is for most humans. The book is more tragic than other Dickens that I have read but I suspect that was his aim. There are some wonderful characterizations and Louisa, Rachel and Sissy are strong characters.
Some of the revelations were no surprise, but that didn't matter. My favorite
There are plenty of reasons to become outraged on characters' behalf and several characters well worth detesting.
Mr. Tull's narration was good.
Dickens has always been one of those authors that I have to force myself to pick up, but usually once I make a committed effort I really do enjoy his books. I know it is going to be hard work, but usually the reward when I finish the novel justifies the means. Over
So what is it about? Set in the fictional area of Coketown (allegedly based on Preston) we follow the lives of the inhabitants. The poor working and their tribulations, and the rich who have strong ideals on how the rest of society should act. All are trapped within the industrial revolution, but obviously some fare from it better than others. As usual with Dickens we see things from both sides of the spectrum. The wealthy side being Mr Gradgrind and Mr Bounder, a pair of gentlemen that only deal with facts and not emotions and believed these virtues should be instilled on the rest of society. The impoverished side encompasses Stephen Blackpool, a hard working man that has fallen upon hard times and cannot see a way out unless he is treated as an equal with those more fortunate. Throw into the mix a few dodgy dealings by Tom Gradgrind (Mr Gradgrind’s eldest son) and you have the outline of the book. Although even after sitting down and reading the damn thing I still struggled to describe it.
What did I like? I suppose the descriptions of the town and working conditions were pretty spot on and gave a vivid impression of the times. I also liked some of the characters, Dickens always has a way of making them stand out with their own personalities so that you can almost feel what they are thinking.
What didn’t I like? Most if it if I am truthfully honest. The story dragged on and on and on, I never really felt as if it was going anywhere in particular. Some of the parts were almost forgotten about (such as the married life of Mr Bounderby & Louisa) and the reader is just left wondering especially as these events were such an integral part of the early plotlines. I can read most things and battle through, but the literary device of writing peoples speech in dialect is one of my peeves, it makes it even worse in Hard Times as one of the characters, Mr Sleary, also speaks with a lisp. I found myself having to reread whole chapters just to try and decipher what was being said, whilst other people’s speech reflects a sort of dodgy Northern accent, some people may find it adds to the authenticity I just find it bloody annoying. In reality I think this book was written as a way of Dickens getting something off his chest. It could almost be described as one long rant from beginning to end, and there is nothing wrong with that, but at least make it interesting. At times it really did just bore me to tears and I was tempted to just Google the ending and save myself some time, but I did stick it out even though the 300 pages seemed more like a few thousand. Not one of his books I will ever revisit or recommend.
A fair 3 stars, I couldn’t give it more for obvious reasons, and to be fair I don’t think Dickens could ever deserve less, even if the book wasn’t to my own personal taste.
Coketown is dominated by the figure of Mr Thomas Gradgrind, school headmaster and model of Utilitarian success. Feeding both his pupils and family with facts, he
- Utilitarianism, the concept pushed by John Stuart Mill and others for "the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people." While the statement ostensibly sounds reasonable, Dickens was concerned that those not in the "greatest
- Education of children focused on hard facts and dry pragmatism, stifling imagination and higher pursuits, such that they could become better workers in a society geared too much towards capitalism.
- Man's inhumanity to man in materialistic Victorian England.
These social criticisms are all intertwined, and of course are themes in many of Dickens' other works. Hard Times is concentrated; severe space limitations cut the book to about 1/3 his previous four novels, and the result is a focus that some enjoy and others don't. It's not his best but worth a read.
This is the shortest of his novels and is set in the fictitious industrial town of Coketown where the factories belch smoke all day and soot covers the landscape. The subject matter is as dark as the setting, as we read of abuse, suppression and betrayal. This is not a book to read for it’s happy ending, being much darker than David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. The characters on these pages do not get a chance to turn their lives around.
I read Hard Times in installment form just as it was originally published in 1854 and although it is a socially conscious, agenda-drive book, there is also a good story here about the citizens of Coketown, many with the wonderfully descriptive names that Dickens bestows upon his characters. Being a shorter book kept the focus on moving the story along and, rather than pages of description or long winded asides, the prose was stylish and clever. As a fan of Dickens, I enjoyed both the fine writing and the sharp social criticism that one comes to expect of this author.
I was bemused by the association of "Roman" with the evil characters (easily searched in an electronic edition). Mr. Bounderby has a "Roman nose", Mrs. Sparsit also has a Roman nose and eyebrows Coriolanian. She is a "Roman matron going outside the city walls to treat with an invading general." Mr. Slackbridge is compared with a "Roman Brutus", and Mr. Bounderby plays a "Roman part". There were many stereotypes wrapped up in the word "Roman" for a Victorian reader. Dickens seems to blame the upper-class Aristocratic association with Enlightenment ideals who allied with bankers (big-nosed Mediterraneans ie. Jews, foreigners) that then exploited the good people of England, literally sending them down the "hell pit" to die. It's simplistic and ultimately racist in a 19th century way, but overlooked since the message is humanitarian to improve the condition of the working poor.
The tale of the Gradgrinds – father, a schoolmaster with a very rigid idea of how children ought to be raised, free of fancy and full of “ologisms”, a mother
The majority of page-space was occupied with long and convoluted character descriptions, often highly entertaining, but all the book’s characters are caricatures. Dickens gives us too many opportunities to mock, and the humour rapidly wears thin. One might say that this is a book of redemption – all characters have come to see the error of their ways by the end – but the constant cynicism and ridicule leaves a bitter taste. There was also a superfluity of allusions to contemporary matters, which meant I spent the first twenty pages leaving back and forth to the notes and then giving up, after which I clearly missed at least a third of the jokes.
Please let not all Dickens be like this.
Louisa was not a developed enough character to carry the story and (as the introduction to my edition points out) there is no hero. The scene where Mr Bounderby is confronted by his mother and revealed to be a complete fraud in his Monty Pythonesque tales of the poverty of his early years is fantastic and the bank robbery plot is mildly interesting. I also enjoyed Mrs Sparsit, and Bitzer kept me guessing.
But... Mr Slearly's lisp made the sections he appeared in almost unreadable and Stephen's accent made it hard work getting through his speeches. I did feel that poor Stephen deserved a happy ending, but sadly it was not to be. The chapter where Louisa confronts her father and he, she and Sissy get all emotional together was rather over the top for modern tastes, but presumably played well to a Victorian readership. I was outraged that the Gradgrinds thought Tom deserved to avoid justice. Why did Dickens write this? Did he think the middle class deserved to escape the consequences of their criminal actions? Was it just an excuse to reintroduce the circus again at the end? I had no sense at all of the internal workings of the Bounderby marriage during the year or so it lasted. Did they have sex? Did they ever speak together in private? What did they talk about? Did Louisa hope to have baby?
Dickens is much more heavy-handed than usual in his moralizing, and the characters are one-dimensional cut-outs.
Typically I love Dickens, but not this time. I can’t recommend this one.
The lower class is represented by a factory worker that happens to be married to a woman he doesn’t want to come home to. She has
In Hard Times, Louisa does not go to the working class neighborhoods until she goes to see Stephen after he is fired. At the same time, the working class seemed to feel like they were meant for their position. Stephen is worn out, but he states that he understands his place and accepts it. The critical readings also seem to state that people accept their positions in life because of a social commitment to one another.Dickens describes Coketown as if it is a place made out of brick. Everything is square and nondescript. The school house at the beginning of the book is a square building, the Grandagrind house is a square building, and the bank is as well. There are descriptions of the smoke billowing up from the factories, but the majority of the descriptions are related to fire. Flames are used throughout the story when Louisa and Stephen are mentioned. These flames are throughout each household, but also in relation to the factories. Louisa states something about the factories becoming flames at night.Dickens' focuses more on how the environment represents emotions within the characters and Engel focuses on the social disparities between the rich and the poor. I think that they are basically describing the same thing, but they have different motivations and that effects how everything is discussed. Engel wanted to directly point out a factual portrait to change politics and economics. So, he focused directly upon the conditions of the working class. Dickens’ was not giving a factual representation, but hoping to evoke sentimentality and awareness through his story. This was more blatant than his other stories, but he still is very interested in the development of his characters, and not just a description of the scene.
Gradgrind's friend, Mr. Bounderby, is a banker and factory owner, aged fifty, who claims to have risen from the gutter to his present lofty position through hard work. Bounderby treats the employees of his Coketown factory as machines, rather than as humans, and his eventual marriage to the teenaged Louisa Gradgrind is seen by both as a marriage of "tangible fact," having nothing to do with affection.
The third story line involves Stephen Blackpool, a worker in Bounderby's factory, trapped in a marriage to an alcoholic who periodically appears and extorts money from him. Stephen is in love with Rachael, an adoring factory worker, but his appeal to Bounderby for help in ending his marriage is met with cold, rational pronouncements. Shortly after, Bounderby fires Stephen "for a novelty," forcing him to leave Rachael and seek employment elsewhere.
As the story lines overlap and intersect, often with consummate irony, Dickens keeps a light enough hand to prevent the story from becoming a polemic, though his criticism of hypocrisy, corruption, and "progress" at the expense of humanity is clear. His humor, often dark, keeps the plot moving, and several of his characters, which are often caricatures, do grow and change. Characteristically, Dickens uses names symbolically-Gradgrind grinds the emotions from his graduates, hires Mr. M'Choakumchild as a teacher, and lives at Stone Lodge. Mr. Bounderby proves to be a bounder. Some of the circus performers, like Sissy, live at Pegasus Arms.
The dramatic conclusion, which involves the pursuit of an innocent character widely believed to have committed a robbery, draws all the themes together, showing the parallels, contrasts, and ironies which connect these characters, regardless of their social level. Less epic in plot than some of Dickens's other novels, Hard Times provides an intimate look at a changing economy and an important commentary on the philosophies of the times.
In typical Dickens fashion, many of the characters in this novel exist at extremes, such as Bounderby who cares only about money and facts. This provided Dickens with an opportunity to prove points about the ills that he saw in nineteenth century English society, and it also provides him opportunities for comedic opportunities to poke fun at his characters. While I found the former to to ham-fisted at times, the latter was quite comical and gave the novel a lot of charm.
As a teacher myself, I thought the best part of the book was Dickens's point about the folly of an education that stresses facts and only facts. In our modern era of standards based education as in his time, this approach fosters students who are cold, uncaring, and uncreative. Dickens deftly shows us possible results of producing this kind of student by showing us situations in which his characters flaws lead to tragedy and inhumanity.
Considering that tedious history, I was not exactly thrilled about having to face yet another Charles Dickens novel, but Hard Times turned out to be quite the surprise. While it took a few pages to get into, I ended up rather liking the novel. As books for humanities go, it was simple and straight forward and I liked the story, the implications, and the symbolism.
For a class, this one gets a thumbs up.