Friday, 25 January 2013

CHARLES DICKENS, HARD TIMES (1853)

THE PLOT


BBC Hard Times - 1994

Thomas Gradgrind is an educator and a riter on political questions. He has founded a school where his education theories are put into practice: children are taught nothing but facts, and he educates his own children, Louisa and Tom, in the same way, neglecting their imagination and their affections. He also adopts Sissy Jupe, whose father worked  in a circus.
Mr Gradgrind suggests his daughter should marry Josiah Bounderby, a  rich factory owner and banker of the city some thirty years older than she is. Louisa, desiring to help her brother Tom in his career, consents to the marriage, which naturally proves to be very unhappy.
Tom, who is selfish and lazy, is given a job in Bounderby's bank, and eventually steals some money from it, making everybody think Mr Blackpool, an honest factory worker, guilty of that. Tom's guilt is discovered eventually , but  he runs away and hides among the circus folk, who show  kindness and sympathy by sheltering him . Meanwhile, Louisa has realised she has sacrificed her life and her chances to love. She has met Mr Harthouse, she has fallen in love, she doesn't want to be Mr Bounderby's wife anylonger.
In the end Mr Gradgrind understands the damage caused by his narrow-minded and materialistic philosophy.
(If you want a more detailed plot, have a look here)

HARD TIMES, AN INDUSTRIAL NOVEL - DICKENS AND GASKELL

The story is set in Coketown, fictitious name for the typical Victorian industrial town (partially based on 19th century Preston) , where the air is polluted by smoke and ashes and pervaded by the poisonous smell from the canal and the river. The sad , monotonous life of the people is reflected in the grey, gloomy, atmosphere of the setting. The appalling misery of the working classes is embodied by Stephen Blackpool: one of the hands in Bounderby’s factory, Stephen lives a life of drudgery and poverty. In spite of the hardships of his daily toil, Stephen strives to maintain his honesty, integrity, faith, and compassion.  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 laboured in horrific conditions. That experience must have provided him inspiration while writing his HARD TIMES.
In this novel, published in instalments in 1853 in his review HOUSEHOLD WORDS, Dickens deals with the sufferings of the factory system , the activity of trade unions, the appalling living conditions of workers with  his post-Industrial Revolution pessimism regarding the divide between capitalistic mill owners and undervalued employees during the Victorian era. Another related novel, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, was also published in this magazine in 1855. Her story was set in another fictitious industrial town of the North of England, Milton, based on Victorian Manchester . Anyhow, in their dealing with the reality of the factory system, the two great novelists show differences. In HARD TIMES the social issues and  the social context are the background of the story and Dickens's main interest is in the effects which that harsh reality has on the characters' lives and affections ; his focus is on the characters' emotions and feelings and, for this reason,  his novel has been defined as "humanitarian". In Mrs Gaskell's NORTH AND SOUTH, or also in her previous MARY BARTON (1848), the social issues and the social context come in the foreground, they are part of the plot as much as the intelinked lives of the characters.

UTILITARIANISM

Sissy Jupe
The Utilitarians were one of the targets of Dickens in this novel. Utilitarianism was a prevalent school of thought during this period, its most famous proponents being Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Theoretical Utilitarian ethics stated 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." But Dickens believed that,  in practical terms, the pursuit of a totally rationalized society could lead to great misery.

Mr Blackpoole
Bentham's former secretary, Edwin Karbunkle, helped design the Poor Law of 1834 (Dickens' target in OLIVER TWIST 1837-38), 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 at the end of the story.
Dickens was appalled by what was, in his interpretation, a selfish philosophy, which was combined with materialistlaissez-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.  Tom and Louisa Gradgrind are sad exemplifications of Dickens' pessimistic vision of the results of Utilitarian educational methods.

(For further intormation about the author, download the Power Point Presentation Charles Dickens from the Widget Box on the right sidebar)


Read and listen to an excerpt from HARD TIMES - CLICK HERE

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