Review of Hard Times by Charles Dickens

By Andre Lopes Massa

This was just a little review of did of the novel Hard Times by Charles Dickens from the perspective of a common worker in Great Britain during the industrial revolution. Hope you guys find it interesting.

Hello dear reader, my name is John O’Shea, chief editor of “Students of Bentham” based on the outskirts of Manchester, England. Born in 1810, I have lived here in Manchester all my life, and have experienced firsthand the effects of our technological revolution. While working in the local coal mines, I stumbled upon the utilitarian teachings of Jeremy Bentham, and became engrossed in his teachings of community. With my mind open, I began to see the appalling conditions my fellow workingmen were living in, and started this publication in hopes of bringing about change by spreading the utilitarian ideas of Jeremy Bentham.

During my lifetime, I have been a witness to an unprecedented amount of growth, with the population of England and Wales doubling from 8,893,000 in 1801 to 17,928,000 in 1851 (Gildea, Barricades and Borders, pg. 4). This rapid population growth has seen a shift from the old agricultural lifestyle my ancestors were accustomed to living to one of working in a factory, with 48.1% of our people oppressed and enslaved in those monstrosities of industrialization. (Gildea, Barricades and Borders, pg. 6). When this shift from agriculture to manufacturing occurred, many of us, me included, were forced to migrate to cities from the countryside we loved dearly because the capitalists had decided it was better to group their slaves in the most unsanitary of urban dwellings, dangling the carrot of the “promise” of employment to lure us into the city, evidenced by the fact that urban populations have jumped from 9.7% of the population in 1800 to 22.6% of the population in 1850. (Gildea, Barricades and Borders, pg.8). Chadwick’s report on the sanitation conditions of London in 1842 best summarized the oppressive conditions we lived in, where he writes “That the various forms of epidemic, endemic, and other disease caused, or aggravated, or propagated chiefly amongst the labouring classes by atmospheric impurities produced by decomposing animal and vegetable substances, by damp and filth, and close and overcrowded dwellings prevail amongst the population in every part of the kingdom, whether dwelling in separate houses, in rural villages, in small towns, in the larger towns — as they have been found to prevail in the lowest districts of the metropolis.” (De Col, Chadwhick’s Report on Sanitary Conditions in London 1842). These conditions were masked from the general public and to the untrained eye, all seemed well; the capitalists were gouging themselves in profits and cities popping up left and right seemed to signify the belief that everyone’s lives were getting better as well. However, as Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “The rich will often fund an alternative reality” in order to create the illusion of prosperity and keep us, the workingmen, oppressed. No one knew of our daily suffering, that is, until the release of Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times. In it, he finally shows the world the suffering that we endure each day at the hands of those greedy capitalist in their oppressive, smog filled factories. Dickens undresses these capitalists as the industrial heroes of our times and exposes them as nothing but greedy monsters who will drive us to the brink of insanity just to make a profit by keeping us all in poverty. Yet, while Dickens should be commemorated for finally showing the world the true nature of our suffering and the extend of capitalist greed, Dickens critique of our utilitarian principles, the very principles which offer the only hope of finally lifting ourselves out of poverty and bringing down our capitalist oppressors, is just the same as masking our suffering from the rest of the world.

Now, dear reader, you must be asking yourselves this question “What exactly is this book about?” The novel Hard Times, takes place in the factory filled town known simply as Coketown. Dickens writes “Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays. You only knew the town was there because you knew there could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town. A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now that way, now aspiring to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter: a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed nothing but masses of darkness—Coketown in the distance was suggestive of itself, though not a brick of it could be seen” (Dickens, Hard Times, pg.151) to describe how Coketown the ramifications of the lack of regard and care capitalists have for our environment. Within the confines of Coketown, Dickens introduces us to a man known as Thomas Gradgrind, a man who is based on nothing but rational nature and facts, much akin to the typical utilitarian in Dickens eyes and another man named Josiah Bounderby, a “self-made” factory owner and banker aka your typical capitalist. The plot of Hard Times revolves around Gradgrind imposing her utilitarian nature on his daughter, Louisa, whom he forces to marry Mr. Bounderby in order to please him, seemingly mocking our central principle our valuing the happiness of the community above all. The story then shifts to the struggles of Stephen Blackpool, a workingman much like us who struggles with the everyday challenges of poverty, and his struggle to divorce his drunken wife in order to marry his true love, Rachael. However, not surprisingly, he is unable to afford the legal action necessary to obtain such a divorce, keeping in line with the tradition of oppression the capitalist class inflicts on the working class. Dickens then continues to show the extent of poverty that wreaked havoc in Coketown in the form of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind Jr., who robs a bank out of necessity in order to pay off a debt he accumulated. These plot developments concentrate on themes of the mechanization of humans and the fallacy of utilitarianism in Coketown.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating characters I found while reading Hard Times were Mr. Thomas Gradgrind and Sissy Jupe, a carefree young woman who lives simply for joy and innocence. The best description of Gradgrind can be found in Gildea’s Barricades and Borders, where he writes “Technological change was therefore the ability of entrepreneurs to mobilize large quantities of labor, to confront to the mass demand with mass production” (Gildea, Barricades and Borders, pg. 22) like, Mr. Bounderby, he is a man who views humans as nothing more than an economic cog in the grand scheme of industrialization. Dickens writes of Mr. Gradgrind, “A man of realities. A man of calculations and facts. A man who proceeds on the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talking into allowing anything over.” (Dickens, Hard Times, pg.11). Gradgrind is a man who views the world like a mathematical equation, rejecting all forms of human emotion and raising his daughter Louisa based on those same, cold principles of rationality. Somehow, Dickens equates this view of the world to our utilitarian principles, and his utilitarian side is revealed when he forces his daughter Louisa to marry Mr. Bounderby for the “greater good”. At the same time that Dickens introduces the calculating Gradgrind, the innocent Sissy Jupe is introduced. The daughter of a circus owner, Sissy Jupe is the polar opposite of Gradgrind. Sissy views the world through the lens of human emotion, and regard each form of life as being unique in contrast to the economic cogs Mr. Gradgrind views each person as a result of his rationality, an attitude derived from the attitudes of the Enlightenment. The relationship between Sissy and Gradgrind seems to represent a greater ideological battle waged between Gradgrind’s rational calculating utilitarian nature and Sissy’s emotion filled, individualistic view of the world, which is best described in Hard Times when Mr. Gradgrind remarks to Sissy that “You are extremely deficient in your facts. Your acquaintance with figures is very limited. You are altogether backward and below the mark.” (Dickens, Hard Times, pg.125). To Gradgrind, Sissy is of no use for the community and the greater good because she does not adhere to rationality, instead choosing to express her individuality much like the Romantics of our time. This battle between Sissy and Gradgrind symbolizes, in Dickens eyes, the battle of individualistic Romanticism and rational, industrial utilitarianism of the capitalist class. It is through the respective outcomes of Sissy and Gradgrind’s lives at the end of the novel where Dickens shows who truly wins this ideological battle, as Sissy is seen living a happy life with her large family.

As I have said before earlier in the publication, Dickens should be commemorated for revealing the true extent of our suffering at the hands of the capitalist class. Yet Dickens seems to propose, through his example of Sissy triumphing over Gradgrind in the ideological battle of the novel, that in order to combat against the oppression of the capitalist class, we must embrace individualism and express ourselves in colorful ways. Yet Dickens fails to take into account that it is this same attitude of individualism that the capitalist class refers to as justification for keeping us all in poverty so that they can continue to exploit us as slaves. To be blunt, Dickens’ goal of inspiring an individualistic revolution against industrialization is very much fantasy ridden, much like the tenants of Romanticism today. Furthermore, Dickens’ critique of utilitarianism is based on a sever misunderstanding of our philosophy. Dickens examples of using Louisa’s marriage to Bounderby as an example of the “evils” of utilitarianism are without foundation simply because when we utilitarians advocate for the greater good, we mean working for the community, not inflicting wounds upon ourselves simply to make some other guy happy. It is this utilitarian attitude of us workingmen uniting against our capitalist oppressors and truly working for the betterment of the community that will bring about the better living standards Dickens wants to see so badly, not the individualistic attitude that plunged us into poverty in the first place.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Hard times for these times. Waiheke Island: Floating Press, 2009. Print.

Gildea, Robert. Barricades and borders: Europe 1800-1914. Oxford [Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1987. Print.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist manifesto. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967. Print.

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