The novel Hard Times by Charles Dickens epitomises the social, political and economic values of Victorian England. Dickens attacks the conditions and exploitation of the workers by the factory owners, the social class divisions that favour dishonesty over honesty depending on the hierarchy of class status. He finds the utilitarian (fact) school of thought where facts and statistic’s are emphasised at the expense of imagination, art, feelings and wonder (fancy) emerging during this period disconcerting.
Hard Times is divided into three separate books entitled: ‘Sowing’, ‘Reaping’ and ‘Garnering’. These sections exemplify the biblical concept of ‘whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’ [Galatians 6:7]. Dickens uses harvesting as a symbol of something that is unchangeable and fancy as something that is changeable in people’s mind and imaginations. He demonstrates that both fancy and fact must work together in order for one to become a healthy human being. The central character of Hard Times who most embodies the factual approach is Thomas Gradgrind.
He is introduced to the readership at the beginning of the novel. In chapter one, ‘One Thing Needful’, Thomas Gradgrind is shown as the ‘speaker’. He is described to have a ‘square forefinger’ and ‘square wall of a forehead’ and their voice is described as ‘inflexible’, ‘dry’ and ‘dictatorial’. Dickens uses humour to exemplify the shape of his head: ‘all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie’, this humorous mocking of Gradgrind’s appearance by Dickens, establishes Dickens position on the factual interpretation of life by the utilitarians.
Gradgrind is therefore a character that represents facts as his grotesque appearance reflects his method of teaching and furthermore the name ‘Gradgrind’ reflects the dull and repetitive motion of grinding. This reinforces the fact that Gradgrind’s teaching methods are as wearying as industrial processes. Gradgrind’s name could also imply that his characteristics have been ground down to the ideologies he now promotes. In the novel Gradgrind is man of facts; he believes that the education system should be based on the philosophy of utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism is a philosophical and political movement which gained interest in the nineteenth century. “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Fact. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out nothing else”. These emphatic proclamations are presented to the readership at the beginning of the novel. Gradgrind adopted this philosophy with vigour for his own children. Later on in the story Gradgrind is forced to acknowledge that his refusal to accept the validity of “fancy” had sown the seeds to the destruction of a happy life for his two eldest children.
His first realisation occurs when his eldest daughter confides in him about her failed marriage to Mr Bounderby. Louisa feels no emotion toward her husband, this leads to the contemplation of the possible affair with Mr Harthouse. This is where the readers first see Louisa break away from her utilitarian upbringing and embrace a more fanciful approach to life. Louisa is in pain and in her agony tells her that he: ‘‘trained me from my cradle… I curse the hour in which I was born to such a destiny… what you have done with the garden that bloomed once, In this great wilderness”.
Gradgrind in his astonishment expresses woefully “I never knew you were unhappy, my child”. She collapses to the floor into an insensible torpor, refusing help from her father. Furthermore, Gradgrind has to help his son Tom who has grown up to be a selfish, self-centred young man who discovers the pleasures of gambling. Tom conceals his hunger for fanciful gambling; here Dickens reveals that even in the most severe school, fancy lies underneath. This tempts him to steal from the bank at which he is employed. He then has to be smuggled abroad to avoid imprisonment.
Tom ruthlessly frames an innocent man Stephen Blackpool for this crime. Stephen suffers the destiny to die for Tom’s crime of stealing money thus becoming a victim of the harshness of the philosophy of Fact. Dickens uses minor characters throughout his novel Hard Times to further illustrate what he believes to be a suffocating method of teaching in his continued argument about fact and fancy. The readership is introduced to the character Mr M’Choakumchild, whose name is used satirically to reflect the choking of the children in Gradgrind’s school.
Bitzer, primarily Gradgrind’s favourite student, encompasses the biblical reference of ‘whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap’ as he becomes the very symbol of evil in the education system in which poor children are used as fodder for industrial profit. Dickens believed that these schools restricted the children’s imagination, emotions and freedom, training them as factory workers for the emerging industries. Dickens uses description and symbolism to illustrate the seriousness of ‘fact’ and lack of ‘fancy’.
In the beginning of the novel Dickens starts by describing the classroom as “plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school”. Dickens satirizes the classroom by calling it a “Vault” which is an allusion to a grave or catacomb. He extends his illustration to the setting of his novel in a fictional northern industrial town called Coketown. The name “Coketown” is symbolic as it is a term for a mineral used in the process of iron making. Therefore, the town becomes representative of industrialization as an idea.
Dickens also uses repetition of words to build up a description. For instance in his description of Coketown from book one, chapter five; “It contained several large streets, all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavement, to so the same and work and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next”.
The long sentences within chapter five reflect the drudgery of the working class, also the repetition of the words; “same” and “like one another”, emphasis monotone and dreariness which advocates the lack of diversity and ‘fancy’. As an author, Dickens would have been concerned that lack of imagination was stifling children; not allowing them to develop as individuals. It is evident throughout the novel as to how much Dickens opposes the Utilitarian philosophy of education.
However, it can equally be argued that Dickens believes that living by “fancy” alone is also detrimental to one’s character. This is exemplified through Mr Bounderby and Mrs Sparsit. Initially Mr Bounderby the wealthy factory owner of Coketown, who is a close friend of Gradgrind, can be said to representative of “fact” as he completely buys into the Gradgrind philosophy “fact, more facts and only facts”. Bounderby thinks about his worker as faceless, unemotional “Hands”. He is the epitome of the Industrialist that Dickens dislikes so much.
However, Bounderby is the most imaginative character in the novel as he is able to maintain a detailed fake story about being an abandoned child who was born in a ‘‘ditch’’ and is a completely self-made man, when he indeed grew up in a wealthy and loving family. He points to his fictional hard childhood to make the workers look like complainers when they make demands to improve their working conditions. Mrs Sparsit is entirely “fanciful”. She is an upper middle class lady who has fallen on hard times. She is employed by Bounderby as a housekeeper.
Mrs Sparsit is found to a manipulative and dishonest woman who is jealous of Louisa and constantly spies on her. She fancies that the marriage between Louisa and Bounderby will end in disaster as she notices they do not share a bedroom. Dickens states that Mrs Sparsit “took an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy, into her head. … She erected in her mind a mighty staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom”. Dickens insinuates here, that Mrs Sparsit has a lot of fancy and imagination. She is consequently dismissed from her job when Bounderby realises she is interfering in his private life.
Dickens uses Sissy Jupe as a contrast to the philosophy of just fact and just fancy. He uses her to depict that fact and fancy can collaborate in order to create a healthy human being. Sissy Jupe is the daughter of a circus performer, when her father abandons her she comes to live with Gradgrind as a servant. The reader is first introduced to Sissy Jupe in the second chapter “Murdering the Innocents” where she is identified as “girl number twenty”. In this chapter Gradgrind asks her “Would you use a carpet having representation of flowers upon it? ” Sissy Replies “if you would please, sir, I am fond of flowers”.
This reinforces the argument that Sissy represents a practical form of fancy. Sissy also represents imagination, creativity, and selfless actions, all three elements are illustrated in the passage where Sissy cheers up her father after a hard day in the circus ring by reading him fairy tales about ogres and giants. She is also presented as someone with a realistic and matter-of-fact character. It was for this reason that Sissy could not understand the abstract philosophy of fact. It is further demonstrated when Sissy is questioned about “how very unimportant a few deaths in a thousand people are”.
She sensibly answers “that to the families of those dead people, those deaths are actually quite significant indeed”. The form of the novel, Hard Times, allows Dickens to unravel the complexity of the philosophies of fact and fancy through the interactions between the two schools of thought lived by the characters. Dickens presents the failure of fact through the tragic ending of the novel which highlights the fact that living a life of just fact or just fancy will result in tragedy. Gradgrind’s children are raised in an environment where fancy is discouraged; as a result they end up with serious social dysfunctions.
Louisa remains unable to connect with others even though she has the desire to do so and Tom becomes a hedonist who has little regard for others. However, Sissy has a life of joy, a happy marriage and children due to the fact that she grew up surrounded by circus life, which enabled her to constantly indulge in the fancy forbidden to the Gradgrind children, nevertheless, Sissy is frequently reminded of the practicality of facts by Mr Gradgrind, which gave her the stability of leading a contented life that embodies both fact and fancy.