Dickens Industrial Novel
Navigate Introduction Criticism Further Reading Copyright Introduction Print PDF Cite Share Charles Dickens Hard Times for These Times The following entry presents criticism of Dickens’s novel Hard Times (1854). See also Charles Dickens Short Story Criticism, A Christmas Carol Criticism, A Tale of Two Cities Criticism, Little Dorrit Criticism, and Our Mutual Friend Criticism. INTRODUCTION
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Perhaps the least-known of all Dickens’s novels, Hard Times is a social-protest novel which attempts to lay bare the malignant impact of nineteenth-century industrial society upon the people living in English factory towns. It was poorly received upon its publication in hard cover and has been often overlooked in critical surveys of Dickens’s works; still, Hard Times has acquired a growing critical following in the mid to late twentieth century, largely because of critical remarks by three key commentators.
Biographical Information In early 1854, Dickens sought for ideas for a long story to be run in the magazine he edited, Household Words, which faced a shrinking circulation and falling profits. After some thought, he settled upon his theme: the condition of English factory life and its effects upon the laborers who were the victims of its unfairness, squalor, danger, and exhausting boredom. The dea for his yet-unwritten novel “laid hold of me by the throat in a very violent manner,” Dickens wrote, and he vowed, in writing Hard Times, “to strike the heaviest blow in my power” for the English industrial worker. Having traveled to Preston in late January to experience life in an industrial city then in the midst of a twenty-three-week textile strike and having read of labor conditions in Manchester (upon which he modelled his Coketown), Dickens began writing his novel.
Hard Times appeared in weekly installments in Household Words between April and August, a labor which left Dickens “three parts mad, and the fourth delirious, with perpetual rushing” but which also doubled (by one estimation, quadrupled) the circulation of Household Words. Exhausted upon finishing the novel in mid July, Dickens spent several days drinking heavily, later writing, “I have been in a blaze of dissipation altogether, and have succeeded (I think) in knocking the remembrance of my work out. Shortly afterward, Hard Times appeared in hardcover, published by the house of Bradbury and Evans and dedicated to another critic of British culture, Thomas Carlyle. Plot and Major Characters A schoolmaster at a utilitarian private school in industrial Coketown, Thomas Gradgrind insists that his students learn empirical facts alone; humor, music, and imagination are banished from his classroom and from the lives of his children. The five Gradgrind children embody their father’s philosophy, which was widely discussed and praised in early- to mid-nineteenth-century Britain.
One day after school, Gradgrind is disturbed to discover his two eldest children, Tom and Louisa, attempting to peek through the walls of a circus tent; his displeasure increases when the two are unapologetic about this offense against the principles by which they have been raised. Puzzled by their behavior and determined to correct it, Gradgrind consults with a friend, Josiah Bounderby, a manufacturer and banker, who advises him that the children have been corrupted by a schoolmate, Cecilia (“Sissy”) Jupe, the daughter of a circus rider.
Before he can remove Sissy from his school and from his life, Gradgrind discovers that the girl’s father has deserted her; moved by compassion and against the warnings of Bounderby and his own philosophy, he decides to raise Sissy in his own home and to allow her to continue attending his school. Years pass, the children grow up, and Bounderby sets his cap for Louisa, who agrees to marry this wealthy financier, thirty years her senior, to please her brother Tom, who has grown into a dissolute young man and now works at Bounderby’s bank.
The marriage rankles Bounderby’s elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, who mistrusts and begins spying on Louisa. Meanwhile, Gradgrind, now in London as a member of Parliament, sends a young associate, James Harthouse, to Coketown to gather data on British economic and social life. Harthouse is directed to Bounderby’s household, and while he finds Bounderby himself a self-aggrandizing blowhard, full of expansive talk about being a self-made man, he is