Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Hard Times

Hard TimesHard Times by Charles Dickens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Louisa Gradgrind's hard-nosed education, driven by her factory owner father's ideals, fails her and those around her in one of Dicken's shortest works.

Louisa Gradgrind was brought up in the industrial grime of Coketown, trained in nothing but facts. To Mr. Gradgrind and his friends, "wonder" is a dirty word. Alienated from everyone around her, Louisa's education takes a spiritual toll, leaving her world-weary and nihilistic.

Louisa makes a terrible marriage to a man 30 years her senior; she then finds herself the intended prey of a bored aristocrat and the focus of a malicious widow's spying. Her worthless brother, Thomas "The Whelp" Gradgrind, sponges off of her, taking advantage of her love for him.

The innocent around the malformed Gradgrinds suffer, too - innocents like "Hard Times" himself Stephen Blackpool, an honest factory worker: "It is said that every life has its roses and thorns; there seemed, however, to have been a misadventure or mistake in Stephen's case, whereby somebody else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed of the same somebody else's thorns in addition to his own."

It may be hard times all around, but Dickens' comic touches and tear-jerking moments make this a virtuoso performance by the master of character and observation. Good may not entirely win out, but bad certainly gets its comeuppance. It's especially gratifying to see the fruit reaped by Mrs. Sparsit's nosiness and Mr. Bounderby's constant boasting. The story isn't as rewarding or as exciting as Great Expectations or A Christmas Carol, but fans of Dickens should definitely read it. (I wouldn't recommend it as a starting point for his works, though.)

Most Dickens characters easily lend themselves to being nicknamed, they are so distinct and often outrageous, so here's my list:
Thomas "The Whelp" Gradgrind - "It was altogether unaccountable that a young gentleman whose imagination had been strangled in his cradle, should be still inconvenienced by its ghost in the form of grovelling sensualities; but such a monster, beyond all doubt, was Tom."
Josiah "Blowhard" Bounderby - A self-made man with "a moral infection of clap-trap in him": he's the original humblebragger as he boasts about his beginnings in a gutter
Mrs. Sparsit the Sneak - A dependent widow, the proud possessor of a Roman nose that she likes to stick in everyone else's business
Stephen "Hard Luck" Blackpool - Perpetually down on his luck, but honest and good-hearted
Sissy "Saintly" Jupe - A young woman the Gradgrinds take in after she is abandoned by her father, who is a circus performer
James "Superfluous Man" Harthouse - a Byron wannabe who tries to gain the married Louisa's affections

Dickens uses the lives of these characters to illustrate his own ideas about hot-button issues of his day: education, laissez-faire capitalism (there were almost no protections for workers, who were often children), divorce (so expensive it was only achievable for upper-classes, and almost impossible for women to gain), the rise of labor unions (considered criminal organizations until 1867), rapid industrialization, industrial pollution, and the cold-blooded political philosophy of Utilitarianism. Anyone who dismisses the Victorian era in Britain as uninteresting and prudish only has to read through that list to realize that their problems are our problems.

You can download a digital copy of Hard Times for free at Project Gutenberg, along with the rest of Dickens' works. A great next choice for those looking for another perspective on the mill towns of the north of England (with much more romance), try Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (free here). For more background on the man and his writings, try Claire Tomalin's excellent biography, Charles Dickens: A Life.

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!” - 1

"He had not much hair. One might have fancied he had talked it off; and that what was left, all standing up in disorder, was in that condition from being constantly blown about by his windy boastfulness." - 56

No comments:

Post a Comment