Originally published 1854, 321 pages, Available for free on Project Gutenberg.
One of Dicken's best works appraising English society. Highlights the social and economic pressures of the times. A masterwork.
One of the reasons I love Hard Times so much is that the names are so Dickensian even for Dickens — in the early chapters, in which we are introduced to the crushing pedagogical theory of "Facts! Only facts!", we meet Thomas Gradgrind and Mr. M'Choakumchild.
"You are to be in all things regulated and governed," said the gentleman, "by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don"t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don"t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use," said the gentleman, "for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste."
I first read Hard Times in high school — for some reason, our English teacher chose this rather than one of Dickens's better-known novels. I liked it well enough at the time but was not a huge Dickens fan, but some parts of it stuck with me all these years, and in many ways this is the most quintessential Dickens novel. It may also be Dickens' most karmic novel. Thomas Gradgrind, dedicated to extinguishing fancy, imagination, and wonder, raises two dour children on his regimen of facts and mathematical figures, and sees the results in a way that finally teaches him the error of his thinking, after his daughter has been unhappily married to a much older man and his son has become a dissolute wastrel forced into exile.
It wouldn't be Dickens if you didn't have a sweet young maiden married off to a man her father's age. In Hard Times, it's even ickier than usual. One of the most memorable scenes is early in the book, in which the pompous banker Josiah Bounderby (who spends the entire book bragging about his hard-knocks upbringing) greets the adolescent daughter of his friend Thomas Gradgrind.
"It's all right now, Louisa: it's all right, young Thomas," said Mr. Bounderby; "you won't do so any more. I'll answer for it's being all over with father. Well, Louisa, that's worth a kiss, isn't it?"
"You can take one, Mr. Bounderby," returned Louisa, when she had coldly paused, and slowly walked across the room, and ungraciously raised her cheek towards him, with her face turned away.
"Always my pet; ain't you, Louisa?" said Mr. Bounderby. "Good-bye, Louisa!"
He went his way, but she stood on the same spot, rubbing the cheek he had kissed, with her handkerchief, until it was burning red. She was still doing this, five minutes afterwards.
"What are you about, Loo?" her brother sulkily remonstrated. "You'll rub a hole in your face."
"You may cut the piece out with your penknife if you like, Tom. I wouldn't cry!"
Bounderby, thirty years Louisa's senior, will eventually ask for her hand in marriage. Louisa obviously knew way back then what Bounderby was about, giving this scene an especially creepy vibe, as Dickens no doubt intended even though he was generally okay with May-December relationships. But Louisa wasn't meant to be happily married to a kindly older gentleman; instead, she marries Bounderby for love of her brother Tom, who benefits by being employed at Bounderby's bank. Tom repays her sacrifice by turning into a complete and total scoundrel who ungratefully demands to know why Louisa won't sacrifice herself even more for his sake, since that's basically her purpose in life.
It also wouldn't be Dickens without some social commentary and class conflict.
In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man"s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown, generically called "the Hands,"—a race who would have found more favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs—lived a certain Stephen Blackpool, forty years of age.
Stephen Blackpool, a decent, uncomplaining man, represents the plight of the poor as he falls afoul of his master Bounderby.
"We have never had any difficulty with you, and you have never been one of the unreasonable ones. You don't expect to be set up in a coach and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon, as a good many of 'em do!" Mr. Bounderby always represented this to be the sole, immediate, and direct object of any Hand who was not entirely satisfied.
Set up by Thomas Gradgrind, Junior as the fall guy for his embezzlement scheme, Stephen Blackpool is really a secondary character around whom the drama of the Gradgrinds and Bounderby thread. Eventually, of course, everything is sorted out, good men are acquitted, nosy old spinsters and pretentious bankers get their come-uppances, pure-hearted Victorian ladies get their (eventual) happy endings, there are Dickens's usual tear-jerker deaths, and lots of wondrous Dickensian prose. Hard Times is one of the author's more obscure novels, but I think it ranks as one of my favorites.
Also by Charles Dickens: My reviews of A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Bleak House, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Pickwick Papers, and Oliver Twist.
My complete list of book reviews.