Hard Times by Charles Dickens seems to me to be somewhat of a bleak and unhappy novel. Of course, I think it’s supposed to be. I’ve heard it mentioned recently as an example of what pure free market would result in, regardless of whether or not it would make the most sense economically. I suppose the main idea would be that whether or not a system would make the most sense economically, human life would be miserable if the only concern taken into account was economics.
I’m not taking any position on that either way, particularly since this is a book. I’m just getting that as what Dickens was asserting.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 6th for Thomas Mallon and 8th for Meg Wolitzer.)
Mr. Gradgrind runs a school in Coketown devoted to facts only, training for only economic pursuits:
‘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!’
‘In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’
The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.
His children are dissatisfied by their education, craving more from life. His son ends up robbing a bank and dying in America. His daughter marries a fraud of a mill owner (he claims to have been self made from horribly difficult origins, but it is revealed that he was well raised and made his mother stay away when he became successful so he could put forth his self-made image) 30 years her senior, both at her father’s urging and to try to save her brother. She is emotionally crushed and the mill owner humbug ends up tossing her over anyway. In short, Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy does not lead him, or those he cares about, to a good place:
‘Bitzer,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, ‘have you a heart?’
‘The circulation, sir,’ returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, ‘couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart.’
‘Is it accessible,’ cried Mr. Gradgrind, ‘to any compassionate influence?’
‘It is accessible to Reason, sir,’ returned the excellent young man. ‘And to nothing else.’
They stood looking at each other; Mr. Gradgrind’s face as white as the pursuer’s.
‘What motive—even what motive in reason—can you have for preventing the escape of this wretched youth,’ said Mr. Gradgrind, ‘and crushing his miserable father? See his sister here. Pity us!’
‘Sir,’ returned Bitzer, in a very business-like and logical manner, ‘since you ask me what motive I have in reason, for taking young Mr. Tom back to Coketown, it is only reasonable to let you know. I have suspected young Mr. Tom of this bank-robbery from the first. I had had my eye upon him before that time, for I knew his ways. I have kept my observations to myself, but I have made them; and I have got ample proofs against him now, besides his running away, and besides his own confession, which I was just in time to overhear. I had the pleasure of watching your house yesterday morning, and following you here. I am going to take young Mr. Tom back to Coketown, in order to deliver him over to Mr. Bounderby. Sir, I have no doubt whatever that Mr. Bounderby will then promote me to young Mr. Tom’s situation. And I wish to have his situation, sir, for it will be a rise to me, and will do me good.’
Few people end up well. The one or two who did had a hard enough road through the book, and often managed to find meaning in life through appreciation of imagination and beauty. With only beauty and imagination, one starves. However, Dickens seems pretty strong on the position that merely not starving without beauty and imagination is at least as bad a fate as starving amidst beauty and imagination.
Hard Times is a pretty simple story for Dickens. There is none of the amazing coincidences or fantastic happenings that characterize David Copperfield or such like that. It’s merely a very simple, moving story. Perhaps a bit predictable at points, but I have to remember that I’m viewing the story through a modern lens. Regardless, Hard Times is still an enjoyable book to read…unpleasant as it is.