Hard Times by Charles Dickens

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.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray

William Makepeace Thackeray subtitled his sprawling serial novel Vanity Fair “a novel without a hero” (in the collected form, apparently as a serial it appeared with a different subtitle. I don’t know about that. Seems like there are two to me, but maybe Thackeray couldn’t regard them as such due to conventions at the time.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for John Banville and 1st for Thomas Mallon.)

After all, Vanity Fair mainly follows two women (though it is true that much is what happens to them as opposed to what they do, so maybe that’s where the no hero thing comes in), Amelia Sedley and Rebecca Sharp, and the various friends and family that surround them. Having gone to school together, Amelia is a sweet twit who comes from a good and established family whereas Becky is a conniving orphan. Though Thackeray seems to be painting Amelia as good on the surface and Becky as bad, it really seems like he is really much more ambiguous on the pair.

But as we are to see a great deal of Amelia, there is no harm in saying, at the outset of our acquaintance, that she was a dear little creature; and a great mercy it is, both in life and in novels, which (and the latter especially) abound in villains of the most sombre sort, that we are to have for a constant companion so guileless and good-natured a person. As she is not a heroine, there is no need to describe her person; indeed I am afraid that her nose was rather short than otherwise, and her cheeks a great deal too round and red for a heroine; but her face blushed with rosy health, and her lips with the freshest of smiles, and she had a pair of eyes which sparkled with the brightest and honestest good-humour, except indeed when they filled with tears, and that was a great deal too often; for the silly thing would cry over a dead canary-bird; or over a mouse, that the cat haply had seized upon; or over the end of a novel, were it ever so stupid; and as for saying an unkind word to her, were any persons hard-hearted enough to do so–why, so much the worse for them. Even Miss Pinkerton, that austere and godlike woman, ceased scolding her after the first time, and though she no more comprehended sensibility than she did Algebra, gave all masters and teachers particular orders to treat Miss Sedley with the utmost gentleness, as harsh treatment was injurious to her.


For it may be remarked in the course of this little conversation (which took place as the coach rolled along lazily by the river side) that though Miss Rebecca Sharp has twice had occasion to thank Heaven, it has been, in the first place, for ridding her of some person whom she hated, and secondly, for enabling her to bring her enemies to some sort of perplexity or confusion; neither of which are very amiable motives for religious gratitude, or such as would be put forward by persons of a kind and placable disposition. Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice. This is certain, that if the world neglected Miss Sharp, she never was known to have done a good action in behalf of anybody; nor can it be expected that twenty-four young ladies should all be as amiable as the heroine of this work, Miss Sedley (whom we have selected for the very reason that she was the best-natured of all, otherwise what on earth was to have prevented us from putting up Miss Swartz, or Miss Crump, or Miss Hopkins, as heroine in her place!) it could not be expected that every one should be of the humble and gentle temper of Miss Amelia Sedley; should take every opportunity to vanquish Rebecca’s hard-heartedness and ill-humour; and, by a thousand kind words and offices, overcome, for once at least, her hostility to her kind.

I mean, he seems softhearted toward Amelia for her goodness, but seems to regard her as a useless ninny. At the same time, he seems to decry Becky for her ruthlessness, but he seems to understand that there was nothing else she could really do as an independent woman in that time and place in the world. Society as a whole he seems to regard as foolish.

There is certainly no complete clarity in what happens to the women, unlike other English novels of the time period. Their fortunes oscillate over time. One does good while the other suffers, and then they reverse. Really, neither do too bad.

Both get married, both against wishes of various families. The Napoleonic wars muddle things up a bit. Fortunes are made, fortunes are lost, all kind of what you expect in a sprawling serialized novel.

For a book of this kind, I actually found Vanity Fair a great deal more readable than I expected. I was delighted by how the morality was much more complex and hidden than in other contemporaries. I certainly can’t fault the scope or the quality of depiction. I heard there were come continuity problems since the immense book was done as a serial, but I didn’t notice any of that. I’m not completely wild for Vanity Fair, but it was well worth my time.

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy

Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy is another novel that I’ve heard referenced from time to time but knew absolutely nothing about. I literally mean nothing; I had always thought the title referred to a woman. Big hint: it doesn’t.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Thomas Mallon.)

To the contrary, Jude of Jude the Obscure is a young orphan boy at the start of the book. The schoolmaster he has recently taken some lessons from leaves for Christminster to hopefully attend college, and Jude dreams of following him. Jude teaches himself Greek and Latin from books and learns stone masonry so that he can one day travel to Christminster himself and hopefully find a way to go to college.

However, Jude lusts after a young girl name Arabella who has been taught to get herself in a family way so that she can snag a husband through his sense of honor:

“As he is a romancing, straightfor’ard, honest chap, he’s to be had, and as a husband, if you set about catching him in the right way.” 

Arabella remained thinking awhile.  “What med be the right way?” she asked. 

“Oh you don’t know–you don’t!” said Sarah, the third girl. 

“On my word I don’t!–No further, that is, than by plain courting, and taking care he don’t go too far!” 

The third girl looked at the second.  “She DON’T know!” 

“‘Tis clear she don’t!” said Anny. 

“And having lived in a town, too, as one may say!  Well, we can teach ‘ee som’at then, as well as you us.” 

“Yes.  And how do you mean–a sure way to gain a man?  Take me for an innocent, and have done wi’ it!” 

“As a husband.” 

“As a husband.” 

“A countryman that’s honourable and serious-minded such as he; God forbid that I should say a sojer, or sailor, or commercial gent from the towns, or any of them that be slippery with poor women!  I’d do no friend that harm!” 

“Well, such as he, of course!” 

Arabella’s companions looked at each other, and turning up their eyes in drollery began smirking.  Then one went up close to Arabella, and, although nobody was near, imparted some information in a low tone, the other observing curiously the effect upon Arabella. 

As you can imagine, this doesn’t go well, though Jude does marry her. Eventually she takes off for Australia without him and Jude travels to Chrisminster where he falls in love with his cousin, Sue. Of course, before his cousin knows of his love, or his previous marriage, she promises to marry Jude’s old schoolmaster. After learning of both Jude’s secrets, she goes ahead with the marriage even though the schoolmaster repulses her.

But, Sue soon leaves the schoolmaster for Jude. Still, things never go well. The judgment of a highly moralistic, church-based society follows them.  Sometimes this is through other people, causing a life of poverty and wandering, and sometimes this is through Jude and Sue themselves. As I’m sure everyone is aware, this is a pretty tragic novel.

I’ve heard that Hardy got lambasted pretty thoroughly over Jude the Obscure. There’s a lot that works together to keep everyone miserable in this book: church proscriptions against divorce, conventions about marriage, traditional senses of family duty, and all that. Even when freed, these things are so ingrained into at least some of the characters that they are never free enough to not be ruined. I’m not sure if the book is really anti any of those things, but it certainly presents the idea that these particular characters could not be happy in the face of such. As one might expect of a novel from 1895, Hardy got some negative attention. In fact, I’ve heard it said that the reception of Jude the Obscure is why he gave up writing fiction.

Would these characters still have been as unhappy if they had really been free (and felt so) to correct their unwise marriages and join together? Would they have been happier if marriage didn’t exist? I’m not sure that even that would have enabled these characters to not be miserable. They seemed kind of doomed to me. Still, being forced into expected roles without full knowledge of what they were doing and then being unable to do anything when it turned out to be the wrong thing sure didn’t help.

In any event, though these characters kind of seemed doomed regardless of anything anyone did, I enjoyed reading and did find Jude the Obscure to be well written. It sure isn’t cozy Saturday reading, but there’s a lot to wonder about in here about how we live with each other as human beings. At least, I suppose that’s my take away.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

For this time, I chose to read Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.  This is another one that as a voracious reader, I probably should have read previously, but never have.  I’m glad I finally did however though as I have to say, I adored it.  The “hype” about it is definitely deserved.  This isn’t always true of books hyped in the last decade (The Davinci Code springs to mind).

Madame Bovary was actually listed on quite a few authors top ten lists.  Russell Banks, Julian Barnes, Bebe Moore Campbell (which I might have to read her as my last middle name and my last name are Campbell Moore), Philip Caputo, Peter Carey, Michael Cunningham, Margaret Drabble, Mary Gaitskill, Denise Gess, Michael Griffith, Kathryn Harrison, John Irving, David Lodge, Thomas Mallon, Valerie Martin, Erin McGraw, Claire Messud, Lorrie Moore, Reynolds Price, Alexander McCall Smith, Lee Smith, James Salter, Scott Spencer, Barry Unsworth, Anthony Walton and Meg Wolitzer all listed it on their top ten lists.

Madame Bovary is a novel about a narcisstic woman, centuries before narcissm was recognized as a mental illness.  The story begins by following Monsieur Bovary as he studies to become a physician.  Then his mother (who is overbearing and cloying imo) arranges a marriage for him to an older woman who has money.  Charles Bovary finds marriage to her quite hard.  He has a patient whom he fixes a broken bone for, who has a daughter.  Enter Emma into the story.  Charles finds solace by going to the farm and having a small innocent flirtation with Emma.   Old, miserable first wife dies.  Charles moons about until Emma’s father basically pushes him into proposing marriage.  Emma says yes.

Emma almost immediately regrets it.  Numerous times throughout the story, Flaubert writes in feelings Emma has for Charles.  They’re always tinged with disgust.

Emma has always been looking for sweeping feelings, and feels that nothing else will do for her.  She first was swept away by religious feeling in the convent her father had her at.  Then she was swept away by the joy of living in the country with her father and being the “lady” of the house.  Then she is swept away by Charles’ wedding proposal.  Then she becomes swept away by a ball held by nobility and a dance with a Viscount (this is where the disgust she has for Charles really starts showing).  Then she has a nervous breakdown and Charles moves her to a new location.  She is swept away by passion for a clerk there.  Then he leaves.  Enter guy #2, who is quite the womanizer smooth talker.  Guy #2 goes away, enter back in clerk.

Emma is never satisfied with what she has.  She always believes she needs better.  She borrows money from one of the storekeepers who constantly is pushing it at her, as well as playing on her need to have the best.  It eventually becomes a game of borrowing to pay and refinancing notes.  This is what ultimately gets her into trouble.

It was weird.  I both recognized Emma and loathed her.  I found her both familiar and foreign.  At times I wanted to throw the book, yelling at her “Omg, get over yourself and look at your husband who ACTUALLY LOVES you, idiot”.  At other times, I found myself nodding and seeing why she felt a certain way.

I think one of the things that makes this one of the top ten novels I’ve read with the most authors listing it, is it’s universality.  It’s written over 250 years ago, yet the characters remain fresh.  We all have known Emmas.  We’ve all known Charles.  We’ve all known some of the more minor characters who pop up and propel the narrative around Emma, such as the blowhard pharmacist.  I definitely would reread this novel (after a few years to let the narrative chain of events fade), as I think it’s one that could be rediscovered again and again.  It did remind me a little of Anna Karenina, but much easier to read.  Flaubert doesn’t digress into tens of pages on some side character or a description of fields and farming.  Flaubert is a much tighter author, he paints a picture of the characters and their surroundings, the events and the consequences of the events with vivid brush strokes, but stops short of overlayering.

I highly encourage you to read this book if you never have.  While reading it, make sure to focus on the characters.  In today’s entitlement age (the whole idea that all of us deserve the very best and so we get into credit debt beyond belief), we all know Emmas or are Emmas.