Book Review: Hard Times

In Charles Dickens’ book, Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind is a member of Parliament who also runs a school. His philosophy of education emphasizes pure fact: no fancy, no imagination, not even any morality. He discovers one poor student in the school Sissy, who can’t seem to learn her facts. When he goes to talk to her father, he discovers that her father had worked in the circus but has mysteriously left. So he offers to take Cissy in to help care for his near-invalid wife if she promises never to return to the circus.

Gradgrind’s own children have been raised according to his philosophy at home. Both his oldest two, Louisa and Tom, are rather bored. The implications of their education play out differently for each of them.

Gradgrind’s close friend, Josiah Bounderby, is a blustery self-made man who boasts of his rise from “street kid” to a successful banker. He eventually takes on Tom as an apprentice and married Louisa. Louisa has no love for Bounderby, but as her father presents the facts of the case, marriage seems reasonable.

In another area of town lives Stephen Blackpool, one of what Bounderby calls “hands”—common workmen. Stephen was 40, but “looked older, but he had had a hard life” with seemingly all thorns and no roses. “He was a good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity” though not particularly intelligent.

Eventually Stephen’s path crosses that of the other characters and reasons for his hard life become known. His refusal to go in with the unionists gets him in trouble with them and Bounderby. When he leaves to find work elsewhere, he’s framed for a bank robbery.

Usually when I start a classic novel, I get some background information about it first. I didn’t this time: I just let the story draw me in. I wondered who would advocate a “just facts” education and why. After reading the book, I learned that a philosophy called Utilitarianism was going around at the time. You can read more about it at Wikipedia if you’re interested. Louisa’s path follows that of the son of one of Utilitarianism’s advocates, who felt he was emotionally stunted as a result of his upbringing. Tom’s maturity and character was stunted, too, but in a different way. Perhaps it’s better to say he was more warped than stunted.

The two most highly moral, compassionate, and common-sense characters, Sissy and Stephen, were not raised in this philosophy, and eventually they show some of the others a different way. Some of the characters end up sadder but wiser, “making .. facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity.” Dickens almost portrays all the poor as virtuous and the rich and powerful as corrupt, but he makes the characters complicated enough that they don’t fall into stereotypes. As he often writes not only for social awareness, but for social change, he appeals to the reader that “It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not.”

This is the shortest of Dickens’ novels and the only one not to have any scenes in London. This is his tenth novel and, like most of his others, first appeared in serial form. He infuses the story with his characteristic humor, pathos, and memorable characters and descriptions and keeps the reader thinking long after the book ends.

I listened to the audiobook, nicely read by Peter Batchelor, and read parts on the Project Gutenberg copy online here.

8 thoughts on “Book Review: Hard Times

  1. Interesting; I read Great Expectations a few years ago (after having read it probably for school in my youth). It took me a while to get into the rhythm of it, but I enjoyed it fairly much once I did. I think audio would be a good format for getting into Dickens. Utilitarianism is a new concept to me; interesting. I never heard of “Hard Times” and I thank you for introducing me to it!

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