The shortest of Dickens’ novels, Hard Times, was also, until quite recently, the least regarded of them. The comedy is savagely and scornfully sardonic, to the virtual exclusion of the humour – that delighted apprehension of and rejoicing in idiosyncrasy and absurdity for their own sakes, which often cuts right across moral considerations and which we normally take for granted in Dickens. Then, too, the novel is curiously skeletal. There are four separate plots, or at least four separate centres of interest: the re-education through suffering of Mr. Gradgrind, the exposure of Bounderby, the life and death of Stephen Blackpool, and the story of Sissy Jupe.
There are present, in other words, all the potentialities of an expansive, discursive novel in the full Dickens manner. But they are not and could not be realised because of the limitation of length Dickens imposed upon himself. The novel was written as a weekly serial story to run through five months of his magazine, Household Words, during 1854. Dickens had to force his story to fit the exigencies of a Procrustean bed and, in doing so, sacrificed the abundance of life characteristic of his genius.
That, at any rate, was the general view of Hard Times until in 1948 F. R. Leavis, in his book The Great Tradition, suggested that it was a \”moral fable,\” the hallmark of a moral fable being that \”the intention is peculiarly insistent, so that the representative significance of everything in the fable – character, episode, and so on – is immediately apparent as we read. \” By seeing it as a moral fable, Dr. Leavis produced a brilliant rereading of Hard Times that has changed almost every critic’s approach to the novel.
Yet a difficulty still remains: the nature of the target of Dickens’ satire. Both Gradgrind and Bounderby are emblematic, to the point of caricature, of representative early-nineteenth-century attitudes. Dickens tells us that Gradgrind has \”an unbending, utilitarian, matter-of-fact face\”; and the novel has been taken as an attack on the philosophical doctrine known as utilitarianism, the doctrine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct. But utilitarianism can also mean the doctrine that utility must be the standard of what is good for man.
Perhaps the two meanings come together in the famous Victorian phrase, \”enlightened self-interest,\” the meaning of which will turn entirely upon the definition of \”enlightened. \” Utilitarianism in the philosophical sense, as taught by the noble-minded John Stuart Mill, has had a profound and abiding influence on Western life and thought, and Dickens was certainly not competent to criticise it as a philosophical system. But if he was no philosopher, nor even a trained mind, he was something as valuable: \”an astonishing diagnostician of life,\” as D.
H. Lawrence has been called. \”His sensitive nose could smell death a mile away. \” And it is precisely those elements of nineteenth-century economic thinking that denied life which he is attacking in Hard Times. He is, in other words, continuing his attack on what may be called the statistical conception of man, on human relations evaluated in terms of arithmetic, on what Thomas Carlyle called the \”cash nexus\” that he had launched at the beginning of his career in Oliver Twist.
There he had traced its consequences in official attitudes towards poverty and in the working of the New Poor Law. In Hard Times the attack is on its consequences in education, as is made clear in the wonderful satire of the opening chapters, in which Sissy Jupe, whose whole life has been spent among horses, is convicted of ignorance of their essential nature, as compared with Bitzer, whose \”correct\” definition of a horse could have been given equally well by someone who had never set eyes on the animal.
The full effects of this theory of education, with its deification of facts to the exclusion of everything else, are dramatised in the careers of Mr. Gradgrind’s children. They are starvation, emotional and moral, and they proceed from the crazy logic of Mr. Gradgrind’s system, crazy because based on a gross abstraction from observed life. Thus when Thomas finally confesses to the bank robbery, his defence is unanswerable, at any rate by Gradgrind. \”‘So many people are employed in situations of trust; so many people, out of so many, will be dishonest.
I have heard you talk, a hundred times, of its being a law. How can I help laws? You have comforted others with such things, father. Comfort yourself! ‘\” The point is capped and underscored in the chapter that follows, when Mr. Gradgrind pleads with Bitzer, who has Tom’s fate in his hands. \”‘Bitzer, have you a heart? ‘\” But Bitzer, the logical end of Mr. Gradgrind’s system, its reductio ad absurdum, replies with the literal, scientific answer.
Then: \”If this is solely a question at self-interest with you – \”Mr. Gradgrind began. I beg your pardon far interrupting you, Sir,\” returned Bitzer; \”but I am sure that you know that the whole social system is a question of self- interest. What you must always appeal to, is a person’s self-interest. It’s your only hold. We are so constituted. I was brought up in that catechism when I was very young, sir, as you are aware. \” \”What sum of money,\” said Mr. Gradgrind, \”will you set against your expected promotion? \” \”Thank you, sir,\” returned Bitzer, \”for hinting at the proposal; but I will not set any sum against it.
Knowing that your clear head would propose that alternative, I have gone over the calculations in my mind; and I find that to compound a felony, even on very high terms indeed, would not be as safe and good for me as my improved prospects in the Bank. \” Honesty is the best policy – on the best statistical evidence. The inquiry into the effects of the system on Louisa, however, is conducted at a deeper and much more serious level. Even as a child, she is aware that something is missing from her life; she tells her father: \”I have been tired for a long, time …
I do not know of what – of everything, I think. And as one follows her life through the tremendous confrontations with her father before and after her marriage to Bounderby, it is impossible not to be struck by the depth of Dickens’ intuition. One is bound to relate her case to that of John Stuart Mill, as he reported it in his Autobiography, published in 1873. There he describes the malaise that laid him low in young manhood, his conviction that his emotional and imaginative capacities had been starved by the relentlessly intensive, exclusively intellectual education his father had inflicted upon him.
Mill found spiritual health, one might almost say salvation, in the poetry of Wordsworth, drawing from it \”a source of inward joy … which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but which would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. \” Mr. Gradgrind speaks of poetry with extreme horror; and Dickens opposes the life-enhancing qualities of poetry not only to Gradgrind’s educational system but also to his system in the wider sense, the notion that self-interest and utility are the be-all and end-all of existence.
In Hard Times, poetry, the life of the imagination, is symbolised in the \”horse-riding\” Mr. Sleary’s circus. Mr. Sleary is not \”respectable\”; he is never quite sober; yet he and his circus stand for a freedom and generosity of mind, for the truth of natural feelings, the more important because of the conditions in which Coketown, the social and economic expression of Gradgrind’s values, exists.
For Coketown is not any one particular place; it could equally well be Lille, France, Essen, Germany, Bethlehem, Pa. Newark, N. J. , or a New England mill town. It is the generic nineteenth-century industrial town, the soot-blackened monument of human greed, the temple of the new god, the steam engine whose piston \”worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. \” Gradgrind is its prophet and theologian – he is, significantly, a member of Parliament; and Bounderby, the banker and industrialist, is its high priest.
Bounderby is conceived entirely in terms of caricature and is one of Dickens’ most remarkable creations in the genre. He is Dickens’ supreme debunking of one of the nineteenth century’s great myth-figures, the self-made man, the Horatio Alger hero burlesqued out of existence even before Alger had committed him to paper. He is the \”Bully of humility. \” \”There was an infection of moral claptrap in him. \” \”‘I can see as far into a grindstone as another man; farther than a good many, perhaps, because I had my nose well kept to it when I was young.
I see traces of the turtle soup, and venison, and gold spoon in this … By the Lord Harry, I do! ‘\” And, as Dickens brings out with marvellous irony at the end, he is a fraud, the story of his origins is a pack of lies. Bounderby is a moral monster with no redeeming qualities. Gradgrind is rather different: the man ruled by theory, the victim of his own foolish beliefs. But he is not without generosity. He takes in Sissy Jupe and is capable of being educated into reality.
In the end, he learns through suffering the truths that Sissy has known, even as a child, by intuition. Sissy is the moral centre of the novel, the custodian of Dickens’ values. She appears at first as a naif, almost as a holy fool; or as the counterpart, perhaps, of Oliver Twist, the innocent who is protected against corruption by grace. But the grace that protects her comes from the love that has surrounded her from birth, the love bestowed upon her by her father, the clown, and by the members of Sleary’s circus.
Then, unlike Oliver, she is not passive; it is she who confronts Harthouse, the representative of a cynical aristocracy clambering onto the bandwagon of middle-class utilitarianism, and appeals, successfully, to his better nature. In the end, it is her values that prevail. The weakest part of the novel is certainly the representation of the working class, especially as summed up in the character of Stephen Blackpool.
As Dr. Leavis says: \”he is too good and qualifies too consistently for the martyr’s halo … invites an adaptation of the objection brought, from the Negro point of view, against Uncle Tom, which was to the effect that he was a white man’s good nigger. \” And then there is Dickens’ treatment of the labor union, which is certainly ambiguous. We know from his journalism that Dickens did, in fact, support the workingman’s right to combine in defence of his interests; but he did so cautiously, and one can only think that, when faced with a strike, his abiding fear of the mob, and ultimately of revolution, became uppermost in his mind.
Dickens had little firsthand knowledge of the industrial working class. Nine years before Hard Times appeared, Disraeli had applied the phrase \”The Two Nations\” (the subtitle of his novel Sybil) to Britain. He meant the two nations of the rich and the poor; he might almost equally well have meant the South and the North of Britain. The North was the forcing house of the industrial revolution; it was where the urban working class lived in its millions. The South was still unindustrialised, pastoral, semifeudal.
Dickens was a man from the South. The North, with the industrialism it stood for, was another county to him. He reacted toward it, and toward the attitudes that had made it what it was, with horror and fear – with what intensity Hard Times shows. In the end, though, his lack of intimate knowledge of it is unimportant. As a critique in fiction of industrial society, there is nothing to compare with Hard Times until we come to D. H. Lawrence’s novels in our own century.