Role and Concept of Sleary's Circus in Hard Times

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‘Hard Times’ is a Charles Dickens novel set in the social backdrop of the Victorian era during the Industrial Revolution that took place during the 1850s. The ill effects of Victorian Utilitarianism are upheld in this moralistic vision of the writer. Unlike most of his novels, ‘Hard Times’ is not based in London but in the red and black seemingly monotonous structures of Coketown. That being said, it still realistically allows the reader to observe the systems and structures of society forced to face various economic and social hardships. What preserves the novel as a social commentary is that the struggles in life and human emotions are still relevant “for these times”.

The rise in capitalist ideals brought forth an age where the factory owners took undue advantage of their semi-skilled workers and kept much of the working class oppressed. The Gradgrind system instated everyone to be part of the same monotony that represented Coketown - where fancy had no place in a world full of facts. Here, Sleary’s Circus is introduced as a contrast between the two worlds and re-establishes faith in the imagination of human beings, even for the purpose of entertainment. Thus, one is introduced to Sleary’s Circus with an equestrian connotation in mind – “Sleary’s horsemanship” – making the imagery of the horse essential. Dickens’ caricature of the people constituting the circus involves a vivid description of their physical appearance and mannerisms which can be perceived as “foreign” or beyond the laws that “bound” everyone in society. They are considered peculiar in contrast to the more “educated” lot in society – generally “dressed in a Newmarket coat and tight fitting trousers…” and “smelt of lamp oil, straw, orange peel, horses’ provender, and sawdust”. Their gait is also peculiar, one that suggests that they are almost perpetually on horseback.

There is a metaphorical relevance with the representation of a winged horse in “Pegasus’ Arms” – the public house above which the company resided. Another more “theatrical one” which was “framed and glazed upon the wall behind the dingy little bar… with real gauze let in for his wings, golden stars stuck on all over him, and his ethereal harness made of red silk” symbolically represents the circus which embodies values quite different from the “brazen plate” that introduces Bounderby’s realm of existence. The circus acts as an escape from the drudgery of “hard facts” and the wonder that enamours the company is a direct contrast to the likes of Bounderby and Gradgrind who advocate the idea that one should “never wonder!” and for whom a horse is only, as Bitzer answers in book I, chapter 2, "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four-eye teeth, and twelve incisive..." Although this answer may please Gradgrind, the horse as symbolized by the circus has far greater connotations than mere fact. This is also the system that has been grinded into his children’s life and shows that even with great education, one does not find as much pleasure as the imagination can provide. The failure of Gradgrind’s system is evident in Louisa who understands the hollowness of her life and in the inability to relate to her father’s teaching as she repeatedly questions “what are my heart’s experiences?” The relations within the circus family are fuller and shown to be, more often than not, polygamous “there were two or three handsome young women among them, with their two or three husbands, and their two or three mothers, and their eight or nine children” those who were also put to work as part of the ‘fairy business’. The men during their performance depend on each other to form the pyramidal structure which strengthens the imagery of the circus as an organic whole dedicated to each other emotionally and economically. The women of the circus have no compunctions in showing their legs as opposed to the prudish compulsions of the women of those times. Their sense of anger...
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