Introduction to Hard Times

Topics: Hard Times, Charles Dickens, John Stuart Mill Pages: 6 (2026 words) Published: April 27, 2001
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....
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