Introduction to Hard Times
Topics: Hard Times, Charles Dickens / Pages: 9 (2026 words) / Published: Apr 28th, 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

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