One of my long-standing New Year’s reading resolutions (if two years can be considered long-standing) is to read a classic every month. My definition of a classic is roughly: a book we’re still talking about though it was published before 1950. This month’s choice was Hard Times, by Charles Dickens. (I was inspired to pick this one up by Jenny at Shelf Love. Thank you, Jenny!) Hard Times was published in 1854 but it contains ideas and sentiments that feel surprisingly prescient and contemporary. As I read, I highlighted passages that could have been about Ayn Rand or today’s conservatives. It was downright spooky after a while.
Unlike most of Dicken’s works, Hard Times does not show us a vast field of characters. Rather, it focuses on the Gradgrind family and their—I hesitate to say friends because I don’t think old Thomas Gradgrind would approve—circle of acquaintances. Thomas Gradgrind is the creator of a strict educational scheme based on facts. Altruism, sympathy, art, or indeed any of the softer or more creative aspects of life are excluded. The book begins with a brief episode introducing Gradgrind’s philosophy:
A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir—peremptorily Thomas—Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. (Part II, Chapter II*)
A girl is then humiliated when she cannot define “horse.” This student lives with a circus and cannot simplify the animal that makes their lives and work possible. Another student, however, produces the driest, dullest definition of a graminivorous quadruped that satisfies Gradgrind and their instructor, Mr. M’Choakumchild. Gradgrind raises his own children in this system, never realizing that Young Tom and Louisa are possibly the most depressed and repressed children ever to grace a Dickens novel. They study every “ology” there is and their parents ruthlessly steer them away from fancy and fiction and fun.
The first part of the book, “Sowing,” sets up the characters and ends with Louisa accepting the proposal of old Gradgrind’s closest friend, Mr. Josiah Bounderby, a blowhard caught up in perpetuating his myth of being a self-made man who grew up on the mean streets of Coketown. There is no love, or even affection between them, but the “facts” make it seem a good match. A year later, in the second part of the book, “Reaping,” Louisa and Young Tom are making their way in the world as best they can, given their stunted upbringing. “Reaping” shows us a Young Tom who has grown up to quietly rebel by living a hedonistic life, constantly bothering his sister for money to pay off his gambling debts. Louisa becomes increasingly aware of her lack of emotion and her own inability to function as a complete human being. Both characters make huge blunders that must be set right in the last part of Hard Times, “Garnering.”
Gradgrind and the other advocates of hard fact show Dickens satirizing the callous attitudes of business men and politicians—the people with the power to make any material changes in the lives of the poor—towards their fellow humans. For example, Dickens summarizes one of Gradgrind’s former students, who now works at Bounderby’s bank, with one of “the fictions of Coketown” :
Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing the little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it? (Part II, Chapter I)
I have heard this argument before, from politicians and pundits who want to slash funding for social welfare programs. Why can’t poor people work their way into riches? Well, the “tabular statements” capitalists refer to to give their arguments weight don’t take social status, lack of access to education, etc., into account. These same gentlemen resist any reform to their system:
Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke…Whenever a Coketowner felt he was ill-used—that is to say, whenever he was not left entirely alone, and it was proposed to hold him accountable for the consequences of any of his acts—he was sure to come out with the awful menace, that he would ‘sooner pitch his property into the Atlantic.’ This had terrified the Home Secretary within an inch of his life, on several occasions. (Part II, Chapter I)
This sounds incredibly familiar. It’s eerie how these words that Dickens wrote 161 years ago come tumbling out of the mouths (albeit with less flourish) of one-percenters protesting any change to tax laws, environmental and occupational regulations, or indeed any alteration to hardcore capitalist laissez faire governance. Plus ça change, huh?
It’s little enough comfort when, at the end of Hard Times, Louisa reveals to her father just how much his philosophy has destroyed her and he has a change of heart or that Bounderby gets his comeuppance. Hard Times hit me hard because so little has changed in the last century and a half. Dickens’ other books have affected me emotionally**, but I can’t recall another of his books depressing me quite so much. It’s a good depression, if that makes sense. I feel enriched for having read Hard Times. The book showed me another side of Dickens, another facet to his genius. It also showed me just how much the classics still have to say to us today.
* Quotes are from the Project Gutenberg edition of Hard Times. Page numbers are not available.
** I still have a fond place in my heart for Sydney Carton, even though I read A Tale of Two Cities more than a decade ago.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Give this to any readers who need to get in touch with their sympathetic side and to anyone espousing a conservative worldview.