What was it about?
Thomas Gradgrind is a schoolteacher in industrial Coketown and a strict adherent of utilitarianism. He and his friend Mr. Josiah Bounderby go to great pains to raise the Gradgrind children on nothing but facts. But not all children are as privileged. Cecilia “Sissy” Jupe comes from quite a different background. Her father is a clown and hardly literate. Mr. Gradgrind is shocked to learn that Sissy does not know the dictionary definition of a horse. When her father runs away for some unknown reason, Mr. Gradgrind decides to raise and educate Sissy himself despite Mr. Bounderby’s disapproval. The latter did not have it so easy when he was growing up. Mr. Bounderby is a prominent banker in Coketown, but he wasn’t born into the lap of luxury. Oh no! He was abandoned by his mother and raised by an abusive grandmother. He ran away from home and lived in the streets. The sewer was his bed. But cold hard facts saved Mr. Bounderby from his misery. He pulled himself up by his bootlaces and became the great banker that he is today. That is the story he tells everyone and not for a minute is he ashamed of telling it. Although the age difference is great, Thomas Gradgrind asks his eldest daughter Louisa to marry Mr. Bounderby. Because sentiments have no place in the Gradgrind household, Louisa has no choice but to accept Bounderby’s proposal. Hard Times by Charles Dickens is a satire on utilitarianism and a critique of the Industrial Age.
What did I think of it?
This is probably my third or fourth time reading Hard Times. Of all the books I have read by Dickens, this one is the best. A common criticism of his works is that the characters (particularly the female characters) are more like caricatures. And while I think that Dickens’ use of caricature is deliberate and a literary motif he employs to expose the dark side of industrial England, I have to agree that his characters aren’t always the most relatable. The villain usually resembles a monster and the female characters are unnaturally sweet. Not so in Hard Times. The characters are all fully fleshed out, and evil is more systemic than embodied in one person. My favorite character was Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Bounderby’s housekeeper. On the outside she is a proud, proper, and obedient lady, but despite all appearances, she is quite independent from her master. Mrs. Sparsit has a dignity about her that I respect and love.
Nearly every chapter begins with a commentary on Coketown, utilitarianism, or one of the characters in the story. These sarcastically humorous commentaries complement and enhance the darker plot line. Of course, Dickens’ prose is as elegant as always. If you like social commentaries and/or want to start reading one of Charles Dickens’ shorter novels, I highly recommend Hard Times. The characters are memorable.
Note: Do not purchase the Translatlantic Press edition because the blurb at the back of the book basically tells you the whole plot. Thankfully, this was a reread otherwise I would have been very upset.
“Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.”