As my more regular readers will be aware, this year I set myself the goal of reading all the novels of Charles Dickens novels that I had not already read. When Hard Times arrived, the third to last volume on the list, I was surprised by how thin it was, Dickens books tend to be door stopper thick.
The story revolves around a central family, the head of which Thomas Gradgrind, is a teacher whose sole purpose is to instil in his pupils a reliance on facts over any kind of imagination or fancy. He is joined in this belief by his close friend Bounderby, who also rejects any forms of emotion or flights of imagination, in favour of facts and logic. However, Gradgrind does take in the abandoned daughter of a circus performer, Sissy, who joins his family, and grows with them, which was a compassionate act for an emotionless man. The upshot of this form of education is the future choices of the Gradgrind children. The eldest daughter Louisa allows herself to be married off to Bounderby, when she is of age, as it will help her dissipated brother Tom, who has gambling debts and little conscience.
The backdrop is the Industrial Revolution, with the lives of the factory workers thrown in stark relief to the pampered lives of the upper classes, and their good nature and care of each other contrasted with the reliance on facts and figures which loom so large in the lives of the wealthier characters. The stories of two of these workers, Stephen and Rachael, are sweet and tragic. Lives of quiet and hopeless struggle, but also honesty and genuine feeling.
It’s clear that Dickens wanted to show how divorced the factory owners and middle class were from the lives of the working man, and further, that one cannot simply work but must also have some joy, beauty and ideals to work towards. That a life of facts alone led to feeling disengaged from life and ones fellow man.
In that sense, the book makes good points, but it does so in more cartoonish and overdrawn ways than almost all the authors other works. It feels like more of a “message” politicised book, and as such, well, you feel a little bit less for the characters than you could. As an insight into the times, and how the world was changing very quickly, it’s quite fascinating. It’s true that the conditions of workers were deplorable, and that little care was taken for their quality of life, and also that the factories were an ugly blot on the landscape and the soot that was spewed out covered everything and could not be washed away.
That said though, the story moves at quite a good pace, with less description than the long passages in say Dombey and Son or David Copperfield, and the characters are often quite funny or their plight tragic enough to keep you interested and turning pages. A good story and an interesting insight into the times.
Read it if: You liked other Dickens like Pickwick Papers or The Curiosity Shop, but perhaps not a good first introduction to the author as it’s not him at his finest.