The novel Hard Times for These Times by Charles Dickens, usually just shortened to just Hard Times, was originally published in 1854. It is a story set around the same time that it was written, the industrial revolution was in full swing and the Victorian age was drawing to an end. The novel describes the quality of life, and inequality, for English social classes during the industrial revolution. It deals with the issues of classism, poverty, social responsibility, privilege, and sexism. What the book does effectively shows the destructive and cruel nature that market capitalism exhibited in this period. This is done through the lives of a select few individuals in a great number of different circumstances. The political and economic circumstances faced by individuals at this period in time are seen throughout the books progress.
To think of liberalism, as written about by Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, and Frédéric Bastiat, it does seem like a progressive system that benefits all levels of the social structure. An individual is making a profit by creating a good that benefits society as a whole, and this is benefiting both parties involved. As a result of making a profit from this equation, that individual now has enough capital to hire workers and produce more. Workers sell their manual labor for a wage and thus have the ability to earn enough to produce new goods for the benefit of the society. This would then mean that eventually, they would be able to employ their own workers as well, and this cycle then brings benefits to the whole society. In such a description, it does sound like an equal and progressive society, however, it conceals the downside of such progress. For every individual who succeeds in producing a good that sells, there are those who fail and are left penniless. The rights that this form of liberalism promotes, individual rights and economic freedom, leave much of the population destined for a life of poverty and begging. Writing about this period of time in his introduction to the works of Friedrich Engels, Terrell Carver calls it a period of “Child labor, cramped rooms, overwork, consumption, terrible poverty, drunkenness, syphilis, lung disease, coal fumes, and a lack of oxygen” (Engels: A Very Short Introduction. 1981.) For most of the population, these were all part of everyday life and the upper classes cared very little for improving their circumstances.
A fictional city called Coketown is where the story is set. An industrial city inhabited by both the very rich and very poor. Cookie cutter apartment blocks house the workers in cramped conditions. The streets are lined with factories, puffing chimneys, and public houses where the workers occupy themselves in their off time. The air remains cloudy with a constant pollutant fog always hanging around. Dickens explains it in the following way: “Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays. You only knew the town was there because you knew there could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town. A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now that way, now aspiring to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter: a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed nothing but masses of darkness” (Hard Times. 1954.)
The novel deals with the problems of class that is brought into being by the capitalist system. Thomas Gradgrind is the owner of a school that teaches the unfortunate children of the workers. He is a ruthless utilitarian who cares only for the hard facts, and nothing to do with emotion. This is the method in which he educates the pupils, training them not for advancement, but to continue on in the same position as their parents. Instead of training them to market their skills for career advancement, the skills being taught are to take orders and do as they are told. “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the mind of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. In no way” (Hard Times. 1854.) are they trained to move up an internal ladder, but are trained merely to serve the masters already in place. This educational system reinforces the social structure of exploitation for large profits, as it simply creates an army of thoughtless workers. As explained in the book by Sissy Jupe, a student of the school, in this recollection, “He said, ‘this schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five and twenty are starved to death in the streets in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion?’ and my remark was- for I couldn’t think of a better one- that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starving, whether the others were a million or a million million. And that was wrong too.” (Hard Times. 1854.) emotions do not enter into this form of education. It also stresses individual gain and continuous desire to achieve this as a means of making the subject ignore the poverty of others. As Elmo Raj points out in his essay, “Gradgrind’s school stresses regulation and control; it is interested in manufacturing the obedient and compliant workers the industrialists needed, and thus brings to light a crucial problem with utilitarianism. The factory owners approved the educator’s objective to produce children for the jobs in Coketown through which they can attain happiness in their lives.” (Hard Times as a Dickensian Dystopia. 2012.)
The industrialist Josiah Bounderby is the novel’s antagonist, and probably the richest citizen of Coketown. He owns both factories and a bank, and loves to tell the stories of his life to anyone who will listen. Because of the fact that is he is a ‘self-made man’ Bounderby sees himself as a self-righteous moral superior of anyone he comes into contact with. He regularly dictates judgment upon the way that others live their lives, yet never holds himself to the same standard. What he represents is the positivist superiority capitalist forces possess in society over the common interests. Might makes right, and the money writes the rules. His moral superiority contradiction is clearly demonstrated throughout the book, firstly when one of his lowly laborers come to him for some personal advice. Stephen Blackpool is an uneducated hard-worker who slaves all day in the factory owned by Mr. Bounderby. He has a problem when his wife, whom he had not seen in many years, shows up out of nowhere. Theirs is a loveless marriage and his wife had taken to drink while selling her body to stay intoxicated. In the meantime, Stephen had met a co-worker in the factory named Rachel and they had developed a bond. What Stephen wanted to do was end his first marriage so he would be able to marry Rachel, and for advice, he goes to Mr. Bounderby. He explains his situation, and his boss tells him that a divorce would cost him more than his salary for a whole year and that he took the vows, so he must live with them. This is later contradicted by the fact that at the end of the novel, it is Josiah Bounderby gets a divorce from his wife.
The second example of his contradictory self-righteousness is found in his constant references to his hard upbringing that made him the man he had become. Bounderby proclaims “I hadn’t a shoe to my foot. As to a stocking, i didn’t know such a thing by name! I passed the day in a ditch, and the night in a pigsty. That’s the way I spent my tenth birthday. Not that a ditch was new to me, for I was born in a ditch!” (Hard Times. 1854.) He used this upbringing to excuse his harsh treatment of the poor with an ‘i made it, and so can they!’ attitude. He also used this tough youth he experienced to claim that he knew the poor, he knew how they thought, and knew what drove them. In the company of all, this story of his youth was accepted as fact. But at the end of the novel, Bounderby’s own mother shows up to set the record straight. Dickens writes:
‘Do you deny, then, madam, that you left your son to-to be brought up in the gutter?’
‘Josiah in the gutter!’ exclaimed Mrs. Pegler. ‘No such a thing, sir. Never! For shame on you! My dear boy knows, and will give -you- to know, that though he come of humble parents, he come of parents that loved him as dear as the best could, and never thought it hardship on themselves to pinch a bit that he might write and cipher beautiful, and I’ve his books at home to show it! Aye, have I!’ said Mrs. Pegler, with indignant pride. ‘And my dear boy knows, and will give -you- to know, sir, that after his beloved father died, when he was eight years old, his mother, too, could pinch a bit, as it was her duty and her pleasure and her pride to do it, to help him out in life, and put him ’prentice. And a steady lad he was, and a kind master he had to lend him a hand, and well he worked his own way forward to be rich and thriving. (Hard Times. 1854.)
So it turns out that Bounderby didn’t come from as humble roots as he had always claimed. But does this change anything? The answer is no. This is because Bounderby is the one who holds the authority, and in such a society authority means deciding what is the truth. Might makes right, and Bounderby is the mightiest. The social hierarchy bows to Bounderby.
The issue of sexism is exhibited throughout the novel. Women are presented as second-class citizens and property of the men they are associated with. To look at specific cases, Thomas Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa is treated like a perk in a business deal. When Bounderby decides that he would like to marry Louisa, he meets with her father and discusses her future in almost business terms. Ultimately, the choice does fall to Louisa but this is only after her future had been laid out by these two men. Following her wedding, she becomes almost a pet to her husband who criticizes her for not treating him properly as a man of his standing. Her life becomes miserable, married to a man that she doesn’t love, and only finding joy in her brother, who doesn’t appreciate her. Now obviously, this is an example of the times, but women live their lives specifically to care for the men inhabiting their household. This era was a time when women were gaining more freedom, and yet they were still prevented from taking legal action or owning property. The industrial revolution gave women more job opportunities to earn a wage, and it is from this that the lower classes were able to benefit earliest. While the elite class women were forced to be the ladies of the house, out of necessity working class women had begin earning a wage. However, the benefits of the working class were limited to this.
Class bias or class prejudice seen throughout the novel, most prevalently when Bounderby’s bank is robbed. It is clear as soon as it happens that it is wealthy but troubled Thomas Gradgrind Jr., who had amassed large gambling debts. Yet, the one who is accused and assumed guilty is the recently fired laborer Stephen Blackpool. It was assumed that it had to be someone from the lower classes because they would be the only ones capable of such an unthinkable act. It was as if the lower classes have a moral defect, and therefore they know not what they do. Like they are living with an animal impulse that cannot be tamed. The laborers who are literally building the immense capital the owners are acquiring are treated as simple servants for the ruling class. Blackpool describes the class differentiation and elite superiority in the following way “Look how we live, an’ wheer we live, an’ in what numbers, an’ by what chances, an’ wi’ what sameness; and look how the mills is awlus a-goin’, and how they never works us no nigher to onny distant object-‘ceptin awlus Death. Look how you considers of us, and writes of us, and talks of us, and goes up wi’ your deputations to Secretaries o’ State ‘bout us, and how yo are awlus right, and how we are awlus wrong, and never had’n no reason in us sin ever we were born. Look how this ha’ growen an’ growen sir, bigger an’ bigger, broader an’ broader, harder an’ harder, fro year to year, fro generation unto generation. Who can look on’t sir, and fairly tell a man ‘tis not a muddle?” (Hard Times. 1854.)
What the novel Hard Times does is illustrate the fundamental inequality and privilege system that was brought about in this initial stage of capitalism. As Dickens wrote in A Tale of Two Cities, but could be inserted into this story, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”For those who had money, it was the best of times and for those without it, it was the worst. As according to Ligia Grabauskas, Dickens “managed, as no other novelist ever did, to do that in a form that captures the essence of an increasingly dehumanized society.” (The Question of Realism in Hard Times.) Great growth and development came at a great cost to the people and the society,