The Hardest of Times

It’s been one of those weeks, so I apologise for the briefness of this post! That and I’m having to play catch up with the amount I have been reading!

Recently I re-read Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. It is one of the few novels Dickens wrote which is not set largely or exclusively in London, and he did so for a very good reason. In Hard Times he forcefully depicts the damage industrialisation was wreaking among the lower classes, and how the unequivocal belief in ‘facts’ and rationality plays havoc with the lives of the upper classes too. To do so he sets the novel’s action in the fictional ‘Coketown’ (which could stand for any major industrial town in England in the 1840s). Thomas Gradgrind is the town’s schoolmaster, and a firm believer in ‘facts’, to such a degree that he has completely ignored the existence of powerful emotions in his own children, particularly his daughter Louisa and son Thomas. Ignoring the fact that emotions might play an essential role in the matter, he allows his friend Bounderby, a coarse factory-owner, to propose to Louisa and marry her. Needless to say, it does not turn out to be a happy marriage. Interwoven with Louisa’s story is the story of Stephen Blackpool, a humble factory worker wrongfully accused of theft.

Hard Times is – as the title suggests – not a very happy book: rich and well-off ‘mathematical men’ such as Gradgrind and Bounderby are shown to be completely out of touch with their (and other’s) humanity, whereas the poor factory-workers have in fact retained a far higher sense of what is morally proper and what is not, but are caught up in their daily drudgery like cogs in a giant industrial machine: endlessly repeating the same manual tasks from dawn till dusk, like prisoners in a treadmill. The book does offer some faint glimmers of hope though (but I won’t tell which, that would be a spoiler). And as always with Dickens, there’s a wealth of unforgettable characters, and – bleak though the subject matter is – even some instances of true Dickensian humour.

Hard Times is a lot smaller than many other novels by Dickens (barely 250 pages), but to my mind it ranks amongst his very best. As in many of his other books he shows great empathy and feeling for the nameless mass of (lower class) people, and though it was written well over 160 years ago its message is as relevant today as it was then. As Henri David Thoreau’s wrote in ‘Walden’ (written in 1854 as ‘Hard Times’): “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”.

I often feel that in 2015 that is still the case.

The Knitty Gritty

Hard Times by Charles Dickens – Again, like any classic novel, there are so many editions out there. Buy from your Local Bookseller, Amazon – or support your local Library!

Further Reading:

North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

Dombey and Son – Charles Dickens


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