Hard times by Charles Dickens

“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 minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!”

Hard Times is a great and entertaining novel, especially when it focuses on the main story line of Thomas Gradgrind who espouses a reason-based Utilitarian education at the expense of imagination. We watch how this education system he advocates ends up ruining the life of his family. While sometimes I enjoy some of Dickens’ subplots, they tend to be very hit-or-miss with me, and this novel’s subplot involving factory worker, Stephen Blackpool, didn’t do much for me. I also wasn’t a fan of Stephen Blackpool’s dialect and the circus owner, Mr. Sleary’s lisp, which bordered on unreadable dialogue.

Thomas Gradgrind sponsors a school where his lead teacher Mr. M’Choakumchild grinds the imagination out of children with hard facts. Sissy Jupe, a girl whose father rides horses in the circus, attends the school only to be dismayed when she cannot define a horse in the terms of this fact-based system. In one of the most iconic scenes of the novel, the precocious Bitzer answers that a horse is:

“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

This speech is followed by the teacher telling Sissy that she now “know[s] what a horse is.” The irony of the scene is that Sissy has spent her whole life around horses, taking care of them as part of the circus, and probably knows far more than they do about horses, but she possesses practical knowledge and experience rather than a mere handful of facts.

After this poor academic performance, Thomas Gradgrid goes with his friend, owner of a local factory and bank, Mr. Bounderby, to visit Sissy’s father and inform him she’s not working out in the school.  Mr. Bounderby likes to bluster on about his rags-to-riches story, telling everyone how he was abandoned by his mother in a ditch and beaten by his drunken grandmother. Thomas arrives at the circus to find out that Sissy’s father has abandoned Sissy because he wants her to get an education and his old age is making it difficult to continue in the circus. Despite his belief in only cold hard facts, Thomas shows he has a sentimental side and takes Sissy into his home to be raised in his fact-based method. He also catches his daughter, Louisa and son, Tom Jr. watching the circus and berates them for having an interest in such silly nonsense.

Louisa grows up and enters a loveless marriage with Mr. Bounderby who is twice her age. A young rake, Mr. Harthouse, comes to town and she finds herself considering an affair with him. Tom Jr., gains a job at the bank through his connections with Mr. Bounderby and indulges in self-destructive behaviors, particularly gambling and drinking, as a response to his imagination being squashed as a child. In between all this, we have the sub-plot of Stephen Blackpool, the virtuous factory worker, trapped in a loveless marriage with a drunken adulterous, and wishing he could marry his true love, Rachael. Eventually the factory workers threaten to go on strike, but Stephen refuses to join them because of a promise to Rachael so his fellow workers outcast him. When he confronts Mr. Bounderby he fires him from his job. Stephen leaves town.

Eventually Tom Jr. robs Mr. Bounderby to pay for his habits and blames Stephen Blackpool for the robbery. Bitzer, who also works for the bank, and Mrs. Sparsit, a nosy woman who works for Mr. Bounderby, suspect other characters of the robbery. One of the other characters who Mrs. Sparsit blames ends up revealing the truth about Mr. Bounderby’s supposed rags-to-riches story, which turns out to be a complete fabrication. Eventually Thomas Gradgrind learns about his son’s misdeeds and Louisa’s complete unhappiness, along with Bitzer’s betrayal (who turns out to be a self-interested overly logical monster that cares only about his own advancement in the world), which causes him to realize his system of education is a complete failure. Sissy, who he underestimated and who fails his method of schooling, keeps her imagination and becomes the moral core that proves the family’s salvation. Dickens reminds us that to live a full and happy life you need more than just facts.

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7 thoughts on “Hard times by Charles Dickens

  1. I found your introductory excerpt intriguing, disliked the sentiment greatly, but figured it is the antithesis to what Dickens moral. I’ve read more Dickens than any other author, but I still have to get around to this one. Nice review.

      • Dear Consoled Reader, hopefully you understood it is Gradgrinds sentiment, not yours, I dislike. I think facts are indispensable, but not singular. It would be a gray world if all we had were facts to guide us.

      • Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I understood that you were speaking about Gradgrind’s sentiments and not mine. I was just probing to find out what specifically you dislike about the sentiments.

    • Yes to “antithesis.” The contrast between Gradgrind’s position and Dickens’s is captured in the stark irony of the chapter title: “The One Thing Needful.” (But don’t write Gradgrind off entirely when you start reading. After all, Dickens must know that no reader can’t entirely dislike a character who’s initially described as having a head “all covered with knobs like the crust of a plum pie.”)

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