Hard Times: A Microcosm of Urban Factories

April 11, 2019 by Essay Writer

Inventor and scientific pioneer Albert Einstein once commented that “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Though he was not referring to the industrialization of England during the nineteenth century, his sentiment was echoed by many during the Victorian Age of England. The era saw, in the words of critic Carol Christ, a “shift from a way of life based on the ownership of land to a modern urban economy based on trade and manufacturing” (Christ 1043). Departing from the previous rural economy, England now entered into the modern world of technology. Though productive and profitable, this change in England’s social and economic structure transformed the psyche of many Victorians. By the end of the century, England was the world’s principal imperial authority, but with this new power came the destruction of moralistic ways of life found earlier in England’s history. Nineteenth-century England’s overzealous adoption of industrialization threatened to dehumanize its citizens by thwarting the development of their emotions and imaginations for the purpose of tangible productions of industry. To quote Christ, Victorians “suffered from an anxious sense of something lost, a sense too of being displaced persons in a world made alien by technological changes that had been exploited too quickly.” (Christ 1044). In his novel Hard Times, Charles Dickens criticizes the industrialization of England and the dehumanization of spirit. Dickens’s critical view of society “becomes increasingly systemic, and he begins to use organizing metaphors to express his social vision” (Christ 1335). The author views urbanization as “a tyrannical juggernaut that reduces him to a cipher” (Manlove, 224). Written in 1854, Hard Times is Dickens’s commentary on urbanization and its detrimental effects on the inhabitants of Coketown. In her article “Hard Times and the Structure of Industrialism: The Novel as Factory,” Patricia E. Johnson asserts that “Hard Times uses the physical structure of the factory itself as both the metaphor for the destructive forces at work on its characters’ lives and as the metaphor for its own aesthetic unity as a novel” (410). Dickens portrays Coketown and its citizens as a microcosm for industrialization, with Stephen symbolizing the working class, Louisa representing the mechanized out-put of industry, and the town itself embodying a factory.Stephen Blackpool epitomizes the working class in Hard Times, both through the names and words associated with Stephen and the character himself. Thomas Carlyle wrote in his essay “The Condition of the Working Class” that “the condition and disposition of the Working Class is a rather ominous matter at present” (345). The name “blackpool” alludes to basic negative imagery to suggest Stephen’s dim prospects for the future. He is unable to divorce his alcoholic wife and therefore cannot marry Rachel. Dickens implies throughout the novel that Stephen is perpetually stuck in his role in Coketown. Only bad things happen to Stephen even though he remains an incredibly virtuous person throughout the novel. In chapter ten of Hard Times, the story turns to the workers of Coketown, a group of laborers known as “the Hands.” In his article, “Them and US in Literature: Hands, Knees, and a Book by Dickens,” Paul O’Flinn comments on the idea that Dickens portrays the mentality of factory owners through his connotation of “the Hands.” O’Flinn asserts that industrialization does not require “eyes” or “heart” but rather only needs “hands.” He goes on to say that “in large numbers people tend to form mobs and make policemen work overtime. But hands are harmless” (1). O’Flinn contends that urban laborers are not seen as whole individuals, but rather as innocuous hands created solely to work. This idea of the working class as nothing but mere “hands” diminishes the characters as human beings and alludes to the dehumanization that industrialism causes.Among these “Hands” lives a decent man named Stephen Blackpool. He looks much older than his forty years and has had a hard life. Dickens writes that “every life has its roses and thorns […] in Stephen’s case, […] somebody else had become possessed of his roses, and he had become possessed of the same somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own. […] He was usually called Old Stephen, in a kind of rough homage to the fact” (52). Stephen has very little as far as intelligence or social graces and he is very simply defined as “good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity” (52). Stephen, an almost saintly character, never speaks ill of others and appears honest and hard-working. Johnson believes Dickens used Stephen as a “representative factory hand” and that he “exists at the heart of the system, almost in the heat of the furnace as it were” (414). Stephen’s whole life “is fully contained and defined by the factory system” (416). In fact, Stephen’s home is “in the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in (Dickens 52). Here Stephen’s representations of the working class are seen through his intricate place in the story and his permanent place in Coketown. Through Stephen, Dickens personifies the laboring society of industrialization. Stephen’s representations of the working class in Hard Times are exemplified in the fourth chapter of the second book. Slackbridge, the head of a movement to create labor unions, ignites a discussion with the “Hands.” Although Slackbridge considers the legitimate concerns of the poor, he is more interested in inciting outrage and building a platform for his own power and edification than in achieving the common goals of the “Brotherhood” whose rights he so adamantly defends. Dickens symbolizes the materialism of industrialization through Slackbridge. Stephen attends the meeting when asked to speak. He declines to join the union, saying “I doubt their doin’ yo onny good” (Dickens 108). Stephen has no problem with others joining the movement and he supports them, but he cannot join and simply wants to continue his job without any trouble. Slackbridge denounces Blackpool and he curbs his language only after several members of his faithful crowd demand that Stephen be given a chance to defend himself. Stephen lacks the rhetorical skills and the manipulative inclinations of Slackbridge and his deeply felt remarks are received to little avail. Under Slackbridge’s new regime, Stephen is ostracized as a traitor, deliberately ignored, and shunned. Bounderby fires him, stating that “even your own Union, the men who know you best, will have nothing to do with you” (Dickens 116). Stephen is forced to leave town to seek work and is wrongly suspected of committing a bank robbery. Walking back across country to Coketown in order to clear his name, Stephen falls down a disused mine shaft. Though rescued, he dies soon later. This “fall” of Stephen as a character represents Dickens conviction that urbanization ensnares the citizens of Coketown, leaving them irreparably chained to industry. Stephen takes a stand against Slackbridge, and thus a symbolic stand against industrialization, when he refuses the union. The end result of his outward criticism is not only his being shunned by his coworkers, but his death as well. There simply lies no way out of the system for the factory hand, an “idea that Dickens ironically illustrates by having Stephen leave Coketown only to fall into an abandoned mine pit. Stephen recognizes that his end is a metonym for the factory hand’s life….” (Johnson 415). Stephen Blackpool’s life and death epitomize the working class in Hard Times, thus weaving his character into the thematic fabric of the nvoel.Throughout Hard Times, Dickens utilizes his characters to illustrate how urbanization results in the mechanization of emotion. Industrialization creates “dead souls” who “only appear in furtive and anonymous form” in the novel (Manlove 222). His idea that the Industrial Revolution in England spawned a factory-like society is evident in his portrayal of one of the main characters, Louisa Gradgrind. Louisa, raised in an environment based solely on facts, remains numbed from her emotions. Her father, Mr. Gradgrind, wants “Facts.” He instructs her to “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” (Dickens 5). Dickens describes him as a “man of realities. A man of facts and calculations” (6). He raises his daughter and son Tom in an environment devoid of any imagination or emotion, much like robotic productions of an urban factory. Louisa and her brother Tom try to break from this rigid mold and attempt to peek at the circus, a symbol of imagination and creativity. The two are harshly chastised by their parents, signifying the reprimand of life without facts. When discussing the Gradgrind children, the narrator asserts, “Not that they knew, by name or nature, anything about an Ogre. Fact forbid!” (11). Because of her upbringing, Louisa Gradgrind is a mechanical character, governed not by her sense of self, but by her programmed desire to please her father and adhere to the expectations of Coketown’s urbanized society. When discussing the proposal of marriage by Bounderby, Louisa comes to her decision through monotonous rationalizing of facts: “Mr. Bounderby,” she went on in a steady, straight way, without regarding this, “asks me to marry him. The question I have to ask myself is, shall I marry him? That is so father, is it not? You have told me so, father. Have you not?” “Certainly, my dear.” “Let it be so” (Dickens 79).Here Louisa, a young woman, consents to marry a man much older and with no commonality to herself. Louisa “allows herself to be used as an object of exchange by her father…,” thus illustrating her character as a dehumanized shell (Johnson 417). She concedes to marriage, a monumental decision for any girl, void of feeling or sensation in a robotic display of her upbringing through “facts.” When James Harthouse propositions Louisa after her marriage to Bounderby, Louisa struggles with new-found desires never awakened before. She runs to the aide of her father and requests to speak to him about her predicament. As she tells Mr. Gradgrind: “I curse the hour in which I was born to such a destiny” and asks him, “Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart?” (Dickens 163). Because Louisa was drawn into an emotional attachment to Harthouse, she loses control and has an emotional breakdown, a symbolic disintegration of her robotic upbringing. Louisa’s mechanical way of thinking is unable to cope with the feelings Harthouse has awakened and her character implodes. Much like Stephen Blackpool, Louisa has no way out and “Neither Gradgrind nor the circus can restore the wasted life of Louisa” (Johnson 413). Mr. Gradgrind lays Louisa on the ground and “saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feet” (165). Dickens uses the character of Louisa to support his criticism of urbanization and the detrimental effects it has on the human spirit. His portrayal of Louisa Gradgrind depicts her as an unfortunate product of industrialization.Hard Times also employs the structure of the novel and the physicality of Coketown to symbolize the town as a microcosm of industrialization. In her article on Hard Times, Johnson asserts that “the shape of the novel recreates the dynamics of urban industrialization” (411). Johnson writes that “according to the OED, coke is a North-country word probably derived from the word ‘colk’ which means core. Coke is ‘the solid substance left after mineral coal has been deprived by dry distillation of its volatile constituents'” (412). Here Johnson points out that even the name of the fictional town Dickens creates is based on urban factory imagery. The actual structure of Hard Times alludes to the mechanized formula of industrialization. Dickens organizes the novel into three books: “Sowing,” “Reaping,” and “Garnering.” These titles represent an organic analogy that stands in ironic contrast to the mechanized skeletons it describes. Dickens “implicitly criticizes the unnatural method of production that the factory system represents” (Johnson 414). Dickens titles the sections of his novel after rural industry to exemplify his distain for capitalist urbanization. The entire novel is regimentally broken into these three books, and each book produces more than ten chapters. This structure of the novel alludes to the restricted, rigid structure of an industrialized society.Dickens uses imagery to portray the physical workings of Coketown as a factory. The narrator describes Coketown as “a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it. […] It was a town of machinery and tall chimney. […] It had a black canal in it” (Dickens 20). The narrator goes on to say that “it contained several large streets all very like one another […] inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours […] to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morow” (21). Here he illustrates the town through drab, monotonous scenery, much like that of an urban factory. Each inhabitant of the town “is to know exactly the same as the others; there is to be no imagination, no individuality, for each is to be a standardized wheel in the social engine” (Manlove 223). Coketown’s physical makeup is droning and the lives of its citizens repetitious, similar to an assembly line. Coketown is “geared-and the word is meant also literally-to the ceaseless minds and bodies unendingly driven to the perpetuation of useless knowledge and the manufacture of vulgar objects” (Manlove 224). The physical structure of the town and its inhabitants exemplifies the urbanized way of life that exists there. Dickens depicts Coketown as a factory to emblemize its role in the microcosm of industry.Though Hard Times, when compared to Charles Dickens’s other works, is often less recognized or appreciated by readers, it is a novel steeped in disparagement of the effects industrialization had on England’s societal values. Though England’s Industrial Revolution spawned numerous advantageous aspects of English life, the “bulk of the Victorian cultural elite…shares Dickens’s more negative view of the machine” (Manlove 224). With his use of irony and imagery, the author sheds an unkind light on the industrialization of his country. Dickens uses the novel to present a microcosm of industrialization. Stephen Blackpool represents the working class, Louisa Gradgrind symbolizes the mechanized product of industrialization, and the physicality of the novel and town signify an urban factory.Works CitedCarlyle, Thomas. “The Condition of the Working Class.” Hard Times: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Fred Kaplan and Sylvere Monod New York: Norton & Company, 2001. 345.Christ, Carol T., ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Victorian Age. New York: Norton & Company, 2000.Dickens, Charles. Hard Times: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Fred Kaplan and Sylvere Monod New York: Norton & Company, 2001. 5-222.Johnson, Patricia E. “Hard Times and the Structure of Industrialism: The Novel as a Factory.” Hard Times: An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. Ed. Fred Kaplan and Sylvere Monod New York: Norton & Company, 2001. 409-418.Manlove, Colin. “Charles Kingsley, H.G. Wells, and the Machine in Victorian Fiction.” Nineteenth-Century Literature 48 (1993): 212-39.O’Flinn, Paul. “Them and US in Literature: Hands, Knees, and a Book by Dickens.” Reds: Marxists and Culture. 2001.10 December 2004 http://www.marxists.de/culture/them-n-us/08-dickens.htm.

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