Hard Times as a Novel on Industrialism
The nineteenth century saw the attempt word weavers of all kinds – poets, essayists, journalists, and novelists – to artistically capture the multitude of facets of the ever-changing political, social and economic conditions found in England during the Industrial Revolution. These “Condition-of-England novels” refer to a body of narrative fiction, also known as industrial novels, social novels, or social problem novels, published in Victorian England during and after the period of the hungry Hungry Forties. Robin B. Colby points out, “The industrial novels all share some common characteristics: the detailed documentation of the suffering of the poor, the reproduction of working-class speech through dialect, criticism of the effects of industrialism, the discussion of contemporary reform movements like Chartism and Utilitarianism, and some attempt — usually individual and internal — at a solution to social problems. Frequently the plot is developed around a sensitive protagonist, usually male, whose moral, intellectual, or emotional development spans the course of the novel and whose romantic attachments are troubled and conflicted. The protagonist is typically searching for a way to express or mitigate the dissatisfaction of the working class as he takes his role as their spokesman. The industrial novel, which combined narrative interest with protest, was a response to a particularly dismal period in which bank failures and the scarcity of jobs created conditions that many writers saw as deplorable”.
An instrument of social analysis, these novels sought to engage directly with the contemporary social and political issues with a focus on the representation of class, gender, and labor relations, as well as on social unrest and the growing antagonism between the rich and the poor in England. Even a cursory glance at the history of the early Victorian novel reveals that many writers shared a particular concern: the social consequences of the Industrial Revolution in England at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And this factor is very much evident in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, a moral fable which historically is the satirical portrayal of hard moments of the 19th century industrial revolution and relatively, an indictment of global laissez faire capitalism.
A versatile text encompassing various themes, Hard Times develops its own reconciliation with the “Two Nations”, the theory about the growing tensions between the rich and the poor along with other tensions, those between men and women and those between the public and private spheres of society and family. All of this friction is placed in a fictional grid called Coketown which is said to be modeled upon Manchester, Northern England. Coketown was an “ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in” (Dickens 56) and can be considered as another character in the novel representing the entirety of the industrial areas, as the rest of the characters represent the entirety of the groups they belong to. Often described by means of personifications (savage), and animalization (serpents) the setting of the novel is, according to Berman, ―an amalgam of the manufacturing towns found in blue books descriptions‖ (570). He contrasts this darkened and poisoned town with Preston (Lancashire) to show the ill effects of industrialization, as he describes the latter as ―a good, honest, work-a-day looking town, built upon a magnificent site, surrounded by beautiful country.” This comparison highlights the dehumanizing aspect of industrialization as the details of the environment have been omitted for the description of soot-coated, black and savage Coketown that radiated the uneasy feelings of repetitiveness, monotony and drudgery.
The people who lived in this toxic wasteland had no exuberance of any kind rather and mirrored their surroundings as just like the buildings, the people looked alike, losing a sense if uniqueness altogether. The repeated use of the word “same” and the phrase “like one another” reveal both the monotony of Coketown and the drudgery of its inhabitants. A mechanization of the workers’ physical side of lives is displayed by their uniformity while working beside machines together and movements being conditioned by “the tyranny of the clock”. Implications about people losing their natural rhythms while turning out to be a victim of mechanical rhythms due to the desire and compulsion to release economic and social progress through industrialization are metaphorically expressed. Products of this industrial ethos that made people lose their emotions, humanity, and imagination are Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby, the advocates of utilitarian values. Described to be ‘perfectly devoid of sentiments’, they believed that people are to be ‘regulated and governed’ in all things in life by nothing else but ‘by fact’.
A head versus heart approach in Hard Times shows how Gradgrind who had almost supernatural belief in the doctrine of rationalism embodied a false approach towards life. “Fancy”, encompassing, fiction, music, poetry, and novelty, the opposite of fact is refused to be validated by Gradgrind which shows Dickens attempt to unveil what he saw as the underlying principles operating in the industrial England of his time, denying the holistic picture of a human being portraying him as a machine. This mechanization of the human heart due to industrialization being carried out is depicted through the philosophy of the school run by Gradgrind, who unhealthily clings on to facts and calculations as the touchstone of his existence. The kind of corruption and callousness that the fact oriented education brings is most prominently reflected in Gradgrind’s own son who not only believes in manipulating his family relations to his own advantage but turns out to be a self-centered crook who can stoop to any level to fulfil his monetary needs. Louisa, his daughter, too finds herself incapable of handling her life and emotions till Sissy, a circus girl, a failure in the above mentioned education system but full of human values of love and compassion, comes to her rescue and helps her to regain her faith and poise.
Josiah Bounderby is described as a machine of the nineteenth century. He was a rich man, a “banker, merchant, manufacturer” who was busy, ugly and about to start at any time. A quotation by Hobsbawn would accurately describe people like Bounderby, who unjustly live in the top of luxury at the expense of workers: “The inhuman economics of commercial and advanced farming strangled the human values of social order. What is more, the very wealth of the increasingly prosperous farmers, with their piano-playing daughters, made them ever more remote even inspirit, from the pauperized laborers” (Hobsbawm 82).
Whereas, those “lower creatures of the seashore, [who are] only hands and stomachs” (Dickens 56) are suffering just as breadwinners to sustain their lives and those of their families. They work for the whole day for little wage, because it is, without doubt, the masters‟ exploitation for them, following “the end justifies the means”, ignoring the humanity of those workers. In reality, and during the industrial England, many entrepreneurs and managers made capital out of cheap labor to enrich themselves. But, they were risking their money when investing increasingly huge amounts of money, following their greediness.
One can agree with George Bernard Shaw who decreed Hard Times to be a novel of “passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world” as with the help of metaphors, similes, and native dialects stress on the fact that lack of moral and motional values, which define the man as a real human is the reason that makes the society mechanized. Hard Times depicts a hypocritical utilitarianism based society in which its supporters and followers pretend to have moral standards in social life while propagating a mechanized philosophy that further separated the gap between the rich and the poor.
Berman, C.V. Awful unknown Quantities: Addressing the Readers in Hard Times.‖ Victorian Literature and Culture 37.2 (2009): 561-582. Web:
Colby, Robin B. Some Appointed Work to Do: Women and Vocation in the Fiction of Elizabeth Gaskell. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Hobsbawm, Eric. Industry and Empire. 2nd ed. London: Penguin Books, 1990.
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