26 January 2012

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times book cover by Milton Glaser

This was a long time coming. So long in fact that I feel like the actual story is slipping away from me, and I doubt I'll be able to adequately review it. Thankfully there are plenty more intelligent and scholarly opinion pieces are reviews online for you to read if you want a better one than I can provide.

I read this book because it's Dickens. I really don't feel like I need any explanation after saying that. The last Dickens I read was Bleak House which left me feeling a little unnerved to be honest. Up until I finished the last glorious page, I was sure that David Copperfield was my favorite Dickens. Now I'm no longer sure. I am sure that Hard Times is not my favorite. Don't get me wrong. It was wonderful. It had the usual assortment of blatant stereotypes, excessive verbosity, and dark humor one often associates with a Dickens novel, but it seemed a little more barbed than I was used to. Plus, I just happened to find his other stories more appealing.

This is Dickens 10th novel and was released in sections (like most, if not all of his works) in a magazine that also featured Elizabeth Gaskall's North and South. Some of the same themes were shared between the two novels. The book was actually an attack on the theory of utilitarianism, popularized by Jeremy Bentham and James Mill (not John Stuart Mill, but close, James Mill was his father). Utilitarianism's concept is that general social welfare should be the utmost concern for all, in order to promote "the greatest good for the greatest number of people." Traces of this belief are still much influencing capitalism today, especially that of the laissez faire variety.

Louisa and Thomas Gradgrind Jr. (brother and sister), were brought up under the very utilitarian eye of their father, Thomas Gradgrind. Both children took in the teaching in different ways. Thomas Jr., upon leaving the family home became a complete hedonist and ruins his life by gambling. Louisa married her father's friend, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. Mr. Bounderby has a compelling rags to riches tale that one would be more sympathetic to if he wasn't constantly shoving it into people's faces to marvel at. Mr. Bounderby owns mills in Coketown and there is a sub-plot (double-plot) with one of the mill hands, named Stephan Blackpool. He is described in the book as a man of perfect integrity. He refuses to join the union's strike and is blacklisted by the other mill hands. The lives of the Gradgrinds and Mr. Bounderby end up coming together in a rather surprising way, which I won't tell you about because I think you should read it. I will let you know that at the end Utilitarianism is exposed for the fraudulent and unfulfilling philosophy that it is.

Like I said before, the novel, perhaps because it was definitely out to prove something seemed a mite sharper than his works typically are. I felt better when I poked into this a little more and realized that other literary critics and other authors are split on this book. It seems that Mr. Dickens went out of his way to show the wealthy as wholly immoral (Josiah Bounderby) or amoral (Louisa Gradgrind-Bounderby). The poor in the story (Stephan Blackpool and his love interest) were depicted as noble, impeccable, upstanding people despite their circumstances. Not that I didn't love both of those characters. If you read the story you won't be able to resist their humble integrity throughout, but is life really that uniform? Is the (forgive me) 1% all really monsters, and the 99% noble upstanding citizens?

(Sidenote: George Orwell really praised Dickens and Hard Times so I'm not sure I can toss the whole thing)

I would say if you are new to Charles Dickens, or (God forbid) don't really like Charles Dickens, I'd save this title till you have read some of his other works, or till you've decided to get on the old, straight and narrow and appreciate his genius.


Emily C. said...

Despite your, ah, preferrence for other of Dicken's works over this one, my curiosity is aroused. Part of that is because I haven't read a Dickens in...I won't tell you how long. But, I am determined to read Bleak House and Oliver Twist this year. Hard Times will have to be lower on the list, and it doesn't sound like I'll regret too much the delay.

BerlinerinPoet said...

Oh yes, don't misunderstand. Everyone should still read it (you especially) if for no other reason than rounding out your familiarity with Dickens.

It's like how obviously one prefers dessert over say...salads? Dickens is the dessert, but even among desserts there are favorites. Bleak House would be berry pie for me and Hard Times would be chocolate cake. (It wouldn't be circus peanuts or anything heehee). I'd still eat it, but not as swiftly as I'd go for the pie.