This Week In My Classes: Hard Times – for these times


Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. Let them be! We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold.

Dickens’s subtitle for his 1854 novel Hard Times was “for these times.” I can’t remember another occasion teaching this novel when it has felt so much as if it is also for these times: in the U.S., especially, where Mr. Bounderby is running for president, and Gradgrinds dominate state houses and the governing boards of public universities. There’s a lot not to like about Dickens’s approach to the ‘condition of England’ question but my reservations about, for instance, his anti-union stance and the unbearably condescending (if also unbearably touching) presentation of Stephen Blackpool seem less important right now than his urgent call to readers to resist the dehumanizing influences of greed, materialism, suspicion, and general Gradgrindism. Is there a more stinging and eloquent indictment of these tendencies than his memorable description of Coketown in the chapter aptly called “The Key-Note”?

Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.

Is there a more despicable figure imaginable than Mr. Bounderby, with his insufferable, dishonest cant about his own prowess?

He was a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not. A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of a coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make so much of him. A man with a great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples, and such a strained skin to his face that it seemed to hold his eyes open, and lift his eyebrows up. A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility.

“You may cut the piece out with your penknife if you like, Tom. I wouldn’t cry!” exclaims Louisa after Bounderby kisses her on the cheek, and the violence of her antipathy seems if anything inadequate to the rage and disgust we feel on her behalf at his creepily pedophiliac obsession with her. Such a grotesque predator should have nothing, be nothing, count for nothing — and the genius of Hard Times is that it makes us feel how horrible it is that such a man gets any kind of respect, and lets us enjoy seeing him exposed for the repellent bully he is.

The novel also, in more subtle and moving ways, unfolds the tragedy of Gradgrindism, personified in Tom’s dishonor and Louisa’s collapse. Here the conversion of Mr. Gradgrind himself holds the novel’s most significant promise: that the unnatural domination of fancy by fact can be overcome by pity and love — that humanity is greater and stronger and more beautiful than is dreamed of in the Gradgrind philosophy, and that if we can all be brought to laugh and cry together, we can save it.

If only real life gave us the same satisfaction, the same hope. Dear reader — let it be so!


4 thoughts on “This Week In My Classes: Hard Times – for these times

  1. David March 23, 2016 / 8:18 pm

    This post makes me almost want to reread Hard Times, if for no other reason than to contemplate how Bounderby is running for President! However, I’m already in the middle of too many other books, including a reread of Middlemarch, a book which is always relevant “for these times.”


    • Rohan March 24, 2016 / 10:41 am

      Well, of course, I agree with you completely there! Indeed, there is never a time when Middlemarch isn’t the best book to be reading. 🙂


  2. Scott Bailey March 24, 2016 / 1:12 pm

    Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact…

    That passage is so much like Dickens’ description of London in Bleak House, with his “mud, mud, mud.” This type of thing is, I think, one of the characteristics of Dickens’ writing that made a strong impression on the 19th-century Russians, his way of moralizing through tone, warping descriptive passages around his anger. Great stuff. No doubt that’s been observed before!

    Hard Times was the first Dickens novel I ever read, back in my early twenties when I was a political science major. I was put off Dickens for decades by the book. I got over it eventually. I should look at Hard Times again to see what was so upsetting 30 years ago. I don’t remember an anti-union sentiment, but that would’ve been enough for me at the time, young and angry as I was.


    • Rohan Maitzen March 24, 2016 / 2:37 pm

      Hard Times is very stern and heavy-handed: I think it could easily be off-putting if it were one’s first Dickens. But another way to see it is as like a reduction sauce: Dickens intensified, to bring out his strongest, darkest flavors. It lacks any of the buoyant humor that makes even Bleak House at least occasionally joyful to read! But I think there’s something superbly tragic in its depiction of Louisa especially: she is one of Dickens’s few really complex, subtle women. No finger-wagging Agnes, no cold-hearted Estella, no simpering (if possibly manipulative) Esther…


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