Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and our times

Throughout the 20th century, critics regarded Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) as one of his lesser novels.  It didn’t have the huge menagerie of colorful, memorable characters that most of his novels did, nor did it provide much comic relief from its hard tale..

Hard Times is back in vogue because the philosophy of its central character, Thomas Gradgrind, is back in vogue.  Gradgrind is a schoolmaster and later Member of Parliament for Coketown, a stand-in for the gritty industrial city of Manchester.

Gradgrind’s philosophy is based on the famous fact-value distinction—the idea that facts are objective because they can be proved or disproved, but that values are subjective because they arise from personal feeling.

He operates a school devoted to rote memorization of facts—no games, no art or literature, no appeals to the imagination—and to a philosophy based on the ethic of rational self-interest.

It was a fundamental principle of the Gradgrind philosophy that everything was to be paid for.  Nobody was ever on any account to give anybody anything or render anybody help without purchase.  Gratitude was to be abolished, and the virtues springing from it were not to be.  Every inch of the existence of mankind, from birth to death, was to be a bargain across a counter.  And if we didn’t get to Heaven that way, it was not a politico-economical place, and we had no business there.

This was a living philosophy then, and it is a living philosophy still.  We now call it neoliberalism, and its adherents are to be found throughout Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the economics departments of great universities.

Gradgrind practices what he preaches.  He stifles sentiment and emotion in himself.  He denies himself the emotional intelligence to see through the boastful, hypocritical self-made industrialist, Josiah Bounderby.

He encourages his daughter, Louisa, to marry Bounderby, and his son, Tom, to go to work for him, as does his star pupil, Bitzer.

Louisa has a good heart, but she is morally adrift because she never is given any justification for the promptings of her heart.  Tom, on the other hand, lacks moral intuition, and is not taught anything to make up for the lack.  He is a self-destructive fool because his extreme self-absorption makes him unaware of the possible consequences of his actions until it is too late.

But it was Bitzer who is the most perfect representation of Gradgrind’s teachings.  He is diligent at his job, saves his money, doesn’t drink, smoke or gamble and guides his life by cost-benefit analysis.  When in the end he turns against Gradgrind in order to advance his career, he calmly justifies his decision by citing his old schoolmaster’s “excellent teaching” about self-interest.


I read Hard Times as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friend Linda White.  It was published the same year as Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which was our group’s previous book.  Although there is no reason to think the two writers influenced each other, there are remarkable similarities.

Both have morally sensitive heroines with inadequate fathers.  Both depict self-made industrialists in conflict with labor unions.  Both make their noble worker character speak in a hard-to-understand dialect that sets him apart from all the others.  Both have their worker character ask the industrialist for help, and be rebuffed.

But the two novels are very different in both style and viewpoint.  North and South is an effort to give a fair and balanced account of conditions in 1850s Manchester.  Hard Times burns with indignation.

Gaskell’s Margaret Hale has a Christian faith that not only gives her a moral compass, but is a magnetic field that draws others into her influence.  Dickens’ Louisa has the same moral impulses as Margaret, but she has no philosophy or faith that would give her the confidence to act on them.

Margaret is sympathetic to the factory owner, John Thornton, who is intelligent and honorable, but no friend of his workers.  She also is sympathetic to Nicholas Higgins, the union organizer, who is fighting against real injustices.

You don’t get this in Dickens.  Bounderby has no redeeming features.  He is not only a scoundrel but a fool.  His workers, however, are noble and virtuous—not a mixture of good and bad traits as in Gaskell’s novel.

His main worker character, Stephen Blackpool, refuses to join the union because of some never-explained promise he made years ago.  He is persecuted by Bounderby and ostracized by his fellow workers.  Slackbridge, the union organizer, is a self-seeking demagogue, as despicable as Bounderby.

In Gaskell, you got a basic understanding of how the textile business worked and what the labor issues were.  You get none of this information in Dickens.

What you do get from him is an idea of the sights, sounds and smells of 1850s Manchester.  Dickens was, among other things, a marvelous descriptive writer, the kind of writer whose prose you enjoy re-reading.  He makes me see his scenes in my mind’s eye, as if projected on a mental movie screen.


Dickens has a reputation as a social reformer.  His powerful description of poverty and injustice in Hard Times made quite a stir when it was published.  Thomas Babington Macauley criticized its “sullen socialism”.  Karl Marx commented on it favorably.

But I don’t see anything in the novel that offers hope for a better world.  The union members in the novel do nothing but listen to speeches by a demagogue.  Parliamentary legislation and politics generally is regarded as irrelevant.

The Stephen Blackpool character dies.  The fate of Blackpool’s sweetheart, Rachael is to be “once again appearing at the ringing of the Factory bell, and passing to and fro at the set hours … … working, ever working, but content to do it, and preferring to do it as her natural lot, until she should be too old to labor any more.”

Dickens’ attitude toward Coketown’s workers reminds me of Bertrand Russell’s essay on “The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed.”  At different times, Russell noted, children, women, poor people and subjugated peoples have been regarded at different times as more noble and pure of heart than the ruling classes  But they keep this superior moral standing only so long as they don’t make trouble.

Dickens was not a reformer.  He was a moralist.  He had a good understanding of the character and motives of his villains.  It is no wonder that Dostoyevsky admired his work.

But unlike Dostoyevsky, Dickens never made evil seem fascinating.  The figures in his Hard Times rogues gallery, including Mrs. Sparsit, the blueblood hanger-on, and James Harthouse, the cynical aristocratic seducer, all seem hollow and ridiculous as well as repellant.

His recommendation to his readers is to get married if you can, devote yourself to your spouse and your children, and be kind to your neighbors.  This is no small thing.  It is no easy thing.  It’s better than devoting yourself to a sterile ideology.


My fellow Unitarian Universalists may be interested in the fact that Dickens attended Unitarian churches and Mrs. Gaskell was the daughter and wife of Unitarian clergymen.


G.K. Chesterton’s preface to Hard Times.

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3 Responses to “Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and our times”

  1. silverapplequeen Says:

    Reblogged this on silverapplequeen and commented:
    A wonderful commentary on two classic books that reflect our current age. I recently saw a dramatization of “North and South” on Netflix. I highly recommend it for those who don’t like to read but want to know what the story is all about. I am sure “Hard Times” is in movie form somewhere.


  2. David Markham Says:

    Thank you Phil for a very good review. Good literature provides us with mental models which become a framework within which we can make sense of our world. It is interesting how the libertarian view that dog eat dog, every person for him/herself is still prevalent in our society today. As you point out in your extended piece, Unitarian Universalism, with our covenant to affirm and promote our seven principles offers quite a different model from within which to operate.


  3. Dr B Says:

    Great post, I was drawn to it because I’ve just bought Hard Times again to reread as I conduct family history searches into my ancestors who lived through the Industrial Revolution. I remember reading Anna of the Five Towns in the mid 1970s too. I found them all to be rather depressing, but I’m older and wiser today!


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