Posts Tagged ‘Industrial Revolution’

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and our times

May 7, 2019

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.
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Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South

December 18, 2018

England during the reign of Queen Victoria was the world’s first and greatest industrial power and the center of a global empire that governed a quarter of the world’s population.

Yet you would hardly know this from reading most Victorian novels.  They’re typically set in London or in rural southern England, often the most backward parts.  Industry and empire are offstage.

One exception to this is Elisabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), which I recently read as part of a novel-reading group hosted by my friends Linda and David White.

Mrs. Gaskell did not just lament slums and poverty.  She took the trouble to try to understand newly-industrializing England—how the textile mills operated, the economics of the textile industry and the Issues at stake in the conflict between capital and labor.

Her viewpoint character is 20-year-old Margaret Hale, who is forced to relocate with her family from the sunny agricultural and aristocratic South of England to the grimy, slum-ridden town of Milton (Manchester) in Darkshire (Lancashire) in the North.

There she encounters John Thornton, a self-made industrialist who, at the age of 30, has risen from low-paid employment as a draper’s assistant to the owner of a manufacturing business that does business worldwide, and Nicholas Higgins, a worker in Thornton’s factory, who is driven by poverty and need to organize a strike.

Thornton is handsome, energetic and articulate.  He could easily be a character in an Ayn Rand novel.  He feels beholden to no one, asks nothing of anyone and refuses to accept dictation or advice from anyone, including the workers in his factory, whom he regards as antagonists.

Competition from American factories causes him to cut wages—but he does not feel he needs to justify this to his workers or anybody else.

Inspired by Nicholas Higgins, the workers go on strike.  Most of the major strikes in the 19th century UK and US were, like this one, in response to wage cuts, not demands for wage increases.

Thornton imports strikebreakers from Ireland, with a priest to keep them under control and guards to prevent them from communicating with the strikers.

The strikers probably would have lost anyway, but some of the workers disregard Higgins’ advice to remain nonviolent and stage a riot in front of Thornton’s house, which gives him an excuse to call in the police.

The textile mill owners hire the strikers back, if they pledge not to join a union.  Higgins refuses to do this.

He asks Margaret to help him move to the South and get a job as an agricultural labor.  But she tells him this is not realistic.  Bad as conditions in the factories are, the plight of agricultural workers is worse.  They do nothing but eat, sleep and work, she says; they are incapable of the comradeship of the workers in the North.

The same is true of the servant class in the South.  The Hales find it difficult to hire servants in Milton.  Factory girls would rather work 10 hours a day and have the rest of their time free than endure the life of a servant, which means being on duty 24/7 with maybe one Saturday afternoon off every couple of weeks.

In the South, some servants find this endurable because they regard themselves as members of their families.  But this is not the spirit of the go-getting North, where everyone is out for themselves.

So far, so realistic.

But Mrs. Gaskell then veers from her realism in order to bring about a happy ending.

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