Exactly 202 years back, on February 7th 1812, the world took a turn towards the better with the birth of Charles Dickens, the legendary literary maestro. During his lifetime, the writer made several social commentaries through his big fat novels and left behind a legacy that few would attempt to conquer. His novels keep literature students all over the words busy and his works have been interpreted and reinterpreted many times. His complex, candid themes have never gone stale and his style stays unparalleled till date.
And today we celebrate Charles Dickens’s birthday. We had requested some of Literature Studio’s friends to send in reviews of Dickens’s books and we received several brilliant responses. Many of them were brilliant reads. We had a fun time going through the entries and a tough one deciding which one to publish. At the end we decided to go with Meenakshi Kashyap’s scholarly review of Hard Times, as a tribute not only to Charles Dickens, but also to literature students all over the world. So here it goes. Hope you enjoy reading this.
A review of Hard Times by Charles Dickens – by our guest writer Meenakshi Kashyap
Hard Times is a commendable work by Charles Dickens, which, as the title suggests, is a story of tough times. However, it makes a larger comment on the lives of people in Victorian industrial towns. Set in a fictitions town called Coketown, the novel’s story is divided into three parts; sowing, reaping, and garnering. These three parts establish a parallel meaning to life – how the actions of an individual affect him or her as well as others. This book was published in 1854 in Dickens’s weekly publication.
The main theme of this novel is based on the conventions of Utilitarians. In Victorian times, this was the prevalent school structure, where stress was laid only on rationality and logical reasoning. There was a constant tussle between “fact” and “fancy”. The subtext deals with how rigidities of certain principals destroyed creativity and imaginations of children, and this can be easily captured by the readers.
There is no single protagonist as such in the novel, but rather there are many characters whose lives embody different aspects of life in different conditions. One of them is Mr Gradgrind who runs a school where he teaches his students only “facts”. For him there is no place for imagination. His method of teaching is very harsh and stern. He has two children Louisa and Thomas who do what their father wants them to do. And then there is Mr Bounderby, the boss to Mr Gradgrind. He is a manufacturer and a mill owner. He appears to be a heartless human being. Both Bounderby and Gradgrind equally deserve to be termed as the “destroyer” of people’s lives.
Sissy Jupe is another character and she studies in Gradgrind’s school. Her father works in Mr Sleary‘s circus, so indirectly she belongs to the world of creativity. Sissy is the only character who does live in compliance with her society. She emerges as a unique individual who thinks and acts in a unique direction. And this turns out to be sole reason why her life does not suffer the same fate as the others. She takes her life decisions on her own and she ends up escaping from the prison of Grad grind’s school. She opted to follow her own path and does not compromise her integrity and morals.
Louisa and Thomas, on the other hand, have to face many difficulties throughout their lives, and the sole person responsible for this is their father. Eventually Thomas robs a bank and Louisa is forced to be engaged to Bounderby as a business deal. She fails to muster enough courage to stand up against her father’s decision. She is bound to live a life of misery and sorrow. She misses her only chance to make a fresh start, by refusing the proposal made by James Harthouse, an upper class gentleman. She chooses to go back to her father’s house. Both Tom and Louisa end up becoming the victims of their father’s wrong decisions and rigid convention.
Apart from them Dickens also uses the “hands” to depict human lives. Stephen Blackpool is a poor worker in Bounderby’s mills. He is accused of being a robber of the bank and later it is revealed that actually Tom (Thomas, Mr Gradgrind’s son) had committed the robbery. Rachael works at the same mill and is Stephen’s co-worker. She supports him during his difficult times. The worker class, as depicted in the novel, go through problematic and complicated circumstances and are merely used as “tools” to help upper-class become more prosperous.
On the whole, each character is influenced by the prevalent norms of the society. Only Sissy Jupe rejects the cruelties of society and does not surrender herself to harsh norms. Charles Dickens effectively portrays a candid and very disturbing picture of the Victorian England and the book actually works as a social commentary. Though this story has elements that compel the human mind to think negatively, the character of Sissy Jupe offers a relief, by surviving all the hardships – a consolation that it is possible to survive even through the toughest of times.
The outlook of the novel is very dark. But at a deeper level it has metaphysical meanings too. One global message that the novel sends is the Bibblical “as you sow, so shall you reap”. Charles Dickens is never a light read, and having to decipher the complicated symbols, adds to the “Hard times” of his devoted readers. 🙂
Meenakshi Kashyap is a 3rd year student pursuing B.A. English (hons.) from Hindu College, Delhi University. She has worked at Lal Bahadur Training Institute as an English faculty. She is associated with Udyan Shalini Fellowship Program, which is a part of Udyan Care that works for children. She loves to write because she believes that it is the best way to convey one’s feelings and thoughts.