Hard Times is a rare example of fiction spun out of very prosaic materials. Yet it possesses certain romantic characteristics of brooding tenderness and deep sympathy for the neglected and the underprivileged which became hall mark of Charles Dickens’ novels. It also displays a grieving melancholy, a mournful reflectiveness and a quantity of self-indulgent sentimentality. The American scholar A. O. Lovejoy argues that “the word ‘romantic’ has come to mean so many things that, by itself, it means nothing at all.
It may seem that repetition has wrung the life out of the term, yet it still appears to be as potentially sustaining as a twist of pemmican. It is a word at once indispensable and useless. F. L. Lucas has counted 11,396 definitions of romanticism. (Cuddon. 767). But we are more concerned with the definition of “a tendency to exalt the individual and his needs and emphasis on the need for a freer and more personal expression. ”(Cuddon. 769-70) The entire novel in three parts is built up on the romantic and nature imagery of sowing reaping and garnering of harvest.
It is an illustration of the biblical saying “As you sow, so your reap. ” The first book of “sowing” begins with the seeds of wrong education by Mr. Thomas Gradgrind: “In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts! ” (Hard Times. 3) But as the story develops, we find that it is this education of hard facts which runs riot and destroys the happiness of his own children, Tom and Louisa. Dickens creates a poignant novel out of misplaced affections and social exploitations.
Ironically, his son and daughter, Tom and Louisa, are misled by their father’s unimaginative education. They get along with the wretched Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a poor circus worker and suffer at the hands of the hard-hearted school master. Sissy is forced by circumstances to leave school and work as a household companion to Tom and Louisa who prefer the world of imagination so vehemently denounced by their father. Louisa’s first blunder is to run into an incompatible marriage with a man of fifty when she is just eighteen.
It turns out to be a marriage of convenience with a highbrow aristocrat named Joshia Bounderby who unabashedly declares: “I have watched her bringing-up, and I believe she is worthy of me. At the same time – not to deceive you—I believe I am worthy of her. ” (Hard Times. 84) The reason for such odd marriage is her brother Tom who seeks a position in Bounderby’s bank.
Dickens exposes the hypocrisy behind the veneer of Victorian idealism. Interwoven with it is the sub-plot of unfortunate Mr. Stephen Blackpool who jumps from the frying pan into the fire by his attempt to run away from his alcoholic wife. His love for Rachel is frustrated as he gets no help from anyone to divorce his wife. Moreover, he is witch hunted for a false charge of robbing the bank which is actually masterminded by than Tom. Throughout the novel Dickens explores the conflict between the world of facts and imagination in children and its effects in their later life, as the New Testament says: “by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matthew 7. 20)
Being a drop-out Sissy is lucky to have escape Gradgrind’s soul-destroying education and proves its futility. Dickens’ story depicts the suffering of victims, especially women, for whom we feel great sympathy. The underdogs include Sissy and his poor father Mr. Jupe, the unhappy Blackpool and Mrs Pegler. Rachael is romantically attached to Blackpool and spends sleepless night to be with him, but it is an irony of fate that she has to serve Stephen’s sick wife in impoverished lodgings.
Like Sissy, she is an angel who lives for others. In Victorian society her relationship with a married man can hardly be expected to be respectable. In a moving speech she reveals her feeling of guilt for her misjudgment. Mrs Gradgrind first carries out her husband’s philosophy only to realize late its folly and advices Louisa to pay heed to Sissy. Mrs. Pegler is another victim of wrong education. Her megalomaniac son, Bounderby, tries to prove how he has succeeded despite his neglected childhood, but his allegations are proved to be false.
The romantic interest in the story is sustained in Hard Times by Louisa Gradgrind. Against her father’s warning, she peeps at the circus and comes to her brother’s defense by asserting her curiosity. Because of her immaturity she is exploited by James Harthouse; yet she shows considerable wisdom by being very sensitive to her mother in death bed. Harthouse has his charm of personality, particularly for the people he likes. Mr. Harthouse’s romantic affair with Louisa is marred by the jealousy and suspicion of Mrs Sparsit.
Sissy Jupe is associated with the heavenly ‘ray of sunlight’. In spite of the halo, she is down-to-earth and she makes a last attempt to hide Tom in the circus when he is implicated in robbery. It is touching to see her consoling Rachael when she waits for Blackpool. There are also victims of incompatible marriage like Louisa and Bounderby, as well as Blackpool and his drunken wife. Louisa’s marriage is a sacrifice to provide her brother with a job, but he repays this sacrifice with utter ingratitude by robbing the bank that provides him with livelihood.
Most of them are victims of wrong education imparted by Thomas Gradgrind’s ‘model school’. Failed marriage is a recurrent theme in Dickens’ novels. In David Copperfield, for example, the marriage with the sweet doll-like Dora crumbles to make way for a sensible marriage with mature Agnes. Dickens himself was romantic like his hero and had an incompatible marriage with Maria which broke up in 1833 when he became free to marry Catherine Hogarth in 1836. Though she bore thirteen children, her marriage broke up in 1858 when Dickens developed a romantic affair with actress Ellen Ternan.
Dickens spins a memorable tale out of the sordid industrialized life of nineteenth century England – Coketown with its blackened factories, downtrodden workers and polluted environment. Dickens gives a vivid picture: “It was a town of red brick, or brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. .. It has a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and trembling all day long..”(Hard Times. 18)
His concern for Nature being substituted by man-made machines is expressed in no uncertain terms: “A special contrast, as every man was in the forest of looms where Stephen worked, to the crashing, smashing, tearing piece of mechanism at which he laboured. Never fear, good people of an anxious turn of mind, that Art will consign Nature to oblivion. ” (Hard Times. 54) This horrid picture of an industrialized town presupposes a romantic nostalgia for the natural beauty of the pre-industrialized era.
The plot of Hard Times hinges on the ‘stick-to-hard-facts’ education imparted by Mr. Gradgrind: “Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. ”(Hard Times. 39) But his philosophy is defeated by his own children who secretly wondered “about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives of death of common men and women! ”(Hard Times. 39) Herein lies dickens’ romanticism – the triumph of the mind over matter.