Hard Times and Utilitarianism

“NOW, what I want is, Facts”, and so starts Charles Dickens novel Hard Times which first appeared as a serial publication in 1854. Dickens regularly took inspiration from the prevailing conditions as topics of his writings and proceeds to make social commentaries through his brand of creative fiction. Examples of these are Oliver Twist (Dickens, 1837) and Bleak House (Dickens, 1952). Hard Times was similarly inspired. The novel is mainly a critic of Utilitarianism, the dominant philosophy at the time the novel was written.

As Geoffrey Scarre (1996) stated in his book entitled Utilitarianism, “The eighteenth century was the green youth of utilitarianism, as the nineteenth was its prime” (p. 49). The term utilitarianism was first coined by Jeremy Bentham in 1781 (Bailey, 1997, p. 3). His ideas were much derided even then and at the House of Commons at that when Lord Brougham dismissing Bentham as, “’having dealt more with books than with men” (Mack, 1963, p. 2).

Yet, despite his seeming notoriety the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was passed which defined and classified the poor and outlined how should be handled.

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“The Act was and is seen as more or less Benthamite” as concluded by Peter Stokes (2001) in his article entitled Bentham, Dickens and the Uses of the Workhouse (p. 711). It was against this Act that Dickens created Oliver Twist. Dickens’ continues his propaganda against such philosophy with Hard Times. While personifying the basic tenets of utilitarianism in his book, he is, on the other hand, equally condemning it in the same breath.

This is already evident as you read the second paragraph where he strips his purported hero of facts of any semblance of respect when he describes the character that is Thomas Gradgrind rather comically with his hair and head as “a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie” (Dickens, 2007, p.

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10). This is a deliberate ploy to set an image in the reader’s mind which can effectively cloud anything the character will expound upon even if it may lean towards the rational and acceptable.

Dickens’ use of various figures of speech is also ironic as it runs contrary to the basic tenets his character is espousing. This form of mockery can be seen all throughout the novel up until the end when Gradgrind sees the lights and begins “making his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity”(Dickens, 2007, p. 387). What is it about utilitarianism that Dickens’ seems to be vehemently opposed to? Several of its principles were taken up in the book. Dickens took a one-sided approach and presented it on an extreme scale and argued against it.

We will explore how these were countered by Dickens by using excerpts from the book. In Bentham’s (1996) An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation he declared that “An action then may be said to be conformable to the principle of utility . . . when the tendency it has to augment the happiness of the community is greater than any it has to diminish it” (p. 12-13). Simply, put, as long as the number of people who are happy is greater that those who are not happy, then all is well.

However, this main concept was methodically censured by Dickens by using examples that touched heavily on human interest which therefore, from the perspective of the humane, such reasoning would not be justified at all. A question on prosperity was posed to girl number twenty to which she replied: I thought I couldn’t know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine. But that had nothing to do with it. (Dickens, 2007, p. 82)

With this illustration, it is maintained that the individual good should not be relegated to any mathematical computations. The point was further driven home with the next example. And he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was – for I couldn’t think of a better one – that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million.

And that was wrong, too. (Dickens, 2007, p. 82) It is thus contended that such principle cannot and should never be adapted in the formulation of policies and the establishment of institutions when it comes to people’s well-being as we are more than mere data and statistics. This, however, is not the case in Coketown. Coketown is the community where the all the main characters worked and dwelled, survived and tarried about. This was where the major events occurred.

Since it has already been established early on that following the tenets of fact can not lead to anything fanciful, it is not surprising that Coketown was depicted to be very spartan and has retained only “what was severely workful” (Dickens, 2007, p. 37). It is an industrial town that is generally void of lively entertainment and distractions if one can see through the smoke with the textile plant as the main source of income and employment for the “Hands”, a rather curt label to its workers as if there are no living and feeling beings attached to those appendages. Coketown, as John R.

Harrison (2000) described it in his essay, “represents the domination of an inhuman, utilitarian, industrial ethos” (p. 115). Yet, Coketown can be viewed as the reality of fact. It embodies the concrete representation of the theories of utilitarianism which further belies its effectivity on a community that lives to live and not just survive. Within the town, there is the school run by schoolmasters who share Gradgrind’s methods and beliefs. It can be gathered that they have great memorization skills and would most likely be able to rattle off any observable characteristics of any person, place or thing.

The teaching is so rigid that there is simply no place for any sort of creativity. There is just black and white. “Murdering the Innocents” indeed as the chapter is aptly called. That in itself plainly shows Dickens’ disapproval of such a stiff approach in education where minds are dictated to rather than molded. A further commentary on the misleadingly laudable wealth of knowledge was given, “If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more! ” (Dickens, 2007, p. 18).

Another argument against utilitarianism is its apparent support of inequality while still following the happiness principle of the greater good. Utilitarianism claims that a relevant reason for tolerating inequalities is a gain in efficiency; that is, we should be prepared to tolerate the fact that some persons’ lives go less well than others if some aggregate of personal good is greater. (Bailey, 1997, p. 10) This principle is personified in the book by Josiah Bounderby, owner of the textile mill, owner of the bank, owner of the loudest mouth in Coketown.

How he came about his wealth was not detailed in his narration of his rags-to-riches story. However, he is not one who attracts admiration and awe for his accomplishments. On the contrary, he is morally ruined by choosing only what he deems to be advantageous to him. He fully appreciates what he has with no regard to level off the disparity. Instead, he maintains and continues to attempt to raise his status even more by denigrating the lives of others. 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. (Dickens, 2007, p. 375) Dickens demonstrates here that the greater good is subject to a lot of interpretations and it is normally self-serving in that the one who seems to be higher on the scale will never relinquish his power to those who had now been branded as the lesser good.

However, the tentacles of the stick-to-the-facts approach did not stop within the boundaries of the town. It must be noted that Gradgrind was being aided by a government official during his discourse with the students in the first chapter who more than willingly shared his beliefs and even went on to imply that these teachings must be applied at all times, at every opportunity and in every aspect of one’s life even at something as mundane as papering your walls or carpeting your floors.

Do not do anything that is contrary to reality. There is no form merely function. What is all the more alarming is that Gradgrind was later made a Member of Parliament, “one of the representatives of the multiplication table, one of the deaf honourable gentlemen, dumb honourable gentlemen. . . “ (Dickens, 2007, p. 127). Dickens makes it known that despite the fallacies and inhumane improbabilities of the radical teachings of utilitarianism, it can still muster followers and influence policies.

Therefore, Dickens continues with more events and inevitable results and consequences in his book to trample any other doubt remaining as regards unyielding adherence to facts. One thing that can be said about living things is that their behavior can never be predicted. Take, for example, the white tiger which mauled the magician Roy Horn in spite of it being with them for several years without any incident. More so with people whose thinking processes are more complex. One cannot take a general rule and expect that all will react and comply with it unvaryingly.

Current studies have now shown that “all aspects of personality are fundamentally unique and idiosyncratic to each individual” (Deary, 2003, p. 6). Despite lack of any scientific proof, Dickens’ had already concluded that even individuals who practically grew up living, studying, acting out a way of life are merely suppressing their true nature and would inevitably fight back one way or the other. With these, let us now take a look at Tom, the whelp and Louisa. Tom and Louisa first made their appearance in the book in Chapter III aptly entitled The Loophole.

The “eminently practical father” was basking in his conviction that his children were the models of factual upbringing when he came upon his two eldest children one peeping through a hole in the wall and other peeping through the crack underneath the wall. It could be imagined that time came to a stop with all three just looking at each other with incredulous expressions on their faces. It was bound to happen that children’s innate curiosity will get the better of them and explore realms outside their scope. The rule of thumb is when met with rules, immediately find ways to go around it; look for loophole.

There were already indications of deviations from the inflexible path provided them. The mere fact that Louisa has began to wonder even if she was chastised to “never wonder” (Dickens, 2007, p. 71). There is no room for sentimentality or “fancy”, if you will, and is simply not allowed for the logical reason that it is e not concrete. It is not based on the real. It has no parts that can be broken down and studied. It cannot be calculated. Utilitarianism hinders that aspect that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom and that is the ability to feel and think in abstracts.

Utilitarians, may contend however, that anatomically, it would be the opposable thumb that sets us apart. The gradual breakdown of the children who had such an upbringing took on different routes but both led to a destruction of their seemingly perfect lives. Tom gave much credence to his pseudo-freedom from the stifling rigidity of science and math and into the arms of vice. No productive outlet or substitute was provided for his suppressed emotions and was therefore easily addicted and resorted to get-rich quick schemes.

Louisa, on the other hand, had no choice but to give in to expectations of her and that is to get married which led to the further repression of her emotions. Questions on social issues can be gleaned from the discussion of marriage between Gradgrind and his daughter where Gradgrind, typical of a man and worse, a man blinded by facts and practicality could not read between the lines as he itemizes the pros and the cons of the proposal of marriage as if it is a mere business proposal and must be approached with much objectivity. What should take precedence when it comes to marriages?

Should it be for practical purposes or tests of compatibility? If neither is no longer present, should one cut ties altogether? Anyway, as Gradgrind continues to be practical, his daughter laments as she is about to enter into next phase of adulthood when she has yet to experience childhood. ‘Why, father,’ she pursued, ‘what a strange question to ask me! The baby-preference that even I have heard of as common among children, has never had its innocent resting-place in my breast. You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart.

You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream. You have dealt so wisely with me, father, from my cradle to this hour, that I never had a child’s belief or a child’s fear. ’ (Dickens, 2007, p. 138) And to this, “Mr. Gradgrind was quite moved by his success, and by this testimony to it“ (Dickens, 2007, p. 138) only to listen and break down and do some soul-searching himself when Louisa has finally allowed herself several years later to break free from her suppression and made her father understood the misery in her heart and the consequences it will ultimately bring.

Another hapless victim was Mrs. Gradgrind herself who was reduced to something quite insignificant as she had been unable to cope with the academic precepts. She was however given the chance to salvage what remained of her true self and only because she gave up trying to absorb the useless facts that cluttered and rattled in her mind. It also makes a resounding statement that the redeeming characters in the book were only partly or not at all exposed to the tenets prescribed by Gradgrind.

There was Sissy Jupe a. k. a. Cecilia to Gradgrind a. k. a. girl number twenty to her schoolmasters. She only joined the family later on and while she was not spared the rigors of fact bombardment, she was able to escape intact having had a solid upbringing in an atmosphere of discipline, fun and love. On impulse and on love, she was able to right the wrongs. She was able to persuade Harthouse, Louisa’s intended lover from leaving not through logic but by faith. She was able save Jane, Gradgrind’s younger daughter from the plight of Louisa by opening to her a childhood not before experienced in that household.

Then there was Rachael, a Hand in the textile mill who did not have any formal schooling. Yet, this did not belittle her in the reader’s eyes because she had enough compassion to carry the whole town. Then there were the circus people. They were the only community who consistently showed a semblance of emotion, of camaraderie, of caring. Even the dog, Merrylegs, manifested human attributes and possibly gained more sympathy than Bounderby who publicly embarrassed himself for lying about his own mother and denying his heritage.

All the proponents of utilitarianism met their downfall while those who showed humanity led fulfilling lives. Gradgrind himself has discovered that aside from the “wisdom of the Head. . . there is the wisdom of the Heart” (Dickens, 2007, p. 295) and Dickens was magnanimous enough to give his character a chance at true happiness. We end this paper with words from Sleary, circus owner and philosopher as he sums up how it is and how it should be when dealing with your fellow men and when dealing with life.

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Hard Times and Utilitarianism. (2016, Sep 06). Retrieved from https://studymoose.com/hard-times-and-utilitarianism-essay

Hard Times and Utilitarianism

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