Friday, December 5, 2008

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

I had the best of intentions when I went to the library to check out Bleak House. But as I saw it sitting there, clearly the thickest book on the shelf, my heart quaked a little. Almost unintentionally I reached over to the right and picked up its much slimmer neighbor, Hard Times . I had been looking for anything written about/during the Industrial Revolution so I figured Hard Times would fit the bill just as well. I was hooked from the beginning with the humorous school room scene and Mr. Gradgrind’s no-nonsense approach to learning. He was described as a “kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.”(p. 13)

I have expressed my dissatisfaction with Dickens on other occasions, but I am learning to like him. This book had some fine writing, a good variety of characters, plenty of British understated witticisms, and an intriguing story. But, frankly, I found it too depressing. Since Dickens wrote many of his novels as serials with weekly chapters in the newspaper he had to leave his readers hanging in suspense until the next chapter. I personally don’t enjoy having my emotions toyed with in that way. My favorite character from the beginning of the book had so much suffering heaped upon in him in chapter after chapter that I thought it was a mercy when he finally died. Emotionally I just couldn’t take any more.

The back of the book says it’s a diatribe against the havoc wreaked during the Industrial Revolution. That may be true, but it’s much more than that. The main conflict in the story is not worker against capitalist factory owner. The main contention is between head knowledge and heart knowledge. The contrast is drawn early in the story between the “facts only” Gradgrind school and the “uneducated, but full-of-heart” circus people.

Two of the major victims of the head vs. heart dilemma are Gradgrind’s own children. Tom’s feelings have been denied all his life and almost as soon as he leaves home he gives himself over to sensual appetites. His sister, Louisa, marries a man she doesn’t love because her father tells her it’s the sensible thing to do. His “proposal” to Louisa is heartbreaking in its coolness. So is her acceptance. Later she discovers that she does have a heart and that all her father’s educational principles had failed to prepare her for real life. Chapter 8 is the final showdown between the circus’ folks’ view of the world and Gradgrind’s. The shocking revelation is that without heart there can be no grace: 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 [agreement] across the counter. (p.283) Gradgrind discovers too late that his man-made, sensible world is a living hell that offers him no mercy when he most needs it.

A very intriguing book!


Book Lover Lisa said...

I enjoyed Hard Times when I read it, but it has probably been ten years. Bleak House is one of the only Dickens I have not read. Maybe the title scares me off.

Anonymous said...

Great review! I've only read two Dickens - Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities. I thoroughly enjoyed GE, and liked A Tale, especially when I hit the halfway mark. I love his descriptions - he makes you see everything.

Laura said...

I love Charles Dickens! Over the years I have read almost all of his novels, and have about three left that I have never read.

I enjoyed your review!

Lenore Appelhans said...

I remember falling asleep many times while reading this, but I thought it was excellent once I finished it.

Carol in Oregon said...

I laugh whenever I think about "Hard Times" because of my own silliness. While reading this book, I would occasionally experience a twinge of familiarity. I shook it off as the aftereffect of reading so many Dickens.

It wasn't until the last chapter - THE LAST CHAPTER! - that I realized that I had read this book before.

I appreciate your head knowledge vs. heart knowledge insight.

Jim said...

Bleak House really is an excellent read and you shouldn't be put off by its size unless your time is short and your drive to finish it long. It is in my opinion probably one of his best written books (though how can one even speak of Dickens' books as not well-written!)