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Essay On Hard Times By F R Leavis

Charles Dickens Hard Times for These Times

The following entry presents criticism of Dickens's novel Hard Times (1854). See also Charles Dickens Short Story Criticism, A Christmas Carol Criticism, A Tale of Two Cities Criticism, Little Dorrit Criticism, and Our Mutual Friend Criticism.

Perhaps the least-known of all Dickens's novels, Hard Times is a social-protest novel which attempts to lay bare the malignant impact of nineteenth-century industrial society upon the people living in English factory towns. It was poorly received upon its publication in hard cover and has been often overlooked in critical surveys of Dickens's works; still, Hard Times has acquired a growing critical following in the mid to late twentieth century, largely because of critical remarks by three key commentators.

Biographical Information

In early 1854, Dickens sought for ideas for a long story to be run in the magazine he edited, Household Words, which faced a shrinking circulation and falling profits. After some thought, he settled upon his theme: the condition of English factory life and its effects upon the laborers who were the victims of its unfairness, squalor, danger, and exhausting boredom. The idea for his yet-unwritten novel "laid hold of me by the throat in a very violent manner," Dickens wrote, and he vowed, in writing Hard Times, "to strike the heaviest blow in my power" for the English industrial worker. Having traveled to Preston in late January to experience life in an industrial city then in the midst of a twenty-three-week textile strike and having read of labor conditions in Manchester (upon which he modelled his Coketown), Dickens began writing his novel. Hard Times appeared in weekly installments in Household Words between April and August, a labor which left Dickens "three parts mad, and the fourth delirious, with perpetual rushing" but which also doubled (by one estimation, quadrupled) the circulation of Household Words. Exhausted upon finishing the novel in mid July, Dickens spent several days drinking heavily, later writing, "I have been in a blaze of dissipation altogether, and have succeeded (I think) in knocking the remembrance of my work out." Shortly afterward, Hard Times appeared in hardcover, published by the house of Bradbury and Evans and dedicated to another critic of British culture, Thomas Carlyle.

Plot and Major Characters

A schoolmaster at a utilitarian private school in industrial Coketown, Thomas Gradgrind insists that his students learn empirical facts alone; humor, music, and imagination are banished from his classroom and from the lives of his children. The five Gradgrind children embody their father's philosophy, which was widely discussed and praised in early- to mid-nineteenth-century Britain. One day after school, Gradgrind is disturbed to discover his two eldest children, Tom and Louisa, attempting to peek through the walls of a circus tent; his displeasure increases when the two are unapologetic about this offense against the principles by which they have been raised. Puzzled by their behavior and determined to correct it, Gradgrind consults with a friend, Josiah Bounderby, a manufacturer and banker, who advises him that the children have been corrupted by a schoolmate, Cecilia ("Sissy") Jupe, the daughter of a circus rider. Before he can remove Sissy from his school and from his life, Gradgrind discovers that the girl's father has deserted her; moved by compassion and against the warnings of Bounderby and his own philosophy, he decides to raise Sissy in his own home and to allow her to continue attending his school. Years pass, the children grow up, and Bounderby sets his cap for Louisa, who agrees to marry this wealthy financier, thirty years her senior, to please her brother Tom, who has grown into a dissolute young man and now works at Bounderby's bank. The marriage rankles Bounderby's elderly housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, who mistrusts and begins spying on Louisa.

Meanwhile, Gradgrind, now in London as a member of Parliament, sends a young associate, James Harthouse, to Coketown to gather data on British economic and social life. Harthouse is directed to Bounderby's household, and while he finds Bounderby himself a self-aggrandizing blowhard, full of expansive talk about being a self-made man, he is smitten by pretty Louisa and sets about wooing her away from her husband and loveless marriage. He is successful, and soon he and Louisa are making plans to run away together—unaware that watchful Mrs. Sparsit is aware of their intent. Meanwhile, to the amazement of all, Bounderby's bank is robbed, and the authorities name one of Bounderby's employees, Stephen Blackpool, as their prime suspect. Blackpool, who had been mistreated by Bounderby, had been seen loitering in front of the bank shortly before it was robbed, in the company of an old woman known as Mrs. Pegler. The climax of the novel is reached when Louisa, having agreed to elope with Harthouse, chooses instead to return to her father's household; Mrs. Sparsit informs on Louisa and Harthouse, causing Bounderby to demand that Louisa return to him, which she does; Blackpool is cleared of all wrongdoing, Tom is found to be the real bankrobber; and Mrs. Sparsit, seeking to further ingratiate herself with Bounderby, tracks down Mrs. Pegler, who is revealed as Bounderby's own mother—who proceeds to publicly deflate Bounderby's claims of a Horatio-Algeresque career. Harthouse disappears. With the help of Sissy, Tom escapes Bounderby's vengeance, and Mrs. Sparsit is released by Bounderby for her meddle-someness. Bounderby dies a few years later, and the Gradgrinds, bereft of all that makes life meaningful and pleasant, face long lives of boredom and misery.

Major Themes

Like the novels that preceded it—notably Dombey and Son and Bleak HouseHard Times is concerned with industrial society, but, as Edgar Johnson has written, "it is not so much a picture of its ramifications as a presentation of its underlying principles. It is an analysis and a condemnation of the ethos of industrialism." Rife with symbolism, the novel focuses upon characters not as human types but as products of the industrial age. Throughout the novel there is a tight, airless atmosphere informed by the utilitarian ethic; English life is no longer organic and whole but lived according to a poisonous theory which allows the rich and powerful to exert their will upon their employees and upon nature itself. The industrial city of Coketown is itself begrimed into colorlessness, shrouded in fumes and the unending plumes of reek arising from its many chimneys. The characters, with the exception of Sissy Jupe and members of the circus troupe, act less like human beings than like automata, programmed to respond to life and to each other by standards of measurable expediency alone. Freedom, humor, and art are symbolized by the circus performers; in glimpses of them (and thus, into the lives of characteristically humorous Dickensian characters), Dickens contrasts the life of imagination with the life of utility.

Critical Reception

Reviews of Hard Times marked it as a rare failure by Dickens. Critics found it variously misguided in its politics (Lord Macaulay found little but "sullen socialism" in the novel), largely humorless, hamhanded in plotting, marred by overdone caricatures, satirically off-target, divided in interest, and philosophically muddled. By the middle of 1855, less than a year after its appearance between hard covers, Hard Times lagged in sales far behind the three Dickens novels that immediately preceded it, trailing as well the author's minor Child's History of England (1852-54). The work's single critical accolade, met with widespread derision for a half century, appeared in 1860 in an article by John Ruskin, who wrote that he considered Hard Times, of all Dickens's works, "the greatest he has written." Numerous scholars, beginning with David Masson in his British Novelist and Their Styles (1859) and extending through Eleanor Graham's Story of Charles Dickens (1952) simply ignored Hard Times altogether in their discussions of Dickens, with others mentioning the novel in brief, sometimes chronologically inaccurate, asides. In the midst of its perpetual critical drubbing, Ruskin's remark was recurrently held up for curious examination, receiving no support until Bernard Shaw, in his preface to a 1913 edition, used Ruskin's comment as a springboard from which to find in Hard Times an "enormous" increase in Dickens's strength and intensity as a writer, adding that "the power that indicts a nation so terribly is much more impressive than that which ridicules individuals." Aside from this assessment, many critics during the first half of the twentieth century viewed Hard Times in a manner summarized by Stephen Leacock: that it "has no other interest in the history of letters than that of its failure." But a watershed in the critical history of Hard Times was reached in 1947 with F. R. Leavis's seminal essay "The Novel as Poem (I): Hard Times" in his periodical Scrutiny; this essay was reprinted with slight revisions as "Hard Times: An Analytic Note" the following year in Leavis's The Great Tradition, gaining wide attention. In this lengthy essay, Leavis sided with Ruskin and Shaw in writing that he considered the novel a "masterpiece" which, "of all Dickens's works . . . is the one that has all the strength of his genius, together with a strength no other of them can show—that of a completely serious work of art." By virtue of his critical stature as both a literary scholar in general and a Dickens scholar in particular, Leavis produced an essay that could not be ignored by subsequent commentators upon Hard Times. During the decades following the appearance of Leavis's "Analytic Note," scholars have scrutinized Hard Times through less jaundiced eyes, with several critics finding merit in the work (though not finding it Dickens's masterpiece, as had Leavis), while others—notably John Holloway and David H. Hirsch—attacking Leavis's position with thoroughgoing incisiveness, with Hirsch asking in conclusion, "For what, after all, can be more harmful to a genuinely great author's reputation than to insist that one of his dullest and least successful works is one of his greatest?" Critical essays of the 1970s through the 1990s have often moved beyond Leavis's essay and its critics to focus upon issues of gender, labor-capital relations, and politics in Hard Times.

Introduction To Hard Times

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The shortest of Dickens' novels, Hard Times, was also, until quite recently, the least regarded of them. The comedy is savagely and scornfully sardonic, to the virtual exclusion of the humour - that delighted apprehension of and rejoicing in idiosyncrasy and absurdity for their own sakes, which often cuts right across moral considerations and which we normally take for granted in Dickens. Then, too, the novel is curiously skeletal. There are four separate plots, or at least four separate centres of interest: the re-education through suffering of Mr. Gradgrind, the exposure of Bounderby, the life and death of Stephen Blackpool, and the story of Sissy Jupe.

There are present, in other words, all the potentialities of an expansive, discursive novel in the full Dickens manner. But they are not and could not be realised because of the limitation of length Dickens imposed upon himself. The novel was written as a weekly serial story to run through five months of his magazine, Household Words, during 1854. Dickens had to force his story to fit the exigencies of a Procrustean bed and, in doing so, sacrificed the abundance of life characteristic of his genius.

That, at any rate, was the general view of Hard Times until in 1948 F.R. Leavis, in his book The Great Tradition, suggested that it was a "moral fable," the hallmark of a moral fable being that "the intention is peculiarly insistent, so that the representative significance of everything in the fable - character, episode, and so on - is immediately apparent as we read."

By seeing it as a moral fable, Dr. Leavis produced a brilliant rereading of Hard Times that has changed almost every critic's approach to the novel. Yet a difficulty still remains: the nature of the target of Dickens' satire. Both Gradgrind and Bounderby are emblematic, to the point of caricature, of representative early-nineteenth-century attitudes. Dickens tells us that Gradgrind has "an unbending, utilitarian, matter-of-fact face"; and the novel has been taken as an attack on the philosophical doctrine known as utilitarianism, the doctrine that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct. But utilitarianism can also mean the doctrine that utility must be the standard of what is good for man. Perhaps the two meanings come together in the famous Victorian phrase, "enlightened self-interest," the meaning of which will turn entirely upon the definition of "enlightened." Utilitarianism in the philosophical sense, as taught by the noble-minded John Stuart Mill, has had a profound and abiding influence on Western life and thought, and Dickens was certainly not competent to criticise it as a philosophical system.

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Hard Times         Sissy Jupe         Introduction         Fable         Sacrificed         Discursive         Plots         Centres         Characteristic         Blackpool        




But if he was no philosopher, nor even a trained mind, he was something as valuable: "an astonishing diagnostician of life," as D.H. Lawrence has been called. "His sensitive nose could smell death a mile away." And it is precisely those elements of nineteenth-century economic thinking that denied life which he is attacking in Hard Times.

He is, in other words, continuing his attack on what may be called the statistical conception of man, on human relations evaluated in terms of arithmetic, on what Thomas Carlyle called the "cash nexus" that he had launched at the beginning of his career in Oliver Twist. There he had traced its consequences in official attitudes towards poverty and in the working of the New Poor Law. In Hard Times the attack is on its consequences in education, as is made clear in the wonderful satire of the opening chapters, in which Sissy Jupe, whose whole life has been spent among horses, is convicted of ignorance of their essential nature, as compared with Bitzer, whose "correct" definition of a horse could have been given equally well by someone who had never set eyes on the animal.



The full effects of this theory of education, with its deification of facts to the exclusion of everything else, are dramatised in the careers of Mr. Gradgrind's children. They are starvation, emotional and moral, and they proceed from the crazy logic of Mr. Gradgrind's system, crazy because based on a gross abstraction from observed life. Thus when Thomas finally confesses to the bank robbery, his defence is unanswerable, at any rate by Gradgrind. "'So many people are employed in situations of trust; so many people, out of so many, will be dishonest. I have heard you talk, a hundred times, of its being a law. How can I help laws? You have comforted others with such things, father. Comfort yourself!'" The point is capped and underscored in the chapter that follows, when Mr. Gradgrind pleads with Bitzer, who has Tom's fate in his hands. "'Bitzer, have you a heart?'" But Bitzer, the logical end of Mr. Gradgrind's system, its reductio ad absurdum, replies with the literal, scientific answer. Then:


"If this is solely a question at self-interest with you - "Mr. Gradgrind began.
"I beg your pardon far interrupting you, Sir," returned Bitzer; "but I am sure that you know that the whole social system is a question of self- interest. What you must always appeal to, is a person's self-interest. It's your only hold. We are so constituted. I was brought up in that catechism when I was very young, sir, as you are aware."

"What sum of money," said Mr. Gradgrind, "will you set against your expected promotion?"

"Thank you, sir," returned Bitzer, "for hinting at the proposal; but I will not set any sum against it. Knowing that your clear head would propose that alternative, I have gone over the calculations in my mind; and I find that to compound a felony, even on very high terms indeed, would not be as safe and good for me as my improved prospects in the Bank."


Honesty is the best policy - on the best statistical evidence.
The inquiry into the effects of the system on Louisa, however, is conducted at a deeper and much more serious level. Even as a child, she is aware that something is missing from her life; she tells her father: "I have been tired for a long, time ... I do not know of what - of everything, I think. And as one follows her life through the tremendous confrontations with her father before and after her marriage to Bounderby, it is impossible not to be struck by the depth of Dickens' intuition. One is bound to relate her case to that of John Stuart Mill, as he reported it in his Autobiography, published in 1873. There he describes the malaise that laid him low in young manhood, his conviction that his emotional and imaginative capacities had been starved by the relentlessly intensive, exclusively intellectual education his father had inflicted upon him.

Mill found spiritual health, one might almost say salvation, in the poetry of Wordsworth, drawing from it "a source of inward joy ... which had no connection with struggle or imperfection, but which would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind." Mr. Gradgrind speaks of poetry with extreme horror; and Dickens opposes the life-enhancing qualities of poetry not only to Gradgrind's educational system but also to his system in the wider sense, the notion that self-interest and utility are the be-all and end-all of existence. In Hard Times, poetry, the life of the imagination, is symbolised in the "horse-riding" Mr. Sleary's circus. Mr. Sleary is not "respectable"; he is never quite sober; yet he and his circus stand for a freedom and generosity of mind, for the truth of natural feelings, the more important because of the conditions in which Coketown, the social and economic expression of Gradgrind's values, exists. For Coketown is not any one particular place; it could equally well be Lille, France, Essen, Germany, Bethlehem, Pa., Newark, N.J., or a New England mill town. It is the generic nineteenth-century industrial town, the soot-blackened monument of human greed, the temple of the new god, the steam engine whose piston "worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness." Gradgrind is its prophet and theologian - he is, significantly, a member of Parliament; and Bounderby, the banker and industrialist, is its high priest.



Bounderby is conceived entirely in terms of caricature and is one of Dickens' most remarkable creations in the genre. He is Dickens' supreme debunking of one of the nineteenth century's great myth-figures, the self-made man, the Horatio Alger hero burlesqued out of existence even before Alger had committed him to paper. He is the "Bully of humility." "There was an infection of moral claptrap in him." "'I can see as far into a grindstone as another man; farther than a good many, perhaps, because I had my nose well kept to it when I was young. I see traces of the turtle soup, and venison, and gold spoon in this ... By the Lord Harry, I do!'" And, as Dickens brings out with marvellous irony at the end, he is a fraud, the story of his origins is a pack of lies.

Bounderby is a moral monster with no redeeming qualities. Gradgrind is rather different: the man ruled by theory, the victim of his own foolish beliefs. But he is not without generosity. He takes in Sissy Jupe and is capable of being educated into reality. In the end, he learns through suffering the truths that Sissy has known, even as a child, by intuition. Sissy is the moral centre of the novel, the custodian of Dickens' values. She appears at first as a naif, almost as a holy fool; or as the counterpart, perhaps, of Oliver Twist, the innocent who is protected against corruption by grace. But the grace that protects her comes from the love that has surrounded her from birth, the love bestowed upon her by her father, the clown, and by the members of Sleary's circus. Then, unlike Oliver, she is not passive; it is she who confronts Harthouse, the representative of a cynical aristocracy clambering onto the bandwagon of middle-class utilitarianism, and appeals, successfully, to his better nature. In the end, it is her values that prevail.

The weakest part of the novel is certainly the representation of the working class, especially as summed up in the character of Stephen Blackpool. As Dr. Leavis says: "he is too good and qualifies too consistently for the martyr's halo ... he invites an adaptation of the objection brought, from the Negro point of view, against Uncle Tom, which was to the effect that he was a white man's good nigger." And then there is Dickens' treatment of the labor union, which is certainly ambiguous. We know from his journalism that Dickens did, in fact, support the workingman's right to combine in defence of his interests; but he did so cautiously, and one can only think that, when faced with a strike, his abiding fear of the mob, and ultimately of revolution, became uppermost in his mind.

Dickens had little firsthand knowledge of the industrial working class. Nine years before Hard Times appeared, Disraeli had applied the phrase "The Two Nations" (the subtitle of his novel Sybil) to Britain. He meant the two nations of the rich and the poor; he might almost equally well have meant the South and the North of Britain. The North was the forcing house of the industrial revolution; it was where the urban working class lived in its millions. The South was still unindustrialised, pastoral, semifeudal. Dickens was a man from the South. The North, with the industrialism it stood for, was another county to him. He reacted toward it, and toward the attitudes that had made it what it was, with horror and fear - with what intensity Hard Times shows. In the end, though, his lack of intimate knowledge of it is unimportant. As a critique in fiction of industrial society, there is nothing to compare with Hard Times until we come to D.H. Lawrence's novels in our own century.