Monday, June 7, 2010

Charles Dickens Hard Times

© Mukesh Williams 2010

There is no domestic sweetness in the novel, no lover for Sissy, no wedding bells. Louise escapes her foolish husband Bounderby only by becoming a widow. Though she dreams about future happiness we know it is just wishful thinking. The novel is a dark novel made darker by the bleak landscape of Coketown. Even the familiar landscape of London is missing. Hard Times is a harsh indictment of the relentless industrialization of the nineteenth century made in the name of progress that was making men into machines. In the name of economic growth people were becoming greedier and heartless. Their misguided sense of social welfare and profit was destroying the healthy and natural tenor of English social life. Hard Times is a novel of social transition when values and social life were in ferment.

Industrialization in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century introduced machine-based production of textiles, iron manufacture and the use of refined coal. Canals, railways, steam power and water wheels greatly expanded trade and profit. Industrialization helped Britain resolve its problem of feeding the population and generating sufficient energy for the nation. As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out industrialization was not just a function of western capitalism but also of British control of world trade through naval supremacy and a concerted foreign policy to make profit overseas. However, the keen desire to realize economic and social progress through industrialization forced people to lose their natural rhythms and become a victim of mechanical rhythms. Trying to become a part of industrial progress most people lost their emotions, humanity and imagination. Both Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby are products of the industrial ethos. Gradgrind tries to bring up his children and pupils through the study of hard facts, while his friend Bounderby exploits the factory workers for his own profit. Both, the children and factory ‘Hands’ of Coketown, lead a life of drudgery.

Gradgrind further degrades the life of Coketown by his misdirected rationalism and self-interest. He believes that strict rules must govern school and society and compassion and imagination must be rooted out. But in this atmosphere life becomes hard to live. Though he wants his children to be happy and economically well off he fails in his attempt. Lousia gets into an unhappy marriage and ends up loving someone else. She makes her father realize that his method of child rearing was unnatural; it made her unable to integrate herself in society. Tom becomes wayward and gives in to drinking and gambling. He is contemptuously referred to as a whelp and brings discredit to the Gradgrind family. Bounderby lives a life of boastful deceit and is presented as an insincere and ridiculous man—am inflated balloon and an immense soap bubble. Here is a moral fable with Bounderby as an example of a dramatic monster. Dickens does not allow his characters to succeed just to underscore the detrimental effects of utilitarianism and rationalism. He exposes the morally corrupt characters like Bounderby but praises upright people like Stephen Blackpool and kind-hearted Sissy Jupe.

Benthamite utilitarianism argued for “the greatest good for the greatest number of people” but failed to realize it. Though few succeeded most people continued to live in grinding poverty. Dickens felt that there was more to life than just economic success. It was not just to brand the discontented and disenchanted as dregs of society and send them to prison. Bentham believed in moral principles and disciplinary institutions for the betterment of society. He campaigned for the building of Panopticon prison which allowed an observer to observe the prisoners without being noticed. Through this design Bentham wanted to bring about social and legal reform based on the concept of invisible omniscience. Foucault saw the Panopticon as a reflection of nineteenth century rule-based institutions to police the individual. The terrible discourse of state control does not result in human progress or happiness.

An excessive reliance on facts leads to a disjointed view of the world. Though facts are important they are also a matter of perspective and interpretation. Dickens provides examples to prove his point. Bounderby saw the factory Hands as lazy and too demanding while the factory workers saw themselves as industrious and exploited. Dickens believed that opposing interpretation of facts cannot be synthesized as they are just different perspectives. He went further to explain that “facts” can also be seen as individual “taste.” Therefore fiction had its place even in a mechanized and matter-of –fact society. Even Gradgrind admits that though Sissy has not learnt much about utilitarian facts, she has become “an affectionate, earnest, good young woman” (p. 91). Dickens presents to us a new society guided by a new principle of life guided by mathematical and scientific methodologies. This worldview rooted out everything else—the circus, the imagination, idleness and Sissy Jupe.

The Victorian society gave great importance to the feminine principle which was seen as kind-hearted, morally untainted and psychologically receptive. It was believed that women by and large were able to resist the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization more than men. In the novel Rachael’s gentleness and fortitude gives strength to Stephen. His monotonous factory life is lighted up by her presence. She is therefore called a guiding angel. Sissy brings love and kindness into Gradgrind’s family restoring those human qualities in Louisa which had been lost by her father’s misguided training.

It is possible to see the rhythms of the seasons placed against the calibration of time measured by mechanical clocks. Both Gradgrind and denizens of Coketown measure time through the “deadly statistical clock.” Dickens suggests that time in the industrial city is both mechanical and monotonous—“Time went on in Coketown like its own machinery” (p. 90). In Coketown both machinery and its movement marks its own time. Dickens however divided the novel along agricultural rhythms governed by the changing seasons—the three books of Hard Times are called “Sowing,” “Reaping” and “Garnering—referring to the process of planting and harvesting and laboring. The “varying seasons” bring their rhythms. Even the “wilderness of smoke and brick” in Coketown cannot prevent the change of seasons. Seasons come naturally breaking the monotony of life in Coketown. Even Gradgrind feels that Sissy carries a primordial rhythm of life that she has inherited from her forefathers. Even if she has not learnt all the utilitarian facts she has grown into “an affectionate, earnest, good young woman” (p. 91).

The smoke above Coketown hangs as poisonous serpents blinding Bounderby and people like him to their own moral and social responsibility to society. Instead of recognizing his greed, Bounderby sees the smoke serpents as indications that the factory is manufacturing goods for profit. Dickens uses the smoke to show the inability of Bounderby to recognize his inhumanity and the grinding poverty of the factory workers. In a biblical sense smoldering serpents could be seen as something sinister and evil that industrial progress had brought about.

Though the novel has an industrial agitator in Slackbridge who exhorts people to rise against the oppressors, there are no industrial strikes or labor unrest. The novel does not present any confrontationist politics between labor union and the management. The action is never intense but only critical and evaluative. We only see the factories floating like “fairy palaces” pushing their steam engine pistons “monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.” This melancholy madness is more important as sentiment and emotion than the actual presentation of common industrial issues such as poor working conditions, unemployment and child labor. Blackpool though he is represented as an honest workman is not “particularly intelligent” and dislikes all shades of opinions.

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