Some heaping portion of nineteenth-century English literature has at its core a moral purpose. Fiction was meant to elevate as well as to entertain. Many of the novels of Dickens bear out this notion: they are practically training manuals in sterling character. Except for Hard Times, it appears. In Hard Times, Dickens has had some kind of moral lapse.
The theme is basically the Head versus the Heart, and the theme is worked out in Coketown, a factory town with furnaces belching smoke and a river black with dye. The cast includes the dehumanized factory hands, mechanized enough to satisfy the most hardhearted Mr. Gradgrind, who is all head and no heart, and the personification of the theme.
It is Gradgrind’s philosophy that facts alone are wanted in life, and he works assiduously to drum this notion into his pupils. Facts must take precedence over fancy, and imagination is rigorously expunged. The result of which training is that Gradgrind raises two children who are miserable wretches, and one of whom fails to see the difference between right and wrong.
When Gradgrind realizes the product of his tutelage and begs for mercy, he appeals, “have you a heart?” and the answer could have come from his own lecture notes: namely, that circulation cannot be carried on without a heart.
So the lesson is learned, and Gradgrind is transformed. Society is set to rights and the moral order is restored. But…is it? Not quite.
In Hard Times, something different happens. There is no moral order. The good do not get rewarded; the good die. The heroine doesn’t marry and live happily ever after – she will essentially always be defined by her upbringing. And the criminal isn’t punished – he gets away. Moral purpose? Has Dickens lapsed into cynicism? Has the hard-boiled emotional idealist become a realist?