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Hard Times: Dickens the Dishonorable?

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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?

I suppose I could argue that, in a novel meant to tout the heart, Dickens is successful in that the writing evokes a heartfelt response. The good character dies young and the injustice in that is bound to make the reader feel something. And thus the reader’s reaction of the heart over the head fulfills the teaching purpose of the book.

But what about the culprit getting off scot-free? Clearly, this is a miscarriage of justice. Why is Dickens being so lenient? The bad should be punished!

Perhaps it has something to do with love versus self-interest. Mr. Gradgrind insists that the whole social system is based on self-interest, and that what one must always appeal to is a person’s self-interest. But the comical Mr. Sleary rebuts this charge, and claims that there is love in the world – that not all is self-interest. Perhaps Dickens, in excusing the criminal, is demonstrating the very qualities he has set out to teach: love and compassion.

Or else he has had this curious moral lapse.

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, though. To use Mr. Sleary’s words (he has a lisp): “Make the betht of uth; not the wurth.”

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About Jeanne Farewell

Jeanne Farewell is the author of the short story collection Nantucket Snow, and two novels, Old Rye and In the Lighthouse. Her stories, essays, and book reviews have been published in a variety of literary magazines and on the web. She is also a pianist who has performed in the US, Europe, UK, and China.