‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens

My rating: 3 stars

Patchy and uneven, Hard Times by Charles Dickens is a novel whose main purpose is to criticise the glorification of utilitarianism. For a long while, the characters and, to a certain extent, the plot are only used to convey that condemnation, instead of being critical elements of a gripping story. Although almost all of the characters and the apparent inconsequential parts of the plot end up being relevant, that only happens close to the end of the book.

The headmaster of the Coketown school, Mr Thomas Gradgrind, required his pupils to only be taught facts. His own children had the same type of education. Any activity that required imagination, emotions and creativity was forbidden. Once, when he found two of his children, Louisa and Thomas, watching a touring circus, he was appalled. Louisa had been curious to know what it looked like, though.

Sissy Jupe, a new girl at the school, was the daughter of a man who was a performer at the circus. So, Mr Gradgrind and his friend Mr Bounderby went looking for him to inform him that she couldn’t attend the school anymore. But, as Sissy’s father had disappeared, Mr Gradgrind made her a proposal instead – she could continue going to the school as long as she left the circus and he became her tutor. With great sadness, Sissy accepted. Despite not knowing many facts, reason why she was led to feel inadequate, she revealed an interesting perspective on social issues.

Throughout the novel, there are powerful portrayals of the mistreatments endured by the poorest in society, who were always looked at with suspicion. The most affluent lacked compassion and closed their eyes to the disparate levels of opportunities available. The depictions of the working conditions in Coketown, an industrial area, are appropriately disconcerting.

“There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere. The steam-engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills throughout their many storeys oozed and trickled it. The atmosphere of those Fairy palaces was like the breath of the simoom; and their inhabitants, wasting with heat, toiled languidly in the desert.”

It’s challenging to get immersed in the story for a variety of reasons, however. At first, the notion that facts are of ultimate importance for Mr Gradgrind and, thus, that everything related to imagination should be decried is repeated ad nauseam. There was no need to mention it almost every single chapter during the first part of the book. Only occasionally, when a palpable ironic and mocking tone is used, are the mentions to the exclusion of feelings from life funny.

For a long time, the book seems to lack a clear focus. The plot is too meandering. The first part is unnecessarily long and too often repetitive. It’s only midway through the second part that the story becomes more engaging, as the actions of the various characters mentioned throughout start to converge.

Had the characters and their tribulations been at the forefront of the novel, it would have been a far more enjoyable read. But they feel almost detached from the story, only being used to defend an argument. Various actions and realisations either take place in the background or are revealed without the necessary detail. Unfortunately, it’s only near the end that the characters feel more authentic. Louisa, for example, had the potential to be an interesting character. Although she lacked the appropriate emotional skills to fully understand the purposes of those around her, she cared for other people.

The story that Charles Dickens wanted to tell could have been a success if he hadn’t focused so much on the message that it successfully conveys and more importance had been given to the pacing and the development of the characters. Unfortunately, Hard Times only truly enticed me close to the end.

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