Change as an Identifying Theme of Dickens’ "Hard Times"

Charles Dickens’ industrial novel Hard Times takes a unique look at change as an identifying theme of the early and mid 1800’s. His one-dimensional and often archetypal characters demonstrate his stance on change through their interactions with one another and through brief contacts with the “outside” worlds of the circus1, trade union and aristocracy2. The shape of change in Hard Times is both a social renovation (as is suggested by the presence of the characters Mr. Bounderby and the union master, Slackbridge) and a moral rejuvenation (as demonstrated by Sissy Jupe, Mr. Gradgrind, and Louisa). Hard Times also shows its readers that the larger theme of change includes both the moral and social aspects, establishing through characters like Bounderby the untimely fate of any who rely on one as mutually exclusive of the other.

Mr. Bounderby, a wealthy merchant, banker, and manufacturer is comparable to those members of our society who played high school or even college level football some odd years ago, and who now spend their Monday nights lounging on a sofa or in a bar regaling each other with wild tales of injuries, and of ingenious plays. His whole life revolves around this fictional interpretation of his childhood, which he is incredibly vocal about, and paints as almost glorious. But the accidental discovery of his falsehood3 by Mrs. Sparsit leaves readers questioning his importance on the theme of change, and dismissing Bounderby’s impact or place in Hard Times as minimal: the has-been who never was. It is important to note the characters that are diminished 4 in some way in order to discern what Charles Dickens thought he could communicate by writing the novel and to find his stance hidden in the text. Mr. Bounderby is one of the few characters that have remained unaltered by other people or events at the end of the novel, along with the sly, self-promoting Bitzer5. Clearly Dickens is an advocate for change, but he says quite subtly and systematically that change will not come (and can not come) from people so set in their ways that there is no departure. He is also quick to point out with his character Stephen Blackpool that those who do not accept any form of change at all are passed by, having accomplished nothing, and gone nowhere. Stephen, a good man, is required to leave Coketown to search for work because of a mysterious promise6 concerning the union that he made to Rachael. Even though Dickens uses Stephen as a model of decency by endowing him with an abundance of moral qualities, Stephen’s refusal to join the union causes him to be cast out of an already low social position, and eventually leads to his death. The result is that Dickens’ readers are left with the impression that change is largely ineffective or even non-existent if there aren’t people who allow room for both a social re-organization and a personal/moral impact.

Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, the father of Louisa and young Tom, believes in the enormity of Fact nearly to the exclusion of all else.

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!7

This use of Fact as applied to self-discipline and management is a recurring motif throughout the novel, taking shape in such unlikely characters as Mr. Gradgrind’s “bosom friend” Mr. Bounderby, his student Bitzer, and to some extent in the two Gradgrind children Louisa and Tom. Poor Louisa has two moments in her childhood where her father could possibly have understood her: the first when she and Tom are caught peeking at the circus as children8, and again just before she accepts Mr. Bounderby’s marriage proposal.

“As he now leaned back in his chair, and bent his deep-set eyes upon her in his turn, perhaps he might have seen one wavering moment in her, when she was impelled to throw herself upon his breast, and give him the pent-up confidences of her heart. But to see it, he must have overleaped at a bound the artificial barriers he had for many years been erecting, between himself and all those subtle essences of humanity which will elude the utmost cunning of algebra until the last trumpet ever to be sounded shall blow even algebra to wreck.9

Unfortunately, it isn’t until Louisa has an emotional identity crisis and passionately exposes her feelings to her father that he is able to see the profound effect that his method of teaching has had upon his children. Gradgrind is given the chance to look at Louisa in a new and profound light, and for the first time questions his entire teaching philosophy. “Look!” says Dickens, peering around his readers’ minds from the comfortable shadows of his characters, “we cannot continue in this way.” Mr. Gradgrind opens his mind to the world of the heart, becoming a better, more compassionate man for it. A very good example of this can be found in his appeal to Bitzer, in which he pleads for the freedom of his son10.

Sissy is a catalyst for the recognition of a form of knowledge separate from Mr. Gradgrind’s Fact: that of experience and of the heart. Dickens uses her to suggest that social change can only come from outside of Coketown. She emerges at the end of “Hard Times” as a companion to Louisa following her emotional explosion, and as a comforter to Rachael before the whereabouts of Stephen are discovered. Rachael, the representative of an already honest working class who are in favor of the social impact of a trade union, certainly needs comforting. Sissy affirms Rachel’s decision to stay and join the union by offering her a rest from her search for Stephen, suggesting that she is right in staying and acknowledging the union as a force.

Dickens also clearly shows that change on any one plane is secondary to change that occurs on multiple levels of the class system in addition to a change in the way that these levels interact11. Stephen, who takes a passive position, hopes that change will come from above. Though the union master, Slackbridge, is illustrated in a negative light:

“He was not so honest, he was not so manly, he was not so good humoured; he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid sense.12

He takes a more active approach by thinking that change can come from the working Class. “You may not like the shape that change takes,” says Dickens, “but it is necessary, and it is coming whether you approve or not.” It wasn’t until Stephen’s co-workers looked beyond Slackbridge and saw their own future that the change became real and relevant.

1.Represented by Sissy Jupe.
2.Mrs. Sparsit: a widow who looks after Bounderby’s house in return for an “annual compliment.” She gives Bounderby a sense that he, in a way, also belongs to a higher class.
3.Bounderby continually talks about his childhood being stolen from him, and how hard it was to raise himself from the gutter… a lie which is exposed with the introduction of his mother.
4.The Characters who die, are lowered in status, or are dismissed in such a way that they become less central to the plot of the story, appear to have less importance to Dickens’ message than those who do change and remain the focus.
5.Bitzer was the only true success story of Bounderby and Gradgrind’s school of thought. His schooling allows him to justify through fact the condemnation of young Tom Gradgrind at the end of the novel for his betrayal of Stephen Blackpool
6.Stephen’s promise to “let such things be” was removed from the manuscript before it was reprinted in novel form.
7.Quoted from page 9 19
9.Quoted from page 102 286
11.Examples: Sissy and Louisa, the Union and factory workers, Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit, Gradgrind and Stephen.
12.Quoted from page 142

Works Cited:

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: Penguin, 1995
Notes and comments from Robert Baker's ENLT 223 class.
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