There is a Middle Road: Disharmony and Discord Disturbing the Equilibrium in Dickens’s Hard Times

“...for you reap whatever you sow” (Galatians 6.7, NRSV).

This verse epitomizes the imminent phenomenon pending at all times: consequence. In his novel, Hard Times, Charles Dickens champions an idealistic middle road, an equilibrium amidst a tumultuous sea of human desire and misunderstanding. While he is sympathetic to the plight of the working man in the face of dehumanizing industry, Dickens still chooses to depict their efforts toward union mobilization in a poor light. This apparent contradiction is not a contradiction at all, but a somewhat romantic appeal to reason, consistent with the characterization of other views and values presented in Hard Times.

Certainly, the most distinguishing characteristic of Gradgrind’s school is that it be grounded entirely in facts, for, “Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else” (9). This emphasis on fact over fancy carries into Thomas and Louisa’s upbringing as well. In contrast to Sleary’s declaration, that “People must be amuthed,” Gradgrind effectively renders their childhood void of amusement, imagination and emotion. The drawn out monotony of their day to day existence, all work and no play, has an ill effect on their mental fortitude. Dickens titles Book the First of Hard Times Sowing, and it is within this section that the seeds of imbalance that are at the root of Thomas, Louisa and all the character’s problems, are sown. In Book the Second, Reaping, the consequences of these seeds come to full light. Thomas revolts against his father’s philosophy of hard fact, “I’ll recompense myself for the way in which I have been brought up” (55). What results is simply an exercise in hedonism, leading to his eventual debt, and consequently, the bank robbery. On the other hand, Louisa is left numb from her lack of experience, she does not know how to feel. She does not understand love or her own emotions, thus she becomes ensnared in a hopeless marriage to Bounderby, and later, is easily manipulated by Harthouse. Dickens is suggesting that the way to a happier existence is through the healthy reconciliation of fact and fancy, in a system of mutual accord.

Furthermore, this view is expounded in the threads of Stephen Blackpool’s narrative. He is a hand working himself to death for nothing but “somebody else’s thorns” (66). Blackpool does not fall in line with the other workers, listening to Slackbridge’s maligned language. Rather he recognizes that labor organization will only further deteriorate the situation between the Men and Masters when he says of the union regulations, “I doubt their doin’ yo onny good. Licker they’ll do you hurt” (140). Yet, when Bounderby calls on Blackpool to serve as a spy, to report what he has seen and heard of the worker’s union, he refuses and loses his job. Stephen is left ostracized from his fellow workers, and without employment, for what he and the narrator see as a moral act. What this says of integrity, is that it is not fully compatible with the industrial climate infecting the British social ladder. Dickens believes that the union movement, like the push for rapid industrialization (without regard to the workers), can act as a destabilizing force, only further amplifying the social disharmony and incongruity present in society.

In Hard Times, Dickens composes a story that brings to light his qualms with the industrial mechanization of the individual, while at the same time retaining a powerful character driven dialogue. He explores the intricate and often confounded capacity of the human spirit to create ripples in the fabric of society, sending discordant waves of both “melancholy madness” and “imaginative grace” in all directions (27,287). Just as all actions have reactions, all individuals harvest the consequences of the seeds that they sow in their own lives and the lives of others. In short, Hard Times is a plea for balance and mutual respect.

All in text quotes taken from the 2003 Penguin Classics publishing of Hard Times. Numbers in parentheses refer to particular page numbers. Scripture taken from the New Revised Standard Version of The Holy Bible.