Hard Times - novel written by Charles Dickens and serialised in Household Words in 1854. Despite being seen as an "industrial novel", Hard Times defies pigeonholing and is a witty satire of Utilitarianism and wordy critic of the exploitation of mid-Victorian workers.

The Victorian England in which Dickens lived was fraught with massive economic turmoil, as the Industrial Revolution sent shockwaves through the established order. The disparity between the rich and poor, or the middle and working classes, grew even greater as factory owners exploited their employees in order to increase their own profits. Workers were forced to work long hours for low pay in cramped, sooty, loud, and dangerous factories. Because they lacked education and job skills, these workers had few options for improving their terrible living and working conditions.

Though he was far too great a novelist to become a propagandist, Dickens used his art as a lens to focus attention on the plight of the poor and to attempt to awaken the conscience of the reader. Hard Times is just such a novel: set amid the industrial smokestacks and factories of Coketown, the novel uses its characters and stories to expose the massive gulf between rich and poor in the nation and to criticize what Dickens perceived as the unfeeling self-interest of the middle and upper classes. Indeed, Hard Times suggests that nineteenth-century England itself is turning into a factory machine. Dickens hammers home his point with vicious, often hilarious satire and sentimental melodrama. It is also not a difficult book: Dickens wanted all his readers to catch his point exactly, and the moral theme of the novel is very explicitly articulated time and again.

Introduction courtesy of SparkNotes, http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/hardtimes/context.html, 2003.

A short essay on Charles Dickens' presentation of Mr. Gradgrind and his significance as a character in chapter two of Hard Times

Dickens' masterful use of language and effectively unorthodox syntax and writing idiolect allows him to make particularly compelling judgements upon society as a whole. The reasoned arguments he puts forward are all the more persuasive due to his ingenious use of highly original extended metaphors and a precisely sardonic tone. Dickens is able to allow the characters' hyperbolic sentiments to be interposed through the narrator and, by creating lurid caricatures of Victorian people, Dickens highlights the wrongs he perceives daily. The exaggeration seems excessive, but is made so effective by its witty realism, which his serial readers could relate to with each chapter published. Dickens is a maestro with words and puts forward many cogent arguments in Hard Times - with his creative descriptions of Mr. Gradgrind, he skilfully uses many inventive devices to give emphasis to his beliefs. Humorous irony mixed with flawless proportions of truth and subtle satire mean that Dickens can proficiently make suggestions and voice considered opinions upon society with great persuasion.

Gradgrind is a character involved in the central plot throughout Sowing. Once he has been introduced, the reader gets a clear idea of his personality from his evocative name. The word Gradgrind conjures up vivid images of laboriously hard work and harshly angled conservative toughness. He is repeatedly described by precisely measured geometry and addressed a pupil by "squarely pointing with his square forefinger". Gradgrind is a man who has no abstract form and absolutely no room for deviation - he is simply eminently square. Mr. Gradgrind constantly rants with vitriol about man's need for solid hard fact - he, a self-proclaimed "man of realities", only accepts pedantic scientific definitions and, conversely, adulates cold, hard, factual knowledge. He sees "fact, fact, fact" as the sole constituent of the real world and, as such, considers it his duty to attempt to teach the children in his care as many facts as possible and to "force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact". Consequently, Gradgrind considers the pursuit of proven information and the mass production of impersonal fact-retainers to be all-important and Dickens cleverly illustrates this by referring to the children as "pitchers" yearning to be filled full of precious facts. Any trace of frivolity is to be deracinated and suppressed - lots of war imagery is used to show how Gradgrind envisages blasting away their imaginations with a "cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts". This highlights the militaristic oppressive nature of his beliefs and teaching methods and, by referring to his pupil by numbers - "girl number twenty" - Gradgrind further dehumanises them by culling any remaining individual identity.

Gradgrind is very self-important; he superciliously raves about being "a man of realities" and "a man of fact". Even though other, inferior, Gradgrinds do not have such a firm grasp of sense, Mr. Thomas Gradgrind is a man of nothing other than pure fact. He even has a pre-designed speech he uses to introduce himself amongst new company as such a solid, upstanding man. This self-importance is again made apparent when Gradgrind asks Sissy Jupe what her father's profession is. Not only is this typical of the Victorian era where all that matters is the status and class of one's senior male relation, but Gradgrind curtly silences her by saying "We don't want to know anything about that, here". In saying this, he assumes absolute authority as though his knowledge precludes anyone else from having a valid opinion - despite being the only one disinterested by the jocular nature of the circus, "we" refers to the whole class, and he rashly makes the assumption that no one can successful argue against his infallible logic. In response to Sissy's refreshing naïveté and sweet, untarnished innocence in curtseying and proclaiming that her father does not call her Cecelia, Gradgrind utters with supreme, stifling arrogance "he has no business to do it". Again, this merely shows how close-minded his choking thoughts are, how he harmfully imposes his beliefs upon everyone and how far his obsession with extirpating all notions of fancy extends. The overbearing hubris is taken even further as Gradgrind equates his ideas about life to very subjective conceptions - "This is fact. This is taste." He leaves no room for alternative opinions, just blankly states that he is right. No one even dares to disagree.

Gradgrind meticulously sets out the seating in his classroom and his obsession with science is reflected by the desk arrangement being described in exact mathematical terms with the "boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane". He is associated with lots of dark, dull imagery that accurately reflects his personality. The classroom is murky, bare and so bleached of colour that bright-eyed new girl Sissy brilliantly stands out "irradiated" by a lustrous beam of light like an angel among men. One of the emotionally depleted boys who has clearly been under Gradgrind's mentally exhausting influence for some time, is an insipid and ghostly shadow or a child no longer possessing any imagination or creativeness - Dickens claims that should he be cut, "he would bleed white". He has been reduced to a machine designed to produce clipped, precise definitions and, in diametric contrast to Sissy's constant deep blushing, seems drained after answering a question.

Gradgrind has a number of lackeys whose ideologies seamlessly overlap with his own. He approbates the idea that nothing should be allowed that does not reflect reality. He has such a twisted view of reality that the very notion of "representations" of quadrupeds on walls or "walking upon flowers in carpets" almost physically disgusts him. His monomaniacal fixation with reality and the vigorous forced suppression of fancy extends to being against wallpaper patterned with horses as, in real life, horses never walk up and down walls. Dickens' hyperbole describing this hang-up becomes almost excessive as Gradgrind effectively calls for an exorcism of fancy in order to comply with his idée fixe.

One of Gradgrind's colleagues appeals to him so much because of his inexhaustible knowledge. He proclaims to know "all about all ... all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-hundred-and-thirty points of the compass". Gradgrind and his fellow schoolmasters are completely blinded by fact to the other useful aspects of education. They see their job as efficiently churning out knowledgeable children on a conveyor belt at the greatest rate possible whilst ignoring the possibility that by nurturing their individual pupils they might well grow up a lot stronger, well-rounded and better off. The allusions to mass-production in industrial factories is Dickens' way of sniping at the Victorian system of mass-labour churning out soulless products and sapping away workers' empty lives. In the penultimate paragraph, Dickens' tone changes and the author speaks candidly, for the first time free from being affected and encroached upon by Gradgrind's voiced opinions. He pithily utters with great wisdom that, "if he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!"

As he ends the chapter, Dickens makes yet another shrewd comment on one of Gradgrind's fellow contemporaries. In this chapter, Dickens' skilfully demonstrates Gradgrind's detestable personality. He allows Gradgrind's sentiments to leak through his narration so that the reader can appreciate the extent of his arrogance and the irony involved. By the dramatic use of hyperbole and extended imagery, the novel's reader gets an idea of the type of Victorian personality Gradgrind represents and the patent absurdity of all his starchy ideas. In Dickens' vivid portrayal of a classroom scene, one can clearly see the very real detrimental effect dated mindsets similar Gradgrind's have on numerous lives. His wish for fact to force out and forever obliterate fancy is extreme but very real, and the exaggerated stereotype of square Gradgrind helps to show all that is wrong with Victorians like him. Finally, on the chapter's final page, Dickens' true sentiments are voiced to summarise and confirm to the reader how dangerous Gradgrind's obsession and oppressive hubris is. His haughty attitude is subtly mocked throughout the chapter, as Dickens is such a cunning wordsmith. The names of characters manifestly mirror their personalities, allowing the reader to easily prejudge them and immediately understand them. Even with the prominent title of the chapter, Dickens is attempting to highlight the point of presenting Gradgrind as he does: "Murdering the Innocents". This concisely shows why Gradgrind so deserves to be portrayed as he is - he is literally systematically murdering the spirits of a whole generation of beautifully innocent children by wearing them down and contaminating them with nothing but fact.

All quotations of the text are courtesy of Charles Dickens's Hard Times. This work has been confirmed to be in the public domain free from copyright, and is availible on Project Gutenberg at http://www.ibiblio.org/gutenberg/etext97/hardt10.txt

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