Dickens's Hard Times

DICKENS established a weekly periodical, called Household Words, on the 30th of March, 1850. On the 1st of April, 1851, he began in it the publication of the tale of Hard Times, which was continued in weekly installments until its completion in the number for the 12th of August. The circulation of Household Words was doubled by the appearance in its pages of this story. When published in a separate form, it was appropriately dedicated to Thomas Carlyle, who was Dickens’s master in all matters relating to the “ dismal science ” of political economy.

During the composition of Hard Times the author was evidently in an embittered state of mind in respect to social and political questions. He must have felt that he was in some degree warring against the demonstrated laws of the production and distribution of wealth; yet he also felt that he was putting into prominence some laws of the human heart which he supposed political economists had studiously overlooked or ignored. He wrote to Charles Knight that he had no design to damage the really useful truths of political economy, but that his story was directed against those “ who see figures and averages, and nothing else; who would take the average of cold in the Crimea during twelve months as a reason for clothing a soldier in nankeen on a night when he would be frozen to death in fur; and who would comfort the laborer in traveling twelve miles a day to and from his work by telling him that the average distance of one inhabited place from another, on the whole area of England, is only four miles.” This is, of course, a caricatured statement of what statisticians propose to prove by their “ figures and averages.” Dickens would have been the first to laugh at such an economist and statistician as Michael Thomas Sadler, who mixed up figures of arithmetic and figures of rhetoric, tables of population and gushing sentiments, in one odd jumble of doubtful calculations and bombastic declamations; yet Sadler is only an extreme case of an investigator who turns aside from his special work to introduce considerations which, however important in themselves, have nothing to do with the business he has in hand. Dickens’s mind was so deficient in the power of generalization, so inapt to recognize the operation of inexorable law, that whatever offended his instinctive benevolent sentiments he was inclined to assail as untrue. Now there is no law the operation of which so frequently shocks our benevolent sentiments as the law of gravitation; yet no philanthropist, however accustomed he may be to subordinate scientific truth to amiable impulses, ever presumes to doubt the certain operation of that law. The great field for the contest between the head and the heart is the domain of political economy. The demonstrated laws of this science are often particularly offensive to many good men and good women, who wish well for their fellow-creatures, and who are pained by the obstacles which economic maxims present to their diffusive benevolence. The time will come when it will be as intellectually discreditable for an educated person to engage in a crusade against the established laws of political economy as in a crusade against the established laws of the physical universe; but the fact that men like Carlyle, Ruskin, and Dickens can write economic nonsense without losing intellectual caste shows that the science of political economy, before its beneficent truths come to be generally admitted, must go through a long struggle with benevolent sophisms and benevolent passions.

In naming this book Dickens found much difficulty. He sent the following titles to John Forster, as expressive of his general idea: 1. According to Cocker. 2. Prove it. 3. Stubborn Things. 4. Mr. Gradgrind’s Facts. 5. The Grindstone. 6. Hard Times. 7. Two and Two are Four. 8. Something Tangible. 9. Our Hard-Headed Friend. 10. Rust and Dust. 11. Simple Arithmetic. 12. A Matter of Calculation. 13. A Mere Question of Figures. 14. The Gradgrind Philosophy. The author was in favor of one of three of these: 6,13, and 14. Forster was in favor of either 2, 6, or 11. As both agreed on No. 6, that title was chosen. Yet certainly No. 14, The Gradgrind Philosophy, was the best of all, for it best indicated the purpose of the story. Hard Times is an extremely vague title, and might apply to almost any story that Dickens or any other novelist has written.

It is curious to note the different opinions of two widely differing men regarding the story itself. Ruskin says that “ the essential value and truth of Dickens’s writings have been unwisely lost sight of by many thoughtful persons, merely because he presents his truth with some color of caricature. Unwisely, because Dickens’s caricature, though often gross, is never mistaken. Allowing for the manner of his telling them, the things he tells us are always true. I wish that he could think it right to limit his brilliant exaggeration to works written only for public amusement; and when he takes up a subject of high national importance, such as that he handled in Hard Times, that he would use severer and more accurate analysis. The usefulness of that work (to my mind, in several respects, the greatest he has written) is with many persons seriously diminished because Mr. Bonnderby is a dramatic monster instead of a characteristic example of a worldly master, and Stephen Blackpool a dramatic perfection instead of a characteristic example of an honest workman. But let us not lose the use of Dickens’s wit and insight because he chooses to speak in a circle of stage fire. He is entirely right in his main drift and purpose in every book he has written; and all of them, but especially Hard Times, should be studied with great care by persons interested in social questions. They will find much that is partial, and, because partial, apparently unjust; but if they examine all the evidence on the other side, which Dickens seems to overlook, it will appear, after all the trouble, that his view was the finally right one, grossly and sharply told.” This is the opinion of an eloquent thinker and writer who is most at variance with the principles which scientific economists consider to be scientifically established. On the opposite extreme we have the opinion of Macaulay, who records in his private diary, under the date of August 12, 1854, this disparaging criticism: “ I read Dickens’s Hard Times. One excessively touching, heart-breaking passage, and the rest sullen socialism. The evils he attacks he caricatures grossly and with little humor.”

In judging the work, neither Ruskin nor Macaulay seems to have made any distinction between Dickens as a creator of character and Dickens as a humorous satirist of what he considers flagrant abuses. As a creator of character he is always tolerant and many-sided; as a satirist he is always intolerant and onesided; and the only difference between his satire and that of other satirists consists in the fact that he has a wonderful power in individualizing abuses in persons. Juvenal, Dryden, and Pope, though keen satirists of character, are comparatively ineffective in the art of concealing their didactic purpose under an apparently dramatic form. So strong is Dickens’s individualizing faculty, and so weak his faculty of generalization, that as a satirist he simply personifies his personal opinions. These opinions are formed by quick-witted impressions intensified by philanthropic emotions; they spring neither from any deep insight of reason nor from any careful processes of reasoning; and they are therefore contemptuously discarded as fallacies by all thinkers on social problems who are devoted to the investigation of social phenomena and the establishment of economic laws; but they are so vividly impersonated, and the classes satirized are so felicitously hit in some of their external characteristics and weak points, that many readers fail to discover the essential difference between such realities of character as Tony Weller and Mrs. Gamp, and such semblances of character as Mr. Graderirul and Mr. Bounderby. Whatever Dickens understands be humorously represents; whatever he does not understand he humorously misrepresents; but in either ease, whether he conceives or misconceives, he conveys to the general reader an impression that he is as great in those characters in which he personifies his antipathies as in those in which he embodies his sympathies.

The operation of this satirical as contrasted with dramatic genius is apparent in almost every person who appears in Hard Times, except Sleary and his companions of the circus combination. Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby are personified abstractions, after the method of Ben Jonson; but the charge that Macaulay brings against them, that they have little of Dickens’s humor, must be received with qualifications. Mr. Bounderby, for example, as the satirical representative of a class, and not as a person who could have had any real existence, — as a person who gathers into himself all the vices of a horde of English manufacturers, without a ray of light being shed into his internal constitution of heart and mind, — is one of the wittiest and most humorous of Dickens’s embodied sarcasms. Bounderby becomes a seeming character by being looked at and individualized from the point of view of imaginative antipathy. So surveyed, he seems real to thousands who observe their employers from the outside, and judge of them, not as they are, but as they appear to their embittered minds and hearts. Still, the artistic objection holds good that when a man resembling Mr. Bounderby is brought into the domain of romance or the drama, the great masters of romance and the drama commonly insist that he shall be not only externally represented but internally known. There is no authorized, no accredited way of exhibiting character but this, that the dramatist or novelist shall enter into the soul of the personage represented, shall sympathize with him sufficiently to know him, and shall represent his passions, prejudices, and opinions as springing from some central will and individuality. This sympathy is consistent with the utmost hatred of the person described; but characterization becomes satire the moment that antipathy supersedes insight and the satirist berates the exterior manifestations of an individuality whose interior life he has not diligently explored and interpreted. Bounderby, therefore, is only a magnificent specimen of what satirical genius can do when divorced from the dramatist’s idea of justice, and the dramatist’s perception of those minute peculiarities of intellect, disposition, and feeling which distinguish one “ bully of humility ” from another.

It is ridiculous to assert, as Buskin asserts, that Hard Times is Dickens’s greatest work; for it is the one of all his works which should be distinguished from the others as specially wanting in that power of real characterization on which his reputation as a vivid delineator of human character and human life depends. The whole effect of the story, though it lacks neither amusing nor pathetic incidents, and though it contains passages of description which rank with his best efforts in combining truth of fact with truth of imagination, is ungenial and unpleasant. Indeed, in this hook, he simply intensified popular discontent; he ignored or he was ignorant of those laws the violation of which is at the root of popular discontent; and proclaimed with his favorite ideal workman, Stephen Blackpool, that not only the relation between employers and employed, but the whole constitution of civilized society itself, was a hopeless “ muddle,” beyond the reach of human intelligence or humane feeling to explain and justify. It is to be observed here that all cheering views of the amelioration of the condition of the race come from those hard thinkers whose benevolent impulses push them to the investigation of natural and economic laws. Starting from the position of sentimental benevolence, and meeting unforeseen intellectual obstacles at every step in his progress, Dickens ends “ in a muddle ” by the necessity of his method. Had he been intellectually equipped with the knowledge possessed by many men to whom in respect to genius he was immensely superior, he would never have landed in a conclusion so ignominious, and one which the average intellect of well-informed persons of the present day contemptuously rejects. If Dickens had contented himself with using his great powers of observation, sympathy, humor, imagination, and characterization in their appropriate fields, his lack of scientific training in the austere domain of social, legal, and political science would have been hardly perceptible; but after his immense popularity was assured by the success of The Pickwick Papers, he was smitten with the ambition to direct the public opinion of Great Britain by embodying, in exquisitely satirical caricatures, rash and hasty judgments on the whole government of Great Britain in all its departments, legislative, executive, and judicial. He overlooked uses, in order to fasten on abuses. His power to excite, at his will, laughter, or tears, or indignation was so great, that the victims of his mirthful wrath were not at first disposed to resent his debatable fallacies while enjoying his delicious fun. His invasion of the domain of political science with the palpable design of substituting benevolent instincts for established laws was carelessly condoned by the statesmen, legists, and economists whom he denounced and amused.

Indeed, the great characteristic of Dickens’s early popularity was this, that it was confined to no classy but extended to all classes, rich and poor, noble and plebeian. The queen on the throne read him, and so did Hodge at the plow; and between the sovereign and her poorest subject there, was no class which did not sound his praise as a humorist. Still, every student of the real genius of Dickens must be surprised at the judgment pronounced on his various romances by what may be called the higher, the professional, the educated classes, the classes which, both in England and in the United States, hold positions of trust and honor, and are bound, by the practical necessities of their posts, to be on a level with the advancing intelligence of the age in legislative, economic, and judicial science. By these persons The Pickwick Papers are, as a general thing, preferred to any other of the works of Dickens. The Lord Chief Justice (afterwards Lord Chancellor) Campbell told Dickens that he would prefer the honor of having written that book to the honors which his professional exertions had obtained for him, that of being a peer of Parliament and the nominal head of the law. All persons who have had a sufficiently large acquaintance with the men of practical ability who have risen to power in the United States, whether as judges, statesmen, or political economists, must have been impressed with the opinion of these men as to the superiority of The Pickwick Papers over all the successive publications of Dickens. Yet it is as certain as any question coming before the literary critic can be, that a number of the works that followed The Pickwick Papers are superior to that publication, not only in force of sentiment, imagination, and characterization, but in everything which distinguishes the individual genius of Dickens, — a genius which up to the time of David Copperfield deepened and enlarged in the orderly process of its development. The secret of this preference for The Pickwick Papers is to be found in the fact that the author had, in that book, no favorite theory to push, no grand moral to enforce, no assault on principles about which educated men had made up their minds. These men could laugh heartily at Mr. Buzfus and Mr. Justice Stareleigh; but when, as in Bleak House, there was a serious attempt to assail equity jurisprudence, they felt that the humorist had ventured on ground where he had nothing but his genius to compensate for his lack of experience and knowledge. Thus it is that a work which, with all its wealth of animal spirits, is comparatively shallow and superficial considered as a full expression of Dickens’s powers of humor, pathos, narrative, description, imagination, and characterization, has obtained a preëminence above its successors, not because it contains what is best and deepest in Dickens’s genius, but because it omits certain matters relating to social and economical science, with which he was imperfectly acquainted, and on which his benevolence, misleading his genius, still urged him vehemently to dogmatize. His educated readers enjoyed his humor and pathos as before, but they were more or less irritated by the intrusion of social theories which they had long dismissed from their minds as exploded fallacies, and did not see that the wit was more pointed, the humor richer, the faculty of constructing a story more developed, the sentiment of humanity more earnest and profound, than in the inartistic incidents of The Pickwick Papers, over which they had laughed until they had cried, and cried until they had laughed again. They desired amusement merely; The Pickwick Papers are the most amusing of Dickens’s works; and they were correspondingly vexed with an author who deviated from the course of amusing them into that of instructing them, only to emphasize notions which were behind the knowledge of the time, and which interfered with tlveir enjoyment without giving them any intelligent instruction.

Still, allowing for the prepossessions of Dickens in writing Hard Times, and forgetting Adam Smith, Ricardo, and John Stuart Mill, — looking at him only as a humorous satirist profoundly disgusted with some prominent evils of his day, — we may warmly praise the book as one of the most perfect of its kind. The bleakness of the whole representation of human life proceeds from the Gradgrind Philosophy of Life, which emphasizes Fact and denounces all cultivation of the sentiments and the imagination. As a result of this system, Tom, the son of Mr. Gradgrind, becomes a selfish “ whelp” and sneak thief; his daughter, Louisa, marries Mr. Bounderby under circumstances which point inevitably to a separation, either on account of adultery or incompatibility of temper and disposition; and young Bitzer, the plebeian product of the system, who glories in his own emancipation from all the ties of son, brother, and husband, who is eloquent on the improvidence of those who marry and have children, and who congratulates himself that he. has only one person to feed, and that’s the person he most likes to feed, namely, himself, is doomed to remain what he is, to the end of his life, a soulless, heartless, calculating machine, almost too mean to merit even the spurn of contempt. The first person who stirs the family of Mr. Gradgrind to a vague sense that the human mind possesses the faculty of imagination is Mr. Sleary, the circus-manager; and, in the end, he is the person who saves Tom Gradgrind from the disgrace of being arrested and tried as a felon. Dickens shows much art in making a man like Sleary, who represents the lowest element in the lowest order of popular amusements, the beneficent genius of the Gradgrind family, inclosed as they are in seemingly impenetrable surroundings of propriety, respectability, and prosaic fact. In depicting Sleary, the author escapes from satire into characterization, and adds to the population of Dickensland one of his most humorously conceived and consistently drawn personages. While his hand is in he strikes off portraits of Master Kidderminster, Mr. E. W. B. Childers, and other members of the circus troupe with almost equal vigor and fidelity to fact. As a specimen of his humor, Sleary"s description of the search which Merry legs' dog made to find him, in order to inform him of his master’s death, is incomparably good. Mr. Gradgrind, as a man of science, suggests that the dog was drawn to him by his instinct and his fine scent. Mr. Sleary shakes his head skeptically. His idea is, that the dog went to another dog that he met on his journey, and asked him if he knew of a person of the name of Sleary, in the horse-riding way, — stout man, — game eye? And the other dog said that he could n’t say he knew him himself, but knew a dog who was likely to be acquainted with him, and then introduced him to that dog. And you know, Sleary added, that being much before the public, a number of dogs must be acquainted with me that I don’t know. And Sleary goes on to show that after fourteen months’ journey, the dog at last came to him in a very bad condition, lame and almost blind, threw himself up behind, stood on his fore legs, weak as he was, and then he wagged his tail and died. And then Sleary knew that the dog was the dog of Merrylegs. We have not put the narrative into Sleary’s expressive lisp, and can only refer the reader to the original account in the eighth chapter of Hard Times.

The relation between Mr. James Harthouse and Louisa is one of the best “ situations” in Dickens’s novels. Harthouse represents a type of character which was the object of Dickens’s special aversion, the younger son of a younger son of family, — “ born bored,” as St. Simon says of the Duke of Orleans, and passing listlessly through life in a constant dread of boredom, but seeking distractions and stimulants through new experiences, — “ a thorough gentleman, made to the model of the time, weary of everything, and putting no more faith in anything than Lucifer.” Contrasted with this jaded man of fashion is Louisa Gradgrind, the wife of Mr. Bounderby. Far from being morally and mentally wearied by too large an experience of life, she has had no experience of life at all. Her instincts, feelings, and imagination, as a woman, have been forced back into the interior recesses of her mind by the method of her education, and are therefore ever ready to burst forth, with an impetuosity corresponding to the force used in their repression and restraint. Now Dickens, as an English novelist, was prevented, by his English sense of decorum, from describing in detail those sensuous and passionate elements in her nature which brought her to the point of agreeing to an elopement with her lover. A French novelist would have had no difficulty in this respect. Leaving out of view such romancers as Alexandre Dumas and Frédéric Soulié, with what pleasure would story-tellers of a higher order, like Théopliile Gautier, Prosper Mérimée, George Sand, and Charles de Bernard, have recorded their minute analysis of every phase of passion in the breasts of the would-be adulterer and the would-be adulteress! As it is, the reader finds it difficult to understand the frenzy of soul, the terrible tumult of feeling, which rends the heart of Louisa as she flies to her father on the evening she has agreed to elope with her lover. Such madness as she displays in the culmination of passion might have been explained by exhibiting, step by step, the growth of her passion. Instead of this, we are overwhelmed by the sudden passage of ice into fire without any warning of the perilous transformation.

The method of the French novelists is doubtless corrupting in just the degree in which it is interpretative. Whatever may be said of it, it at least accounts, on the logic of passion, for those crimes against the sanctity of the marriage relation which all good people deplore, but which few good people seem to understand.

It, is needless to add, in this connection, any remarks on the singular purity of the relation existing between Rachel and Stephen Blackpool. Any reader who can contemplate it without feeling the tears gather in his eyes is hopelessly insensible to the pathos of Dickens in its most touching manifestations.

Edwin P. Whipple.