Anyone who has read more than two Dickens novels knows what they’re going to get from all the rest. Just like every John Grisham novel has a morally-upstanding lawyer, every Dickens novel will have a society in disrepair, at least one poor wretch dying before his/her time, and at least 15 characters.
Hard Times was published in the 1850s. Unique for Dickens, it is not set in London. It’s set in fictitious Coketown, a stand-in for all of the industrial towns of the North. Defined by its factories and the working people that file in and file out all day. As is always the case with Dickens, there are very rich characters. Mr. Grandgrind, a mansplainer if ever there was one, runs the local school. He is a utilitarian, and pushes his own children and his pupils to live a life based only on facts. Not on feelings or art or morality, but only and specifically on fact. His friend, Josiah Bounderby, is a manufacturer/entrepreneur and a very rich man. He makes it a point to tell everyone he meets that he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He grew up in a ditch without mother or father, love or affection. Or so he constantly says. Gradgrind’s son, Tom, works for Bounderby, and his daughter, Louisa, marries him. Loo and Tom are about as happy and well-adjusted as you would imagine they are. They are miserable, in other words.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are the poor characters. Cecilia Jupe comes home from Mr. Gradgrind’s school to find her father has deserted her. She must choose to either follow the circus (of which her father was a part) when they leave town, or stay and go to Mr. Gradgrind’s school. She chooses to stay because her father wanted her to be educated. And it’s good that she stays, because everyone in Mr. Gradgrind’s family needs a kind person amongst them.
There’s also Old Stephen, the Tiny Tim of this piece. He is an honest man, a hard worker, shackled to a constantly-drunk wife. She reappears in his life periodically to sleep on his bed and trade his belongings for gin when he’s at work. He gets fired from his job, loses the support of his fellow workers (for not agreeing to join their union), is accused of robbing the local bank, and falls down a mineshaft. He dies. Typical Dickens.
It’s a short book, for Dickens. His shortest, in fact. And I think it lacks a little depth, compared to his real masterpieces like Bleak House. The whole story, and all its characters, relate to this idea of Fact vs Fancy. Gradgrind starts the novel explaining that he only believes in Facts. There’s no room in his world for amusement, art, fiction, creativity, morality. And in the end? His daughter is a nearly-soulless automaton, and his son? He robbed the back. Gradgrind tries to get his son out of the country, so that he won’t face consequences for his actions. But one of the students of his school, not in the least confused by notions of emotion or frivolity, captures the sun before he can escape. The whole book shows how a ‘Utilitarian’ society can be corrupt and terrible. I think the whole book is a little obviously manipulated. Coincidence, in fiction, is a delicate thing. Dickens is always walking the line, and I think with this one he steps over it. To manipulate the story into one that punishes Grandgrind and humiliates Bounderby, he sacrifices verisimilitude. And you also get the sense that he’s not as fluent in the lives of the North Country folk. It’s a new world, the North of England in the 19th century. It makes sense to set this novel in the North, but it was a little like taking a tour led by a non-native. For a better account of the North, and labor unions, read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.