Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 8: Hard Times

Dickens' shortest novel is very taut, and occasionally some sharp little passage arrives that reminds you of his more expansive greatness.

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It’s dawning on me that the marriage plot, which maps so well onto novels by Austen and the Brontës and George Eliot, is misapplied to Dickens. It is far more productive to think of him as a writer of would-be divorce plots.

Hard Times is set in smog-choked Coketown, a fictional cesspool where the underclass toils at the factory and the upper class lives for business, not pleasure. If you think nothing good can come of this landscape, you are right. The story pairs two ill-fated marriages, one at its end, the other at its inception. The former involves Stephen Blackpool, a 40-year-old factory hand whose wife has gone violently insane, and who visits his employer, the righteous Mr. Bounderby, to inquire about a possible separation. Stephen has read in the papers that wealthy couples can be set free of their marital ties, and wonders how he can emulate them. Their exchange is quite startling in its starkness:

“If I do her any hurt, sir, there’s a law to punish me?”
“Of course there is.”
“If I flee from her, there’s a law to punish me?”
“Of course there is.”
“If I marry t’other dear lass, there’s a law to punish me?”
“Of course there is.”
“If I was to live wi’ her an’ not marry her — saying such a thing could be, which it never could or would, an’ her so good — there’s a law to punish me, in every innocent child belonging to me?”
“Of course there is.”
“Now, a’ God’s name,” said Stephen Blackpool, “show me the law to help me!”

Hang on, Stephen! The 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act will pass just three years after Hard Times is published, allowing ordinary people to divorce through the courts instead of having to obtain an Act of Parliament. But it’s too late for our poor factory hand; as for future discontented spouses, the proof of adultery required and the stigma attached would act as a strong deterrent for at least another half-century.

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 10: Oliver Twist)

The novel’s other bad marriage is between Mr. Bounderby and Louisa Gradgrind, whose father runs his household the same way he runs his model school: all logic, no imagination. It is not a good omen for their happiness that Bounderby proposes to Louisa through Mr. Gradgrind, who boils the offer down to a matter of probabilities: “In considering this question, it is not unimportant to take into account the statistics of marriage, so far as they have yet been obtained, in England and Wales…” The emotionally stunted Louisa duly becomes a statistic, and wretched incompatibility ensues.

I read Hard Times in my high-school English class and didn’t like it. (Mr. Tyler, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry!) The Stephen Blackpool narrative is compelling to me now — in part simply because I’m near his age — but Louisa, to whom a young woman might be expected to relate, is simply too inaccessible; she stares into the fire and gives away nothing of her feelings, keeping both her father and the reader at a distance. There’s a lot of telling, not showing, from Mr. Gradgrind’s opening salvo, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life,” to Louisa’s breakdown on abandoning her marriage and returning to her father’s house: “Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart?”

This narrative shorthand may have seemed a necessary sacrifice. Hard Times was serialized weekly instead of monthly — it was a quick and dirty effort to prop up the revenues of the magazine Household Words, which Dickens was editing — and though the author was game to do it, he chafed at the shorter space allotted him. “The difficulty of space is crushing,” he wrote to his friend and future biographer, John Forster. “Nobody can have an idea of it who has not had an experience of patient fiction-writing with some elbow-room.” This was the man who’d written Dombey and Son, David Copperfield and Bleak House. Imagine the Beatles having to go back to two-and-a-half-minute pop songs after recording “Hey Jude.”

(READ: Counting Down Dickens’ Greatest Novels. Number 9: Dombey and Son)

But thin as it is, Hard Times is very taut, and occasionally some sharp little passage arrives that reminds you of Dickens’ more expansive greatness. It’s fun to watch them appear, like crocuses poking out of asphalt. Here is Coketown beginning its day — the continuation of an earlier comparison of factories to fairy palaces (at least, as Dickens writes, that’s what travelers by express train always said):

The fairy palaces burst into illumination, before pale morning showed the monstrous serpents of smoke trailing themselves over Coketown. A clattering of clogs upon the pavement; a rapid ringing of bells; and all the melancholy mad elephants, polished and oiled up for the day’s monotony, were at their heavy exercise again.

Dickens has a wonderful ability to animate the world through metaphor, and “melancholy mad elephants” is about as evocative a description of giant, lumbering factory machines as any I’ve seen. You can hear them clunking. What you don’t hear is the word “factory” — a nice example of showing, not telling.

Hard Times is Dickens’ shortest novel, which is probably why I read it in school — that and its quick gloss of life in the industrial revolution (among other challenges, Stephen Blackpool is shunned by his colleagues for his unwillingness to join a union). But there are better examples of the so-called social-problem novel — like North and South, by Dickens’ protégé Elizabeth Gaskell, which he serialized in Household Words right after Hard Times. It’s a little longer, but it’s got a richer, more inviting plot, and (bonus!) there’s a terrific four-part miniseries production of it, starring Richard Armitage. Plus any self-respecting teenager is going to use Hard Times as an excuse for pushback against required reading. The whole message is anti-institutional: administrators are blowhards and idiots, the system rewards the uncreative and only the performers in the local traveling circus understand the meaning of life.

The irony is, it’s very hard to understand the circus master — he’s got a wicked lisp. As crystal-clear as the moral of this story is, it’s got to be read aloud in order to make sense. “People mutht be amuthed, Thquire,” says Mr. Sleary, the sage of the circus, to Mr. Gradgrind. “They can’t be alwayth a working, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a learning. Make the betht of uth; not the wurtht.”

Reading Mr. Sleary’s line out loud is amusing and endearing in itself. I may not love Hard Times, but I’m happy to make the best of it. I see its merits now, as a brisk, efficient vehicle for ideas about creativity, openness, emotion and irreconcilable differences.

Come back tomorrow for our look at Charles Dickens’ seventh best novel — The Pickwick Papers.

READ: The Previous Entry in This Series—Number 9: Dombey and Son