Praise for the work of Charles Dickens is hardly groundbreaking, new, or unexpected. But there is a reason for this and it is written clearly on every page of any of his books, even the ones that aren’t as commonly read in high schools across the country. There is a level of realism in all his works that helps create a believable balance, even in subject and time specific satires like Hard Times.
The Industrial Revolution changed the way people thought about how the world works and that translated to an educational machine that focused on the facts at hand and the ways they could be put to use to produce more efficiently functioning systems. In Hard Times, Charles Dickens takes this idea of a fact-focused education to an extreme, using it to demonstrate the necessity of imagination and the tragedy of lacking that sustaining creative force.
Thomas Gradgrind is a crucial supporter of fact-based education and raises his children according to that philosophy. After his son and daughter grow up however, negotiating their way through a world with shades of gray proves difficult. Their prosperous lives are contrasted by the lives of two mill workers. Mere cogs in the great machine of the Industrial Revolution, Stephen and Rachael are uneducated and considered by many of the statistics the fact-based system to be unimportant, insignificant.
While the message of Dickens’ novel is unmistakable, what sticks out most in my mind about Hard Times (and in the handful of other Dickens novels I’ve read thus far) are the characters he creates. Through his often-complex plots that always manage to reconnect with the novels’ beginnings, Dickens interweaves characters that range from the heartbreakingly sincere to the amusingly ridiculous and unashamedly hypocritical.
For Hard Times, these most memorable characters are the self-centered Mr. Bounderby, his “worshiping” housekeeper of sorts, Mrs. Sparsit, and the speech-impaired leader of a traveling troupe, Mr. Sleary. Each possesses their own patterns of speech and habits that make them distinctive even without mention of their names in the narration.
Mr. Bounderby’s incessant self-promotion and continuous references to himself using the third-person make him an annoying narcissist in every tense. Even when cornered with a long concealed secret from his past, he stays true to his self-righteous nature. Mrs. Sparsit, a woman raised in better financial circumstances than she finds herself during the course of the novel, adores her self-sufficient benefactor and falls over herself to massage his ego.
They don’t sound very appealing as I’ve described them and they aren’t meant to be. But their interactions on the page are so ridiculous, you can’t help but laugh as a reader. What makes it funnier is the reality that such people exist (surely everyone can see someone they know in one of the two characters; I know I’ve met my fair share of both) and if you’ve ever seen how the two interact, you can see the mastery in Dickens’ portrayal.
The memorable aspects of Mr. Sleary are his good will and his speech impediment. The lisp that Dickens was able to capture in a way that was both readable and understandable amazes me. Similarly, the characters of Rachael and especially Stephen both have strong accents that were also translated into print in a way that I found remarkably readable (though I’m sure there are many who would disagree).
Hard Times, while not my favorite Dickens novel, demonstrates the writing style and techniques that made Dickens famous not only in his own time but for all time. As far as edition is concerned, I’m partial to the Barnes & Noble Classics because of their extensive informational endnotes and footnotes regarding references to elements of the popular culture and history of the novel.