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'Hard Times' Review

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Hard Times

Hard Times

Bradbury & Evans
Hard Times, first published in 1854, is short--compared to the other major novels of Charles Dickens. It is divided into three parts: "Sowing," "Reaping," and "Garnering." Through these sections, we follow the experiences of Louisa and Thomas Gradgrind (who considers mathematical logic to be an essential part of life).
Like most other novels by Dickens, Hard Times treats several important issues of human development including wisdom, socialization, and virtue. The novel deals with two major institutions of human life: education and family. The two are shown closely related with a critical analysis of their influence on individual growth and learning.

Education: Hard Times

Dickens paints the scene of a Coketown school, where teachers are conveying something--but certainly not wisdom--to the students. The simplicity and common sense of Cecilia Jupe (Sissy) stand in stark contrast to the pathetically calculating mind of her teacher, Mr. M'Choakumchild.

In response to Mr. M'Choakumchild's question about whether a nation with "fifty millions" of money could be called prosperous, Sissy answers: "I thought I couldn't know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine." Dickens employs Sissy's use of her own mind to challenge the absurdity of wrongly conceived intelligence.
Similarly, Louisa Gradgrind is instructed with nothing but dry mathematical facts, which make her devoid of any true emotions. But, these boring facts still fail to stifle the spark of humanity in her. As her father asks her if she would marry Mr. Bounderby or has any secret affection for anyone else, Louisa's reply concludes the essence of her character: "You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child's dream. You have dealt so wisely with me, father, from my cradle to this hour that I never had a child's belief or a child's fear."

Of course we discover the virtuous part of Louisa's character later when we find her returning to her father one night instead of pursuing her fancy of eloping with the flirt James Harthouse in the absence of her husband. Holding her father to accountability, Louisa throws herself at his mercy, saying, "All that I know is, your philosophy and your teaching will not save me. Now father, you have brought me to this. Save me by some other means!"
Wisdom or Common Sense: Hard Times

Hard Times demonstrates the clash of common sense against dry wisdom alienated from sentiments. Mr. Gradgrind, Mr. M'Choakumchild, and Mr. Bounderby are the vicious sides of stony education that would give rise to a corrupt human product like young Thomas Gradgrind. Louisa, Sissy, Stephen Blackpool, and Rachael are the virtuous and sensible defenders of human personality against material temptation and its supportive theories of logic.

Sissy's confidence and practical wisdom proves the triumph of her rightness and the doom of the calcified attitude towards facts in education. Stephen's unfailing rectitude and Louisa's resistance to the temptations of freedom in elopement speak for Dickens' vote on the side of a more refined education and healthy socialization.

Hard Times is not a very emotional novel--except for Louisa's tragedy and Stephen's sufferings that impart a somber mode. However, Sissy's account of her father's beating of his dog does stir the reader's deepest feelings of empathy. That Mr. Gradgrind is able to see his folly compensates partly for the loss his view of parenting has inflicted on is children, so we can close the book with an almost happy ending.

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