Hard Times concerns itself with the goings-on of several varied protagonists in the fictional Northern industrial populace of Coketown. Given the novel’s title and industrial setting, those going in with no real preconceptions of the text (like me) might presume a few things about the tone of the novel, the course the plot will likely take, and the types of characters who will carry that plot. But this story, one of Charles Dickens’ least-read works and certainly his shortest, challenged my prejudices at every turn with pointed satire, surprising emotional power and witty, brilliant writing. That’s not to say the book is perfect – far from it, in fact – but I’m sure it’s lack of wider appreciation within Dickens’ canon is largely unjustified.
Let’s start with just how sharp and funny this book is. The satire of the treatment of the working classes, topical as it was when it was published, still holds up today. Their collective title of “Hands” and the way they’re referred to as a singular mass rather than individuals would ring true in many present-day contexts – a sweatshop, say, or the uniform cubicles of many modern office spaces. Use of conspicuous narration and direct address is also perfectly judged and deployed to maintain the readers interest with welcome dollops of humour in darker sections of the novel. When describing characters, Dickens uses humour not only to entertain the reader, but also to move the story forward. From Josiah Boundary’s near-constant “blustering” to Mrs Sparsit’s “Coriolanian” facial features, Dickens establishes and maintains a style of narrative progression through humour that keeps the reader interested in the characters and story even through passages of bleakness that would sink a lesser novel.
The way the characters carry the overall themes of the work is probably the novel’s greatest strength. The satire of Utilitarianism is so effective because it is irrevocably tied to character; relaying it through such a kind and well-meaning father figure and weaving it into the plot and other character’s arcs gives it palpable emotional resonance with the reader. Exploring the effects of a fact-based education on both a child (in Sissy at the beginning of the novel) and an adult (in Louisa through her marriage to Bounderby and eventual breakdown) increases the power of exploring these ideas, and also ties well to another theme which is likely to be much more accessible to many readers: the struggles of parenthood. One of the most emotionally powerful arcs in the story is Thomas Gradgrind’s struggles as a father as he tries his utmost to do right by his children, and his horror when he realises the true effects of his very best efforts. Even when the reader (as Dickens intends) disagrees with his worldview and parenting styles, one can’t help but see the goodness in him because he is such a sympathetically written character. Josiah Bounderby, on the other hand, is a wholly disagreeable character despite sharing many views with Gradgrind at the outset. His character arc is pretty satisfying – given that he is the closest thing this story has to an out-and-out villain, his fate by the novel’s end is almost enough to offset the books’ main flaw (which we shall come to in a moment). Other characters are written just as effectively – the “whelp” is presented as equal parts pitiable and contemptible (to marvellous effect), the love story between Rachel and Old Stephen is surprisingly affecting and services the main themes of the work remarkably well, and James Harthouse is so charming that the reader immediately distrusts him and yet perfectly understands why Louisa would relate to him as she does.
But the Achilles’ heel of the novel, though it can be summed up briefly, is too large to ignore. The structure and pacing of the novel leave a lot to be desired. The novel is all setup and no payoff, with over half the book dedicated to establishing the world, characters and story the author wished to write about. The threads of narrative and character take too long to be created and set into motion, and barely have time to converge before the novel ends. I suspect that Dickens, used to writing longer works, simply wrote as much setup as he would for a novel of vastly expanded scope and size, without regard for the impact this would have on a much shorter novel. The effect of this is that the reader ends up feeling short changed – potential emotional payoff loses resonance, investment in character becomes stunted, and the reader is left wanting more due to there simply not being enough book to really get one’s teeth into.
In short, I am unable to tell whether Dickens was too ambitious in his writing, or not ambitious enough. By writing so many great characters, story threads, and weighty themes into such a short novel, he has actually done himself a disservice. Simplifying these elements a little to improve the pacing could have helped, or extending the novel with more plotting and exploration of character and theme could also have gone a long way to improving the work. Rather than damning with faint praise, I think it would be fairer to damn this work with complimentary criticism. Simply put, Dickens has, to my mind, accidentally ended up in an unhappy middle ground of writing too much brilliant stuff in too small a space.