Hard Times: A Book Review

JAN / FEB 2012:  BY SHANNON H.

dickens2

“Some persons hold,” he pursued, still hesitating, “that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart…”

During tough economic times, people find it difficult to stay afloat financially, especially during the current economic crisis where good jobs and financial stability are hard to come by and foreclosures are commonplace. Fortunately, we as a modern society have access to unemployment insurance and financial help whereas the poor folk in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times have no such thing.

Cecilia “Sissy” Jupe is like any other child; smart, creative, and imaginative. Unfortunately, Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, the teacher of the school she attends, ceases to appreciate her talents as he is a stickler for facts and facts only. He expects his students to memorize useless tidbits of information and regurgitate them on tests and schoolwork and dismisses imagination and creativity as fluff. As much as Sissy likes going to school, she is failing to absorb facts in her mind. Mr. Gradgrind’s employer and “eminently practical” friend Josiah Bounderby shares the same viewpoint and like his friend believes poetry and other such forms of artistic expression are a waste of time. He is a mill owner and businessman, overbearing to the extreme, and prides himself on being a self-made man having been abandoned by his mother and grandmother at a young age and having to fend for himself much of his life.

After her father, a circus performer, abandons her due to financial difficulties, Sissy is sent to live with Mr. Gradgrind and his family. She immediately bonds with Mr. Gradgrind’s two older children, Louisa and Tom.

While Sissy is fortunate to be adopted into the family others are not so financially stable years down the road. Stephen Blackpool, one of Mr. Bounderby’s mill employees, has had a hard life working in the mills and staying unhappily married to a drunken sot of a wife while pinning for his co-worker, Rachael. Mr. Gradgrind’s son Tom starts to develop a compulsive gambling habit that is putting a pain in his pocketbook while his older sister Louisa is fortunate enough to marry the much older and wealthier Mr. Bounderby. The economic situations of these characters collide when the local bank is robbed and an honest man pegged as the prime suspect when he disappears.

After reading Hard Times I saw a few parallels to Elizabeth Gaskell’s novel North and South featuring a self-made businessman, John Thornton. But Mr. Thornton is nowhere near as devoid of emotion and sympathy as Mr. Josiah Bounderby; he finds it hard to feel sorry for not just his employees but anyone who even slightly associate with workers’ unions and the working poor. He espouses the “factual” education that his friend Mr. Gradgrind practices so much. Mr. Bounderby is quick to leap angrily to conclusions, as he accuses his wife Louisa of adultery based on nothing more than hearsay from his housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, after she saw her walk out with James Harthouse, Mr. Bounderby’s friend.

While Mr. Bounderby may be a self-made man from humble beginnings, he is bombastic and proud, and feels the need to constantly remind people around him that while other businessmen went to college or inherited the business from their fathers it was he that made himself successful without family or a formal education. Some are annoyed by his bragging but alas, telling a man like Josiah Bounderby to shut up would prove truly disastrous.

Hard Times was an enjoyable read. This was the second book by Charles Dickens that I’ve read after his classic A Christmas Carol. I admire some of his witticisms and found myself at times wanting to yell at certain fictional characters; for example, reading about Mr. Gradgrind’s teaching made me want to slap my forehead and shake my head in disgust. I felt the same way after Louisa accepted Mr. Bounderby’s marriage proposal, only I felt more like screaming the words “you idiot”

(in reference to Louisa) instead of shaking my head. Still, if Louisa had rejected the proposal, Mr. Gradgrind would certainly be angry as he feels the match is very advantageous for her, but more so for himself financially. Throughout the novel, one cannot help but pity those in precarious situations, regardless of whether or not it was their own fault.

What I find interesting about Hard Times is that it does have a great deal of Christian references in it, especially the set-up for the novel, which is based on Galatians 6:7 (according to Wikipedia), “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he shall also reap.”After years of enduring a “factual” education at school, Louisa finally admits to her father that she detested her schooling, which forces him to come to the realization that there are more important things in life than just the facts. The Scripture describes Mr. Bounderby as well as all the things that he has worked so hard for eventually come tumbling down before him.

Hard Times is a great novel full of parallels to real life, literature, and Scripture. Like A Christmas Carol, the characters stand out and it is impossible not to pity even the most despicable villain or to root for the underdog. And like many of Dickens’ other novels, this story serves as a “snapshot” of Victorian society from all different levels with a touch of humor and wit. ♥

janfeb2012

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