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Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Published: 16.01.2013, Updated: 04.03.2017
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Rivalled only by William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens ranks as the most read and popular English writer of all times. Dickens’ documentation of the bleak sides of the industrial revolution and the institutions of Victorian England paved the way for reform laws and a common awareness among people in general. If Dickens had not been a novelist he would have been a great reformer; many would claim that he was both. Follow the link and read more about Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens - An Introduction 


Hard Times

When Dickens in 1854 published Hard Times, the squalor of industrial England was at its worst. From his experience as a gallery reporter in the House of Commons and in the courts of law, he saw how the aristocracy and legislators were exploiting people to protect their own interests. Hard Times is said to be the harshest of Dickens’ novels with its severe criticism of the system which he believed was turning his country into a feudal society inhabited largely by capitalists and slaves. In Hard Times he points out how the educational principles at the time were designed to serve the system of hard economics and materialism. With his sharp portrayal of the square-shaped school master, Mr Gradgrind, and his fact-based teaching, Dickens brings to light the way children were taught and brought up in the spirit of materialism.
Hard Times is divided into three books – Sowing, Reaping, and Garnering, each with a number of subchapters. The following extracts are from the first chapters of Sowing.

The One Thing Needful

The Schoolmaster of the FutureThe Schoolmaster of the Future
Fotograf: Heritage Image Partnership
 “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle upon which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to facts, Sir!”
The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a school-room, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair, which bristled on the skirts of his bald head, a plantation of firs to keep the wind from its shining surface, all covered with knobs, like the crust of a plum pie, as if the head had scarcely warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside. The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders – nay, his very neck cloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, - all helped the emphasis.
“In this life, we want nothing but Facts, Sir, nothing but Facts!”
The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.

Murdering the Innocents

Thomas Gradgrind, Sir. A man of realities. A man facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and to are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, Sir – peremptorily Thomas – Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, Sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic. You might find hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the heads of George Gradgrind, or Augustus Gradgrind, or John Gradgrind, or Joseph Gradgrind (all supposititious non-existent persons), but into the head of Thomas Gradgrind – no, Sir!
In such terms, no doubt Mr Gradgrind always mentally introduced himself, whether to his private circle of acquaintance, or to the public in general. In such terms, no doubt, substituting the words “boys and girls”, for “Sir”, Thomas Gradgrind now presented Thomas Gradgrind to the little pitchers before him who were to be filled full of facts.
Indeed, as he eagerly sparkled at them from the cellarage before mentioned, he seemed a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge. He seemed a galvanising apparatus, too, charged with a grim, mechanical substitute for the tender young imagination that were to be stormed away.
“Girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind, squarely pointing with his square forefinger, “I don’t know that girl. Who is that girl?”
“Sissy Jupe, Sir” explained number twenty, blushing, standing up and curtsying.
“Sissy is not a name,” said Mr Gradgrind. “Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.”
“It’s father as calls me Sissy,” returned the young girl, in a trembling voice, and with another curtsy.
“Then he has no business to do it,” said Mr Gradgrind. “Tell him he mustn’t. Cecilia Jupe. Let me see. What is your father?”
“He belongs to the horse riding, if you please, Sir”
Mr Gradgrind frowned, and waved off the objectionable calling with his hand.
“We don’t want to know anything about that here. You mustn’t tell us about that here. Your father breaks horses, don’t he?”
“If you please, Sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, Sir.”
“You mustn’t tell us about the ring here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horse-breaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?”
“Oh, yes, Sir.”
“Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier and horse-breaker. Give me your definition of a horse.”
(Sissy Jupe thrown into a the greatest alarm by this demand.)
“Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!” said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers.
“Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest animals. Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.”
The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely whitewashed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the naturel tinge, that he looked as if he were cut, he would bleed white.
“Bitzer,” said Thomas Gradgrind. “Your definition of a horse.”
“Quadruped. Graminivourous. Forty teeth, namely, twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hare, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
“Now girl number twenty,” said Mr Gradgrind. “You know what a horse is.”
“Now, if Mr M’Choakumchild,” said the gentleman, “will proceed to give his first lesson here, Mr Gradgrind, I shall be happy, at your request, to observe his mode of procedure.
Mr. Gradgrind was much obliged. “Mr M’Chaukumchild, we only wait for you.
So, Mr. M’Choakumchild began in his best manner. He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his chilled fingers. He had worked his stony way into Her Majesty’s most Honourable Privy Council’s Schedule B, and had taken the bloom off the higher branches of mathematics and physical science, French, German, Latin, and Greek. He knew all about the Water Sheds of all the world (whatever they are), and all the histories of all the peoples, and all the names of all the rivers and mountains, and all the productions, manners, and customs of all the countries, and all their boundaries and bearings on the two-and-thirty points of the compass. Ah, rather overdone, Mr M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!

A Loophole

Mr Gradgrind walked homeward from the school, in a state of considerable satisfaction. It was his school, and he intended it to be a model. He intended every child in it to be a model, just as the young Gradgrinds were all models.
There were five young Gradgrinds, and they were models every one. They had been lectured at, from the tenderest years; coursed, like little hares. Almost as soon as they could run alone, they had been made to run to the lecture-room. The first object with which they had an association, or of which they had a remembrance, was a large blackboard with a dry ogre chalking ghastly white figures on it.
Not that they knew, by make or nature, anything about an ogre. Fact forbid! I only use the word to express a monster in a lecturing-castle, with Heaven knows how many heads manipulated into one, taking childhood captive, and dragging it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair.
No little Gradgrind had ever seen a face in the moon; it was up in the moon before it could speak distinctly. No little Gradgrind had ever learned the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are! No little Gradgrind had ever known the wonder on the subject, each little Gradgrind having at five years old dissected the Great Bear. No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat, who killed the rat, who at the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Thom Thumb: it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs.
To this matter-of-fact home, which was called Stone Lodge, Mr Gradgrind directed his steps. He had virtually retired from the wholesale hardware trade before he built Stone Lodge, and was now looking about for a suitable opportunity of making an arithmetical figure in Parliament. Stone Lodge was situated on a moor within a mile or two of a great town – called Coketown in the present faithful guide-book.
A very regular feature on the face of the country, Stone Lodge was. Not the least disguise toned down or shaded off that uncompromising fact in the landscape. A great square house, with a heavy portico darkening the principal windows, as its master’s heavy brows overshadowed his eyes. A calculated, cast up, balanced, and proved house. Six windows on this side of the door, six on that side; a total of twelve in this wing, a total of twelve in the other wing; four-and-twenty carried over to the back-wings. A lawn and garden and an infant avenue, all ruled straight like a botanical account book. Gas and ventilation, drainage and water-service, all of the primest quality. Iron clamps and girders, fireproof from top to bottom; mechanical lifts for the housemaids, with all their brushes and brooms; everything that heart could desire.

The Keynote

Coketown, to which Mr Gradgrind now walked, was a triumph of fact; it had no greater taint of fancy in it that Mrs Gradgrind hersfelf. Let us strike the keynote, Coketown, before pursuing our tune.
It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but, as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black, like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next. (…)
You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful. If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel here – as the members of eighteen religious persuasions had done – they made it a pious warehouse of red brick, with sometimes (but this only in highly ornamented examples) a bell in a birdcage on the top of it. The solitary exception was the New Church, a stuccoed edifice with a square steeple over the door, terminating in four short pinnacles like florid wooden legs. All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white. The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction. Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchasable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.


Working with the Text

  1. The children are referred to as “vessels” and “pitchers” – what does that imply?
  2. Dickens used to name his characters and places in a descriptive and suggestive manner. What associations do the names Gradgrind, M’Choukumchild (the teacher), Sissy, Bitzer, Coketown, Stone Lodge bring to mind?
  3. Why are Sissy and Bitzer described in such detail (hair, complexion, eyes, skin…)?
  4. What does Dickens say about teachers’ training at the time?
  5. Comment on the sentence: “If he had learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!” Is such an assertion valid today as well?
  6. Comment on the title "Murdering the Innocents".
  7. Why is the word “square” repeated over and over in the description of Mr Gradgrind? (See first part of “The One Thing Needful”.)
  8. Where do you see criticism of industrialism, and which aspect in particular?
  9. Compare the descriptions of Stone Lodge and Coketown - in which ways are they similar?
  10. How are the Gradgrind children brought up, and what is apparently lacking in their upbringing?
  11. How would you characterise Dickens’ narrative style? Which literary means can you spot? (Repetition, emphasis, choice of simile, capitalization, sentence structure, use of exclamation marks.)
  12. Dickens clearly had a political agenda with most of his writing. Do you think a writer can influence public opinion? Can you think of other examples of tendency writing? Check the link for more information about art with an agenda.
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