How successful a novel is ‘Hard Times’?

Hard Times is a novel which from the moment of its publication aroused very different sentiments in the reading public. It succeeded in increasing the circulation of ‘Household Words’, doubling the number of copies bought during the time it was being published, and yet it was still condemned by contemporary critics has having a plot which is “…flat, stale, unprofitable; a mere dull melodrama, in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsound”.1 It is almost impossible to say whether or not ‘Hard Times’ is a successful novel, deserving of the glowing praise heaped upon it which has snowballed since Dr. Leavis’ infamous analysis of the ‘masterpiece’, or if it is merely an embarrassment on Dickens’ creative résumé, known chiefly as being “the least read of all the novels and probably also the least enjoyed by those who read it”.2 As enjoyment is a matter of personal taste, in this essay I hope to prove that ‘Hard Times’ is at the very least, entirely unsuccessful as a helpful social tract.

The first striking feature of the novel, which F.R. Leavis was so quick to seize upon, is that it immediately sets itself up as a moral fable ‘for these times’ in its three book titles, Sowing, Reaping, and Garnering. Clearly Dickens meant to call to mind Galatians 6:7, and it the course of the novel it is to be made abundantly clear “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”. In this vein, he see Gradgrinds’ utilitarian sensibilities crumpling around his ears and lying before him in the figure of his daughter Louisa; while the political economy of Bounderby, the self-made man, is critiqued by the revelation that the self-made man is actually the creation of a loving and self sacrificing mother. To be fair, all this is done with a starkness of purpose that perhaps deserves Leavis’s claim of a “concentrated significance…immediately clear and penetrating”.3 Dickens curbs his normal meandering exploration of practically everything in sight, and a good deal out of it, in this novel, in order, essentially to convey the futility of the system he wants to cast off. As a result of this, the minuscule opening chapter introduces the Messiah of Utilitarianism in a hail of “Facts!” as if to suggest that this is “the kind of parched and grudging stuff”4 that utilitarians would produce. In much the same way the novel as a whole is rigidly structured so as to allow him to produce a logically ordered attack on what he sees as an illogical system. Unfortunately the aforementioned parched and grudging stuff does its job too well – we feel the same distaste for the novel as we would do for one of Gradgrind’s beloved blue books. Continue reading “How successful a novel is ‘Hard Times’?”