The Story’s the Thing: “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens

One of the downsides to college classes is that you have little to no time of your own to read books, and instead must read those assigned to you in class. This is almost always surprising and fun to me, however, because I love being introduced to new books I would not have thought of reading before then, and if I don’t understand a concept or passage or even the way a character speaks, we have class discussions that lead to a greater understanding of the underlying themes and ideas, the interactions between the characters.

Such is the situation while I read Hard Times by Charles Dickens. I admit that I have never actually read any of his works before, and the language can be difficult at times to read, but the story is fascinating in its own way. Dickens wrote it in response to his experiences looking into industry-driven towns and the trouble they held. It was originally written as a serial, weekly editorial in the newspaper, and it was only when it was completed that he published it in book form.


One of the main issues portrayed in the novel is of Utilitarianism – where the moral worth of an action or event is determined by the amount of good it does to the greatest amount of people. The characters become characaturized versions of various ideals: one of the main characters, Mr. Gradgrind, is introduced to the reader thusly: “The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders – nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was”

This ideal is undermined from the start, just from Dickens’ choice of words – he sets the “scene” for the reader, and requires that we use our imagination, something that Mr. Gradgrind most definitely would not have approved of. He’s raised his own children, Louisa and Tom specifically, up to be believe in nothing but Facts, no fancy or wonder or imagination allowed in his household! This turns out to be the ruin of their lives, when Louisa marries her father’s friend, Bounderby, following her father’s Utilitarian ideals but then falls for another man, and Tom’s part I haven’t gotten to yet, though I know that something happens to him at the bank where he works for Bounderby.

The parallels between Louisa’s marriage and her father’s Utilitarian ideals is very intriguing, because her acceptance of the proposal seems to be her father’s validation in lifestyle, and ends Book 1 (Sowing), while her dispair and the end of her marriage is the destruction of her father’s Utilitarian ideal, and the end of Book 2 (Reaping) – reminding me of the phrase “You reap what you sow.” That’s as far as I have gotten in the book, but I am excited and interested to see where the end will take me!

What classic novels do you enjoy reading? (My favorites are Jane Eyre and Pride & Prejudice.) Leave your response in the comments section below.

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One Comment

  1. Dori

    April 11, 2013 at 12:58 am

    Dickens is one of my all-time favorites, and Hard Times holds a particular place in my heart. I know it’s not one of his best–his own unhappy marriage made him too blunt with the unhappy marriages of his characters–but I love it anyway.

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