Thursday, 8 March 2012

Hard Times. By Charles Dickens

Hard Times

Charles Dickens

First published in 1854

I was disappointed. Even the boring (when I read it 20 years ago) 'Dombey and Son' and 'Martin Chuzzlewit' were better. This was one of his later books, but he wrote 'Great Expectations' and 'A Tale of Two Cities' after 'Hard Times', so I cannot even put it down to just a tendency to take it easy at the end of his career. The main problem with this book is that is shows all the signs of Dickens 'writing short' like PGW did in the books he wrote after about 1965. That is, the scenes follow one another in a somewhat discordant and staccato fashion, and the scenes themselves are short, not fully developed. Again the characters are not developed, especially the most interesting ones - Sissy, for example, or Rachel (who is someone like Agnes from 'David Copperfield'). Even Louisa, to whom Dickens gives the chief role in the book is not well shaped out. Dickens seems to rely on stereotyping to save him the labour of having to build his story. About the only really enjoyable character is that of Mrs. Sparsit.

The story starts with introducing John Gradgrind who is only interested in 'facts' and brings up his children to disregard emotions. In this he succeeds with his own daughter and son, both of whom become very unhappy in life due to that, but fails with the circus girl Sissy Jupe whom he adopts, and who, in the end, shows him (and everybody else) that feelings are at least as important as 'facts'. Dickens is here pushing his usual line of the 'heart' being more important than the 'brain', but while that idea is very well presented and argued out in his other books, here it appears as a rant against rationalism, hastily pressed on the reader. He describes some of the bad effects of industrial capitalism, the terrible state of the workers, and the uncaring doings of the capitalists. There is a scene where someone is trying to organize the workers, but presented in such a way as to make us think that Dickens did not really believe in those early ideas of socialism/communism/workers rights. The climax would have been thrilling, but for the fact that it actually takes place 'off stage', this signifying a cop-out by the author. But here is a quotation I liked.

'...'[, said Sissy].  
'National, I think must have been', said Louisa.
'National Prosperity. And he said, Now, this schoolroom is a Nation. And in this nation there are fifty millions of money. Isn't this a prosperous nation? Girl number twenty [Sissy], isn't this a prosperous nation and an't you in a thriving state?'

'Miss Louisa, I said I didn't know. I thought I couldn't know whether it was a prosperous nation or not, and whether I was in a thriving state or not, unless I knew who had got the money, and whether any of it was mine. But that had nothing to do with it. It was not in the figures at all,' said Sissy, wiping her eyes.

'That was a great mistake of yours,' observed Louisa.

'Yes, Miss Louisa, I know it was, now. Then Mr. M'Choakumchild said he would try me again. And he said, This schoolroom is an immense town, and in it there are a million of inhabitants, and only five-and-twenty are starved to death in the streets, in the course of a year. What is your remark on that proportion? And my remark was - for I couldn't think of a better one - that I thought it must be just as hard upon those who were starved, whether the others were a million, or a million million. And that was wrong, too.'
'Of course it was.'