Hard Times: A Characterization of England’s Industrial Revolution

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What justifies hard times? One would be justified to say that America is in the midst of hard times; with high unemployment, out of control government, and a failing economy. Though few would be justified to define a fiercely progressing society, full of promise and growth as one that is facing hard times; Charles Dickens found his justification through the lives of his characters in his novel Hard Times. Hard Times is a fictional account of the ill effects of the Industrial Revolution in 19th Century England; a revolution which spurred massive change with regard to social class, the economy, and educational philosophies.

During this time period, utilitarian philosophy dominated education in an attempt to maximize the number of effective and productive citizens (Kreis 2001). In addition, power, status, and wealth shifted from the aristocratic landowners to middle-class factory owners, creating an entirely new class system (Kreis 2001). Those who once lived in England’s countryside as farmers and craftsmen, were forced to move into the city to work long hours in factories for little compensation (Kreis 2001).

Women and children were also employed in factories, and as a result, the family unit began to deteriorate (Kreis 2001). Wealthy factory owners began to capitalize on cheap labor, and the working class suffered due to nonexistent labor laws, long days, and little compensation. Dickens’ Coketown, as presented in his novel, Hard Times, paints a picture of this progressive and uneasy time in England’s history, using characters which represent each of the different social classes.

Through character interaction and dialogue, Dickens presents his reader with a critical view of the blurred social status of the aristocrats, the greed, amorality, and flawed philosophy of the wealthy middle class, the daily suffrage of the working class, and the economically crippled life of the impoverished. Representing the fading aristocracy of 19th century England is Dickens’ character, Mrs. Sparsit. A woman who had once seen “… different days… “though “… was [still] highly connected (Dickens 1780), and presided over Mr. Bounderby’s estate. Mrs.

Sparsit, described as coming from a family lineage of high respect and class known as the Prowlers, found herself in an unfortunate marriage that left her both widowed and broke. Mrs. Sparsit was in a position where she must work, so she took a job as the lady of the house for Mr. Bounderby. Dickens uses dialogue between Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby to portray the fading wealth and status of the aristocratic class. Bounderby capitalizes on every opportunity to exploit her fall in class status and his assumed success as a “self-made man” (1620), stating in chapter VII, “[When] you were coming out of the Italian Opera… n white satin and jewels… I hadn’t a penny to buy a link to light you”(Dickens 1928). The conversation between Sparsit and Bounderby continues in a back and forth banter with Bounderby singing self praise and Mrs. Sparsit taking his passive aggressive tongue lashing, assuring Mr. Bounderby that she as, “learnt how to accommodate [herself] to the changes of life” (Dickens 1945). Though Mrs. Sparsit imparts her respectability and culture on Bounderby’s crude manner, she still is resentful of those who do not share her aristocratic background.

Dickens presents this to the reader when he clarifies the intent of Mrs. Sparsit addressing Bounderby as “sir”. Dickens writes, “Mrs. Sparsit’s ‘sir’… , was a word of ceremony, rather exacting consideration for herself in the use, than honouring [sic] him” (1901). Though Mrs. Sparsit is a victim of Bounderby’s insult and amoral behavior, she too operates on self-interest, hoping to bring revenge upon Bounderby she ultimately ends up living with her hated relative, Mrs. Scadgers, after being fired by Bounderby.

Dickens portrayal of the fading aristocrats is done with modest sympathy; however he still criticizes the amoral actions of this social class, alluding to their flawed sense of self and society. Representing the wealthy middle class society are characters Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind. Mr. Josiah Bounderby, a factory owner whom citizens of Coketown regard as “… the Royal arms, the Union-Jack, Magna Charta,… and God save the Queen, all put together” (Dickens 1839), is notably the most infamous character in Hard Times.

Bounderby defines himself, as “a self made man,” (Dickens 1620), and boosts his claim by contriving a fictitious story about his meager, and at times unbearable, upbringing. Bounderby uses his fictitious history to spotlight his current wealth and status, which the economic boom of the Industrial Revolution is responsible for. Bounderby is an amoral character who uses and abuses people for his own self-interest. He employs many people at his factories to which he refers to as “hands” (Dickens), a fitting term, as Bounderby sees no value in his employees aside from the work that their hands can do.

The character Bounderby represents Dickens’ perception of the capitalistic factory owners in 19th century England; greedy, amoral, destructive, and unchanging. Of all of the characters in Hard Times, Bounderby is the only one who does not change his views and philosophies. There are many points in the novel when Bounderby could take the highroad and reveal a little compassion, however when faced with the opportunity, his choice is always self-interest; such as when Stephen Blackpool humbly begs for assistance with a divorce, or when Louisa Gradgrind leaves their loveless marriage.

Both instances could have been a turning point for Bounderby’s character, however he moved forward, like a machine, unchanged. Just as Dickens uses the character Bounderby to represent capitalistic factory owners, he too uses the character Mr. Gradgrind, described in chapter two as “A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations” (Dickens 81), to present the reader with the utilitarian philosophy that dominated education and the economy during the Industrial Revolution. Mr.

Gradgrind is the owner of a school which operates under the notion that “You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them” (Dickens 39). Gradgrind does not allow his pupils or his children any time for feeling, wonder or imagination, leading to great problems and conflict throughout the novel. Gradgrind’s greatest conflict is the outcome of his fact and statistic based child rearing, leading to a son, Tom, who turns to alcohol, gambling and theft; and a daughter, Louisa, who marries a man she does not love because she was never taught how to love or feel.

It is not until the end of the novel, when Mr. Gradgrind’s son Tom needs help, that Mr. Gradgrind abandons his fact based philosophies in order to help Tom flee the country. Though aiding in Tom’s escape from the law can be seen as an amoral act on behalf of Gradgrind, it also showcases his progression and change throughout the novel; part of which can be contributed to the character Sissy Jupe. Cecilia “Sissy” Jupe is the lowest of the social groups that Dickens represents in his novel.

She comes from a family of circus people, who are disregarded and despised by those of higher class. Sissy is not a scholar, and is not educated of the facts and statistics that Gradgrind and Bounderby find so crucial, however she possess what Gradgrind and his children do not; the ability to love, feel, wonder, and imagine. Upon the abandonment of her father, Sissy is taken in by Mr. Gradgrind in an attempt to school her on facts and improve her social status by making her a productive and educated pupil.

Through all of Gradgrind’s efforts, however, “the system” (Dickens 3935) as Gradgrind calls his schooling, failed to overcome the “circumstances of … [Sissy’s] early life,” which were “… too unfavourable [sic] to the development of [her] reasoning powers” (Dickens 3935). Though Gradgrind is openly disappointed with her academic capabilities, he later praises her for her affection and morality. Gradgrind’s recognition of these qualities in Sissy, as being enough to find her useful, is a turning point for both Mr. Gradgrind and Sissy.

Sissy, who is perceived by the wealthy class as utterly useless, is validated by Mr. Gradgrind in this moment, and is given worth. Dickens reveals to his reader a glimpse of kindness in Gradgrind and an acceptance of self in Sissy. Though great attempts have been made to mold Sissy Jupe into a robotic pupil, representative of the machine like quality of the Industrial Revolution, the system failed. Dickens reveals hope in this instance, that not everyone can be emptied of emotion a filled with facts, and reinforces that a good heart and kind nature are more important than facts and statistics.

Good natured, kind, and honest are all words that can be used to describe Dickens’ character Stephen Blackpool, the embodiment of the working class in 19th century England. Stephen Blackpool is one of Mr. Bounderby’s “hands”, and despite the abuse he takes from Bounderby, wishes him no ill will. Stephen is the martyr of the novel, carrying the weight of the working class on his back; he faces great hardship, strife, and unhappiness while still maintaining enough pride to stand up for his fellow workers when verbally attacked by Bounderby.

Dickens portrays the struggles and pain of the working class through the eyes of Stephen Blackpool, and leaves his reader with no choice but to be sympathetic to his situation and the situation of others forced to work long hours in the factories. Though characters such as Stephen Blackpool often get happy endings in novels, Stephen did not. His traumatic and abrupt death gives no justice or closure to his character; Dickens maintains his role as martyr.

Though some historians may argue that the Industrial Revolution was a time of wealth, prosperity and economic growth for England, others contend that the Industrial Revolution created desperately hard times for many of England’s citizens. The rigid social class system was turned on its head, living situations changed drastically, and work environments took a turn for the worse. Charles Dickens Hard Times captures a not so ideal picture of the Industrial Revolution as seen through the eyes of the working class, and a time of great progression and prosperity for England’s minority is quickly justified by Dickens as hard times for the majority.

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