Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Critical notes on Hard Times

Though Dickens was a great entertainer he was not included in F R Leavis’s The Great Tradition of the English novel as he lacked seriousness something that Henry James and Joseph Conrad possessed. However Leavis felt that Hard Times has complete seriousness that could excite the adult mind. Leavis praised the novel’s tight story, clear symbolism, moral values, sharp dialogue, natural style and convincing denouement. Hard Times was seen as a great moral fable that captured the writer’s moral vision.

“I want facts sir! What I want is facts, sir!” the teacher’s voice booms in chapter one. It is a classroom scene where only the voice of the teacher echoes. The one word that comes out of the lesson is ‘facts’ and next ‘reason.’ The voice of the teacher is imperial and authoritative. Dickens is ironic here. He presents the school as a model school in which Bitzer is the best student defining a horse clinically and dispassionately. There is no heart or creativity in education, just dry scientific facts.

Dickens was born in 1812 and was a product of the Industrial Revolution, a revolution that saw the rise of factories in England between 1770 and 1840. Dickens was rather poor, had no proper education and worked in a blacking factory. All this made him unhappy. He worked hard to educate himself and write novels to make a decent living. Dickens, like Gradgrind, had no time for idle fancy.

The people of Coketown have no life at all, as people of Great Expectations do. We feel that characters in Hard Times have no energy at all. Dickens knew London better than Coketown but he could still bring out the listlessness of the townsfolk in Coketown. Dickens shows the dehumanizing aspects of industrialization in urban Victorian society but does not show details of the environment. English factories were destroying the bucolic landscape and the economic power that was arising from them was changing the social order making some wealthy while leaving others rather poor. The soot-coated, black and savage Coketown gives the feeling of repetitiveness, monotony and drudgery. Both its streets and inhabitants have lost their uniqueness and they look alike. The repeated use of the word “same” and the phrase “like one another” reveals both the monotony of Coketown and the drudgery of its inhabitants. Everything in the redbrick Coketown is “severely workful” and the idea of sameness extends to the eighteen churches of different “religious persuasions,” the jail, infirmary, town hall, school and cemetery. The blasting furnaces of Coketown make it hot as hell; the gas-filled air makes people feel suffocated.

Social criticism saw the novel as a novel of “passionate revolt” where there were no villains or heroes, but only oppressors and victims. And the culprit, if there was one, was industry. Socialists saw the machine as a symbol of oppression when controlled by money-making capitalists. Dickens has lost his good humor. His tone becomes quite serious. Cecilia Jupe and Louisa are serious and suffering characters. Though humble and natural, Sissy is predictably bookish. Louisa is tragic.

The novel ends in a thematic balance. The novel begins with the childhood of the mind and ends with the childhood of the body. Dickens begins the story with reason and hard facts and ends it with fancy and imagination. He believes that both machine and social graces should make life beautiful and worth living. The loss of balance in society was undoubtedly lamentable.

Dickens brings out the negative effects of Victorian Utilitarianism are seen in the characters of Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby. The practical utilitarianism of Gradgrind and the egotism of Bounderby destroy the creative spirit and fellow feeling. Utilitarianism was a philosophy based on a minimalist view of man that understood human nature in terms of economic relations alone. Though riddled with self-contradictions it was responsible in some measure for reforms in administration, sanitation and education. Utilitarianism, though inspired by the theory of laissez faire came to represent a streamlined civil service and centralized governance. It was difficult to reconcile the Benthamite idea of general happiness of a political and legal kind with Adam Smith’s self-harmonizing economic principle of laissez-faire (minimum intervention from the law). Dickens seemed to be both a victim and chronicler of such a contradictory response to utilitarianism in Hard Times, both in his treatment of the theme of education and trade unionism.

Dickens wanted to restructure education and do away with unqualified teachers in schools. He strongly felt the need to provide training to teachers. As such, he introduced Mr. M’Choakumchild, fresh from a training college, accompanied by his wife, about to deliver his first classroom lecture. Though the satire, both in the choice of the name and presentation of character, seems inescapable, M’Choakumchild is after all a representative of a new school ideology. His Scottish-sounding name obviously refers to the importation of trained Scottish teachers in English schools. Obviously M’Choakumchild knows too much in a somewhat conceited way. He bores and confuses his simple-minded but ignorant students. Through M’Choakumchild, Dickens expressed some of the popular criticism against training schools of the time. Dickens wanted training schools to instruct teachers in teaching methodology and develop their intellect, not just impart some erudite scholarship.

Hard Times develops the conventional theme of nineteenth century fiction that it was the responsibility of parents to get their sons into a financially rewarding profession and their daughters into a financially secure marriage. Till they got comfortably married, education for women was seen as developing skills to protect themselves against the greedy instincts of men. Gradgrind is no different from a typical Victorian father who has the welfare of his daughter at heart. Though it hurts Dickens’ sensibility, just as it does ours, Gradgrind finds no trouble with the idea of marriage as a financial transaction. He understands that her middle-class daughter needs money to set up an establishment. It is, therefore, commonsense to look for a man of means like Bounderby.

Tom Gradgrind, more than his father, sees Louisa’s marriage to Bounderby as strengthening of “power relationships” between the two families apart from providing a good financial deal to his sister. Tom employs a mercenary approach. He views matrimonial alliance as economic advantage or exploitation. And he is not wrong in doing so.

Edward W. Said in his book Culture and Imperialism argues that the English novel in the nineteenth century continues the narrative of a stable British empire and its imperial policy. The novelist, insofar as he believes in the general idea of free trade, sees outlying colonies available for convenient use in developing themes of “immigration, fortune, or exile.” It is only later that the Empire becomes the main subject in writers such as Kipling, Haggard, Doyle and Conrad. Fictional discourse about the Empire is also accompanied by discourses in ethnography, administration, economics and historiography. Furthermore, belief in liberal individualism and free trade were hard to reconcile with the maintenance of a vast colonial empire overseas. In Hard Times Dickens is alive to the debate of unionism, utilitarian education and worker’s predicament. Apparently the novel reveals the inherent tensions, ideological conflict and the muddled intellectual position of the author.

The conflict between facts and imagination is also played out along ideological lines. The opposing values of utilitarianism in schools and traditional humanism of the circus are played between utilitarians and emotivists. Gradgrind employs metaphorical language to control others. He believes in equivalencies while the circus folks see language as dialogue to empower others. A tension exists between metaphorical language of domination and broken language of dialogue.

New Historicists, such as Catherine Gallagher, situate the text in the English industrial society and analyze Dickens’ attempt to suggest social cohesion through an intricate process of linking cooperative family life to competitive public life. Dickens attacks the unhealthy link between money and morality. And yet his novels reveal the unwillingness of the family to participate in larger social issues of the day. Dickens’ withdrawal into middle-class family values of self-discipline, responsibility, domesticity, self-sacrifice and dedication seemed at times to work against the idea of individual freedom. Critics have pointed out this lapse in Dickens’ writing, and, more seriously, have condemned him for his lack of enthusiasm at resolving his own ambiguous position vis-à-vis these issues.

The single hard fact about Hard Times is that it is a male-dominated and patriarchal novel. Obviously, this gives rise to the issue of gender and opens up related issues of,

A. the way Victorian society was constituted,
B. the way people saw themselves and constructed the other, and
C. the way sexual politics controlled women in private and public life.

Dickens explores feminine discourses such as female affection and sympathy much to the chagrin of his male-dominated critics such as George Henry Lewes (George Eliot’s companion). Dickens reveals a linguistic structure that attempts to control literature and more especially the entry of women in public life. Dickens also challenges the power structure of male-dominated Victorian society by presenting the world through female terms and conditions. Though speaking as a male and from the outside, Dickens speaks against the controllers of power thereby enhancing his position as a novelist. Feminist literary criticism, originating in the 1960’s out of the feminist movement demanding equal rights for woman, had gained strength and popularity in subsequent decades. It presupposed that, by and large, most cultures tend to be patriarchal if not outright misogynist. Feminist critics commonly agreed that concepts of gender tend to determine aspects of masculinity and femininity in any given culture. Therefore, unlike human sex, which is anatomical or biological, concept of gender has a social construction. They tended to agree with Simone de Beauvoir that “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

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