There has been a copy of ‘Hard Times’ at my home for many years. My sister read it when she did English literature at university. I used to look at it when I was younger and read the blurb on the back cover of the book and put the book back on the shelf. I haven’t looked at the book in recent years. It has been lying on the shelf gathering dust. It is almost a family heirloom now. When I thought of reading a Dickens novel for Dickens in December, I looked at different books of Dickens. Most of what Dickens wrote were chunksters with a minimum of 700 pages. I wanted to read a smaller novel and other than the Christmas books (which I don’t count for this purpose), the only small novel of his was ‘Hard Times’. So, I decided to take the family heirloom down from the shelf and give it a try. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
The plot of ‘Hard Times’ is quite simple. It is set in the middle of the 19th century in smalltown England, where there are factories and smoke and lots of workers. There is Thomas Gradgrind who has a son and a daughter. Gradgrind has this point of view on how children should be educated and how people should think and make decisions and life choices and live their lives. He thinks (not feels) that all these should be done based on facts, reason and logic. And there should be no room for emotion. He tries this system on his children. He also becomes an MP and sings the praises of this way of thinking in parliament. But things don’t go as planned. Because humans are not rational beings, inspite of his best beliefs, but are emotional beings. So Gradgrind ends up with a situation which he doesn’t know how to handle and his reason doesn’t help him in this.
‘Hard Times’ is a unusual novel by Dickens’s standards. I had mixed feelings about it. First the good news. I read this passage about the book by Anthony Horowitz :
I didn’t always love Charles Dickens. The first book of his that I read – it was Hard Times – landed on my desk with a dull thud and a small cloud of dust when I was in school, aged about sixteen, and I’m afraid I found it very heavy-going. The industrial setting was grim and depressing. The author seemed to use an awful lot of words to tell his story, and quite a lot of those words had far too many syllables for my liking. There were too many pages. It all felt too much like hard work.
It was pretty intimidating when I read that. But when I read the book, it was not like that at all. The start was wonderful. The story was fast-paced (I never thought that I would say this about a Dickens book), atleast in the beginning. The traditional Dickensian humour and the vintage Dickensian sentences were all gloriously on display. One of my favourite conversations in the book went like this :
Mrs.Sparsit : “What is the news of the day? Anything?”
Bitzer : “Well, ma’am, I can’t say that I have heard anything particular. Our people are a bad lot, ma’am; but that is no news, unfortunately.”
I loved reading what Horowitz said, but I didn’t agree with him at all. Maybe because I am no longer sixteen.
The main theme of the story – reason vs emotion – is a powerful one. It says a lot about the vision of Dickens that the picture he presents and the questions he asks apply even today in our increasingly materialistic world. It looks like things haven’t changed much today when compared to Victorian England, inspite of what we might believe.
Now the bad news. Before saying anything further, I will add a disclaimer here. For someone who has grown up with the stories of Dickens, I haven’t read any of Dickens’s novels in full, in the original. Except for ‘A Christmas Carol’. But for the purposes of our discussion, I would say that that book doesn’t count. I have read ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘David Copperfield’, ‘Great Expectations’, ‘A Tale of TwoCities’ and ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ in abridged form. I have also read bits-and-pieces of ‘The Pickwick Papers’. It is like knowing all the stories from ‘The Mahabharata’ or ‘The Bible’ or from Greek mythology, without having read the original books. So, in some ways I am a Dickens virgin. So, what I am going to say here should be taken with a pinch of salt.
So, now on to ‘Hard Times’. I felt that though the theme of the book was powerful, the plot didn’t equal it. Many times, Dickens just puts words into his characters’ mouths and twists the plot in different ways to his convenience to suit the theme. That is what most novelists do. But it looks forced in ‘Hard Times’ and not natural at all. Most of the characters aren’t fleshed out. When I finished the book, I wasn’t sure who the major characters were and who were the minor ones. They all looked like minor characters. It was strange to be reading a book which appeared to have only minor characters. And because of that it was difficult to like or be sympathetic towards any of the characters. I thought maybe it was not Dickens but it was just me, till I read the introduction in the book (by James Gibson, in case you are curious). This was what the introduction said :
The fact that it was not a ‘typical’ Dickens novel immediately attracted adverse criticism, and the book had a very mixed reception when it was published in volume form. One critic described it as ‘stale, flat, and unprofitable; a mere dull melodrama, in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsound.’
…a critic wrote : ‘Hard Times is the one of all his works which should be distinguished from the others as specially wanting in that power of real characterization on which his reputation as a vivid delineator of human character and human life depends.’
Such criticism, based to some extent upon the belief that Dickens had unfortunately moved away from the formula which had brought him success in the past, meant that Hard Times came to be one of Dickens’s least known and least respected novels.
When I read this, I felt happy – not happy because someone criticized Dickens, but happy that there were other people who agreed with me. It also looked like the book was a big hit when it was serialized in a magazine, but when it came out in book form it was panned. One of the reasons given for this lack of characterization is that the book was published in weekly installments rather than in monthly ones and so Dickens had to tell a story which was shorter than his other ones. This appears to be true, because the edition of ‘Hard Times’ which I read was around 250 pages – hardly Dickensian. Modern critical opinion towards the book seems to be more positive, because of the theme it addresses.
So, if I have to think what my overall impression of the book is, I would say that ‘Hard Times’ is not my favourite Dickens book. I don’t think it is his best book either. As a writer Dickens needs space. He needs a lot of pages. We can’t put a tree in the living room and hope that it will grow well. It doesn’t. It needs fertile land. If not forest land, atleast the land in one’s garden. The suppressed size of this book definitely seems to have inhibited Dickens. When I compare ‘Hard Times’ with ‘The Pickwick Papers’ I feel this strongly. Because in ‘The Pickwick Papers’ there is hardly a dull chapter. And the difference between the two books is that ‘The Pickwick Papers’ is a chunkster – it has unlimited space when compared to ‘Hard Times’ and it gave enough room for Dickens to showcase his genius. However, having said this, I have to also say that I liked the theme of ‘Hard Times’ very much. The questions it asks are very significant even today. And the vintage Dickensian sentences and the wonderful Dickensian humour make the book worth a read. I am glad that I read it – it was like taking out a family heirloom and checking it out and finding out that it is still glittering after it gets a polish and it passes the test, though only barely.
You can find the contributions of other participants of Dickens in December, here.
Have you read ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens? What do you think about it?