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I read ‘Hard Times’ by Charles Dickens for Dickens in December hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia from Postcards from Asia. This is also my last book review for the year.

Hard Times By Charles DickensOxfordEdition

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?

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Dickens In December Button

I read Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ for the readalong hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia from Postcards from Asia, as part of Dickens in December. Here are the readalong questions and my answers to them.

A Christmas Carol By Charles Dickens

Is this the first time you are reading the story?

This is the second time I am reading ‘A Christmas Carol’. I read it the first time on Christmas Day a few years back. It was an interesting and a different experience re-reading it.

 

Did you like it?

I liked it very much, but in a different way, when compared to the first time. The first time I read it, I didn’t know the story. So, I was looking forward to finding out what happened next. This time when I read it, I knew the overall story, though I had forgotten the details. I was looking forward to discovering things that I missed the first time. For example, a couple of interesting things that I discovered was that the phrase ‘dead as a doornail’ in the first page of the book must have inspired the title of Charlaine Harris’ book of the same name. And the Ghost of Christmas Past inspired the title of the movie ‘Ghosts of Girlfriends Past’.

 

Which was your favorite scene?

This is a really tough question to answer. I think it would be one of these three – Belle breaking off with Scrooge because she feels that he has become a person greedy for money, the Fezziwig family celebrating Christmas with their family, friends and employees and how at the end of that scene Scrooge says that happiness comes from things which are impossible to add and count, Bob Cratchit celebrating Christmas with his family.

 

Which was your least favorite scene?

I don’t think I had a least favourite scene. Because I think every scene was important to the story and was there for a reason, even if some of the scenes depicted characters who were not really nice or circumstances which exposed the not-so-good part of some of the characters’ hearts. I also wish that the third ghost had spoken. Just pointing the finger was not enough for me.

 

Which spirit and his stories did you find the most interesting?

I liked the second spirit very much, because it showed how people celebrated Christmas with a lot of joy and happiness whether they were rich or poor and how the spirit itself added to the happiness by its magic. The Christmas celebrations of the Fezziwig and Cratchit families were my favourite scenes from that part of the story.

 

Was there a character you wish you knew more about?

Probably Belle. Wish she had met Scrooge again and they could have become friends again.

 

How did you like the end?

I found the ending quite heartwarming and nice. I liked it very much. Though I knew the ending already, even while re-reading, it made me very happy. It was the perfect ending to the story.

 

Did you think it was believable?

I think from the perspective of a Christmas story, the ending was believable. But if I look at it as a real story, it is possible that a person might undergo such a major change in personality when he / she goes through a crisis. But it may not happen always. But it does happen sometimes

 

Do you know anyone like Scrooge?

One of the things I really liked about the story was that it doesn’t depict Scrooge as a completely selfish, miserly person, but shows that there are two sides to his character and one of the sides has been suppressed because of different reasons and circumstances. I think there are people like Scrooge everywhere or people who have some of his personality traits. For example, I have seen people who have money but who don’t know how to use it to make themselves happy or get themselves creature comforts. The disturbing thing though is that Scrooge’s indifference to the world, his refusal to become friends with anyone, his suspicious behaviour towards anyone who invites him for a dinner / party, the way he has constructed walls around his heart so that it is not accessible to anyone around – these are things which we see everyday.

 

Did he deserve to be saved?

I think he deserved to be shown a different perspective of life other than the cold, logical way that he looked at it. I am glad that the three spirits did that and I am glad that it changed Scrooge’s heart and made him a better person. I think everyone deserves an opportunity to become a better person.

 

You can find Caroline’s post on the readalong here and Delia’s post on the readalong here. You can find the answers by other participants in Caroline’s post.

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I haven’t read any of Dickens’ shorter works before and I thought this was a good time to try reading one of them. I got inspired by some of my friends’ suggestions and decided to read ‘A Christmas Carol’. I read it in one sitting today. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below a summary of the story as given in the back cover.

Scrooge is a mean old man with no friends or family to love him – he’s just so miserable and bitter! One freezing cold Christmas Eve, Marley’s Ghost pays Scrooge a visit and an eerie night-time journey begins. The Christmas spirits are here to show Scrooge the error of his nasty ways. By visiting his past, present and future, will Scrooge learn to love Christmas and the others around him?

What I think

I had seen a movie version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ before called ‘Scrooged’ and it was nice to read the story in the original. I liked it very much. I first came across the name of Scrooge in Disney comics, which I used to read when I was in school, in which Uncle Scrooge is a famous character, who is rich and miserly, and who is also the uncle of Donald Duck. It was interesting to discover that Uncle Scrooge was based on the main character of ‘A Christmas Carol’. The book also made me remember some of the real-world Scrooges whom I have met – who kept their money in the bank and didn’t like spending a penny, who didn’t know how to enjoy life and refused to let others enjoy their lives. But, when we read the book, we sympathize with Scrooge. The story also made me remember a quote from a movie I saw sometime back called ‘The Peaceful Warrior’ in which one of the lead characters says : “The ones that are hardest to love are the ones that need it the most.” It was also interesting to know from the book that Charles Dickens made the phrase, ‘dead as a doornail’‘, popular, through this book. (It is also the title of one of Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels in the Sookie Stackhouse series).

In his introduction to this book, Anthony Horowitz, who writes children books, says this about Dickens, which I found quite interesting :

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 at 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.

That’s the trouble with Dickens. People think of him as a ‘great’ writer, which can be a little off-putting. He has a nasty habit of turning up in English Literature exams…definitely not an enjoyable experience. And the honest truth is that if you read him too early, you can be turned off him for life – which is a great pity.

Because what is really great about Dickens is that he was a wonderful storyteller with ghosts, murderers, lunatics, lovers, revolting villains, dashing heroes, eccentric aunts and lovable rogues across the pages. He created a huge cast of unforgettable characters, many of whom are still famous all over the world.

Favourite Lines

I am giving below some of my favourite lines from the book.

And yet I should have clearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value.

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘A Christmas Carol’. As Horowitz says in his introduction : “it’s a perfect book to dip into, to get a first taste of Dickens. It’s short. It’s easy to read. And although you may think you know the story, it may still surprise you.”

If you haven’t read Dickens before and would like to start with one of his smaller works, this well-loved beautiful story is a good place to start.

You can also read a review of this book by fellow book-blogger Kelly here.

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