Wednesday, 19 July 2000

Charles Dickens: Hard Times (1854)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 542

Generally considered Dickens' weakest novel, and certainly consistently his least known, Hard Times is a campaigning work about the conditions experienced by workers in northern English industrial towns. The reason that it is unsatisfactory is not, in fact, hard to see: Dickens did not become involved in his subject in the way that he did in his other novels attacking abuses (such as David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby and Little Dorrit). The remedy for the abuses of the rich mill owners was not obvious, and Dickens viewed one potential remedy (organisation of the workers) with deep distrust. So Dickens' campaign here had no definite aim, and so the best that he could suggest was an appeal to the individual philanthropy of the mill owners.

The distance of author from subject has its most obvious repercussions in the characters in the novel, normally one of Dickens' strong points. His plots are usually melodramatic, and characters tend not to develop, but even the small parts are vividly drawn. The most interesting person in the book is Mr Gradgrind, but he is the personification of a secondary target of the novel, the idea that education should just be about "hard facts", the bloodless classification of objects into categories which are meaningless and useless to the average child ("Horse. Graminivorous quadruped..."). Everyone else, particularly the working class, is colourless.

The best pasts of Hard Times are the descriptions of the fictional Coketown in which it is set. These remind the reader that Dickens started out as a journalist. In the end, though, I was quite grateful that Hard Times is one of Dickens' shortest completed novels.

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