Charles Dickens’s Hard Times is a novel divided into three books. These books are entitled “Sowing”, “Reaping” and “Garnering”. Explain how each book’s title relates to the events, characters, and themes in it, and and analyze how the novel’s three sections convey Dickens’s central message about rationality and logic in mid-nineteenth century England.
The titles that Dickens chooses for the three books of Hard Times work on different levels: the words are associated with agriculture and imply a nostalgia for the rural traditions that were swept away by the Industrial Revolution – sowing the seeds, reaping the crop, and garnering (gathering) the harvest were part of the rhythm of rural life. They also refer to the Biblical passage from Galatians VI – “As you sow so shall you reap” – meaning that your actions will have consequences that you must face. This can be taken as an authorial comment on the morality of his characters as it develops throughout the plot. Taken together these different layers of meaning represent Dickens’s judgment on both industrial England and its monstrosities and on the philosophy of Utilitarianism, rationality and logic, and their limitations, as Dickens saw them. In many ways, Hard Times is a state-of-the-nation novel and Dickens seems especially pessimistic about the state of the nation. As Stephen Blackpool (arguably Dickens’s mouthpiece in the novel) often says, England is “in a muddle”.
In ‘Sowing’ Dickens sows the seeds of future plot developments. Thomas Gradgrind is a Utilitarian par excellence – “a man of realities, a man of facts and calculations.” (Dickens 1854, p. 48) His two sons are named after the heroes of market forces and economic determinism – Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus. Yet Gradgrind has no emotional life: he cannot understand his children’s curiosity about the circus and Dickens tells us that his children had “never known wonder”. (Dickens, 1854, p. 88) Dickens describes Gradgrind as a loaded cannon “prepared to blow [the children] out of the regions of childhood at one discharge”. (Dickens, 1854, p. 48) He displays no emotional attachment to any of his children or to his wife. Coketown itself with “its interminable serpents of smoke” (Dickens, 1854, p. 65) is the living embodiment of Gradgrind’s philosophy: there is a depressing air of uniformity to the appearance of Coketown and to the lives of its inhabitants. Gradgrind sees the workers as “grown up babies” (Dickens, 1854, 68) who should “take everything on trust” and “Take everything on political economy” (Dickens, 1854, p, 170).
But there is a counterview presented by Dickens in the opening book. Sissy (known to Gradgrind as “Girl No 20” (Dickens, 1854, p.49) and the circus folk represent a different approach to life which includes the imagination and Dickens presents the circus people as a cooperative, loving community. Sissy continues to do badly at school even after Gradgrind has taken her under his wing. When M’Choakumchild asks her what percentage 500 deaths would be out of 100,000 travelers on sea voyages, she replies “nothing, nothing to the relations and friends of the people who were killed.” (Dickens, 1854, p. 99) The book ends with Louisa’s marriage to Bounderby and even the wedding is prepared for in a practical way: the Gradgrind home “took on a manufacturing aspect. Dresses were made, jewelry was made, cakes and gloves were all made.... The business was all facts from start to finish”. (Dickens, 1854, p 142) The question of whether Louisa loves Bounderby is ignored; Bounderby agrees to give Tom, Louisa’s brother, a position in his company.
In ‘Reaping’ we start to see the consequences of Gradgrind’s philosophy and the environment of Coketown. Two new characters are introduced who will be important in the development of the plot: James Harthouse, a handsome gentleman, and Stephen Blackpool, a factory worker. Blackpool is a double victim: the union leader Slackbridge attacks Blackpool for being the only man not to join the workers’ combination (union). After four days of complete isolation, Blackpool is called to Bounderby’s to explain why he will not join the union. He infuriates Bounderby by his defence of his fellow workers: Blackpool says that you cannot treat the workers as if they were machines “wi’out memories and inclinations, wi’out souls to weary and souls to hope” (Dickens, 1854, p. 180). In anger, Bounderby fires him on the spot.
Plot developments come thick and fast. There is a growing intimacy in ‘Reaping’ between Harthouse and Louisa – he can sense that she is unhappy in her marriage. In Chapter Six Louisa and Tom visit Blackpool’s room. Tom persuades him to loiter around Bounderby’s bank for a few nights before he leaves Coketown, but for Louisa the visit has more significance: this is the first time hs ehas been in direct contact with one of the Cokeetown workers in their own home, the first time she has seen them as real people: before she had been taught to think of them as “something to be worked so much and paid so much, and there ended; something to be settled by laws of supply and demand” (dickens, 1854, p. 196). Events proceed rapidly: Bounderby’s bank is robbed and Blackpool is immediately blamed because of his suspicious behaviour. Louisa is about to elope with Harthouse, but seeks refuge at her father’s house where she tells him everything. This is an important moment in the novel: Gradgrind starts to feel guilt about the way he has brought his children up and is at a complete loss for any words when faced with Louisa’s predicament. This, Dickens is suggesting, is what you reap if you deny your children any proper exploration of their feelings and if you rely on logic and rationality alone.
The events of the novel are all brought to a conclusion in ‘Garnering’, but the harvest is not a promising one. Sissy persuades Harthouse to leave town. Gradgrind is much changed, as he says to Bounderby “there are qualities in Louisa which have been harshly neglected and a little perverted” (Dickens, 1854, p. 228). Bounderby is obviously keen on a speedy separation and divorce, which shows the shallowness of his feelings for Louisa. In Chapter Four Bounderby is exposed as a fraud: his own myth of being a self-made man and rising from the gutter through sheer hard work is exposed as a lie by the garrulous re-appearance of his mother. At the same time ,Gradgrind, Louisa and the reader start to suspect that Tom is the bank robber.
In Chapter Six Blackpool, on his way back to Coketown to clear his name, falls down an abandoned mine shaft – the Old Hell Shaft. The rescuers manage to raise from the mine shaft but he is a “poor, crushed human figure” (Dickens, 1854, p. 289) and his final words are a lament for the sufferings of the working class under industrialization: “See how we die an’ no need, one way an’ another – in a muddle every day” (Dickens, 1854, p. 290). In a complicated plot, Gradgrind (ironically given the way he thought about them at the beginning of the novel) relies on the circus folk to get Tom to Liverpool and on a boat leaving England. Bitzer appears, ready to hand over Tom to the authorities, and his discussion with Gragrind shows how much Gradgrind has changed and the limitations of logic. Gradgrind tries to appeal to Bitzer’s emotions, but he has no emotions and all Bitzer’s arguments and logic are concerned with self-interest and economic determinism.
If this is a state-of-the-nation novel, then it can be argued that Dickens is very pessimistic about the state of the nation. Blackpool is dead by the end of the novel; Bounderby dies suddenly in the street five years later; Tom dies on board a ship returning him to England; Rachel continues to care for Blackpool’s alcoholic wife; Gradgrind is a broken man shunned by his former associates; Louisa devotes the rest of her life to philanthropy for the factory workers because she wants to “believe in a wider and nobler humanity” (Dickens, 1854, p. 312).
Nineteenth century logic, rationality and utilitarianism were founded on the idea of self-interest. Hard Times is Dickens’s attack on rationality. Let us leave the last word to Mr Sleary, in charge of the circus. Towards the end of the novel he tells Gradgrind an anecdote about Merrylags, Sissy’s father’s old dog and concludes, as Dickens would surely agree – that humans and dogs are motivated by something nobler than rationality and that there is “ a love in the world, not all Thelf-Interest after all, but soemthing very different” (Dickens, 1854, p. 308).
Dickens, Charles 1854, Hard Times, Penguin Group, London.