Hard Times, by Charles Dickens
Reading this book turned out to be a happy occurrence of providence. I had never even heard of the book when I happened to stumble upon a copy for 25 cents at a thrift store during my vacation last month. I grabbed it, along with some other books, packed it in my bags, and forgot about it for a couple of weeks. I wasn’t sure if I was going to read it right away. For me, it takes a good deal of desire, with my schedule as it is, to commit to reading a decent size work of fiction (especially quality fiction, which I find harder to read in some ways than academic books).
I decided to read the first couple of pages before deciding whether I would take the time to read the rest, and here is what I read on the first page:
‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the princple on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principles on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, sir!’
These are the words of Thomas Gradrind, the schoolmaster in Coketown.
I knew immediately that I was dealing with a story about Scientism (in some way, shape, or form), and I was hooked.
Dickens summarizes this ‘just the Facts’ approach:
Herein lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections. Never wonder. By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder (Book 1, chapter 8).
He then describes life in the Gradrind household:
…Life at the Stone Lodge went monotonously round like a piece of machinery which discouraged human interference (1:9).
This sort of mechanical life had enveloped the entire town and had created a miserable working class dominated my the culture of the mechanical:
So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, forever (1:11).
Mr. Gradrind’s son, Tom, becomes especially victimized by this mechanical culture. He falls upon hard times as bad as, or worse than, the rest. Early on,
Time, sticking to him, passed him on into Bounderby’s Band, made him an inmate of Bounderby’s house, necessitated the purchase of his first razor, and exercised him diligently in his calculations relative to number one (1:14).
Thinking ‘relative to number one’ dominated the thinking of those in power in Coketown:
Any capitalist there, who had made sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, always professed to wonder why the sixty thousand nearest Hands didn’t each make sixty thousand pounds out of sixpence, and more or less reproached them every one for not accomplishing that little feat. What I did you can do. Why don’t you go and do it? (2:1).
As for Tom, his ‘scientific’ education yielded surprising results:
It was very strange that a young gentleman who had never been left to his own guidance for five consecutive minutes, should be incapable at last of governing himself; but so it was with Tom. It was altogether unaccountable that a young gentleman whose imagination had been strangled in his cradle, should be still inconvenienced by its ghost in the form of grovelling sensualities; but such a monster, beyond all doubt, was Tom (2:3).
So I have set the atmosphere. I will not give the plot away. Now I only offer a few reflections:
The book is, in some ways, a romance. That is, it displays what the innocence and love of one simple circus girl can do for a world in which love has been suffocated by school and machines. The redemption of Louisa Grandgrind-Bounderby, and the redemption of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind through her, is wondrous to behold. It moved me as much as any book has ever moved me.
The book is reminiscent of three books that I have read: Brave New World, That Hideous Strength, and The Abolition of Man. It is superior to the first two because of the realistic picture it paints. It is not so much dystopia as it is the ideas of those dystopias enfleshed in a real-looking society. And it goes beyond The Abolition of Man for the same reason – enfleshing. It takes the same principles and draws them out with masterful storytelling and complex characters.
Louisa Gradgrind returns home to visit her dying mother:
The dreams of childhood – its airy fables; its graceful, beautiful, humane, impossible adornments of the world beyond: so good to be believed in once, so good to be remembered when outgrown, for then the least of them among them rises to the stature of a great Charity in the heart, suffering little children to come into the midst of it, and to keep with their pure hands a garden in the stony ways of this world, wherein it were better for all the children of Adam that they should oftener sun themselves, simple and trustful, and not worldly-wise – what had she to do with these?…
Her remembrances of home and childhood, were remembrances of the drying up of every spring and fountain in her young heart as it gushed out. The golden waters were not there. They were flowing for the fertilization of the land where grapes are gathered from thorns, and figs from thistles (3:9).
As Mrs. Gradgrind lay on her deathbed with her daughter Louisa close at hand, and her husband away on political business, she says,
‘You learnt a great deal, Louisa, and so did your brother. Ologies of all kinds, from morning to night. If there is any Ology left, of any description, that has not been worn to rags in this house, all I can say is, I hope I shall never hear its name…But there is something – not an Ology at all – that your father has missed, or forgotten, Louisa. I don’t know what it is. I have often sat with Sissy near me, and thought about it. I shall never get its name now. But your father may. It makes me restless. I want to write to him, to find our for God’s sake what it is. Give me a pen, give me a pen’ (3:9).
Mr. Grandgrind finds what he had missed, or forgotten – it is the glory of humanity – that is, the glory of love.
I can’t recommend this book too highly. I think it serves much the same purpose as Brave New World as a subversive narrative against the culture of cold Scientism, but it paints its picture with much more empathy and realism. It shows, in beautiful (though ugly) pictures, what happens to man when he has become the tool of science and technology and what redemption from that captivity might look like.