Summary of Hard Times by Charles Dickens (Social commentary without sjw shoehorning)
Character and structure in Hard Times
Charles Dickens’s Hard Times was serialized in 1854. True to his normal form, Dickens novel is rich in social critique for Victorian England and concerns itself with the hardships of the poor and working class. In this particular work, the author uses the story to contrast rationalist utilitarianism with affective humanism. The narrative follows a familiar format, utilizing three sections to set the premise, introduce a problem, and allow for a resolution. These three sections are entitled Sowing, Reaping, and Garnering, terms which provide a symbolic reference to the story itself. Sowing and reaping are widely known terms thanks to their inclusion in the Bible, meaning to plant and harvest wheat. Garnering, on the other hand, means to return to the field to collect the harvest. To pick up, recover, and accumulate from that which has been sown and reaped.
The first section introduces the story and background. In the first chapter, Mr. Gradgrind is introduced as he’s giving instructions for his children's education, telling their teacher, “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.” Metaphorically expanding on the title of the section, Sowing, he continues, “plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”
Mr. Gradgrind is an adherent to a strict utilitarianism, expressed in overbearing rationalism and pragmatism. During the first part of the novel, he discourages free-thinking from his children. Everything, he believes, should be a calculated decision carried out to pursue one’s rational best interest. This is the worldview he attempts to impress upon his children, Tom and Louisa. Much of the novels plot revolves around the resultant effects of his efforts.
Tom, Mr. Gradgrind’s eldest son, is also introduced in section one. In section two, Reaping, we learn he’s become dissipated and taken toward gambling and vice. He plays a tragically villainous role, a plausible result Dicken’s sees for the child inculcated in rigorous rationalism without virtue.
Gradgrind’s daughter, Louisa, is featured much more prominently. Much of the narrative occurs as a result of the tension she feels between following logic or feeling. Her father urges her to marry the wealthy Mr. Bounderby, despite him being decades her senior and her feeling no attraction. She resists at first, but relents, does the 'logical' thing, and fulfills his wish. The transnational nature of their marriage alludes to the ultra-rationalist mentality of the world occupied by Mr. Gradgrind and Bounderby.
Louisa's new husband, Mr. Bounderby, is a wealthy businessman. He has a similar preference for cold utilitarianism yet lacks basic virtue such as humility or honesty. He’s introduced as dispassionate yet arrogant, unable to consider others. During this honeymoon with Louisa, they go to Lyon because he has business dealings there.
Sissy, a young girl taken in by the Gradgrinds, represents a foil for Mr. Gradgrind. She is imaginative and compassionate. Consequently, she encounters great difficulty in the rigid environment while living under his tutelage. The rationalist bourgeois adults around her believe she negatively impacts the mental faculties of Tom and Louisa with her fanciful ideas. In the story, Sissy acts to introduce the notion of humanism both conceptually and in the lives of the Gradgrinds.
The final major character to be introduced in the first section is Stephen Blackpool, a laborer. He’s depicted as faithful, genuine, and compassionate, and offers an additional layer both to the narrative and meaning of the novel. In the opening section, Blackpool is shown as a simple man but one nonetheless beset by troubles. His wife has become an alcoholic. Though he pities her, he wants a divorce. However, he’s not allowed to get one. To add greater sympathy to the character, though he loves another woman, he refuses to fully act on his feelings due to his pious, normative fidelity to his estranged wife.
While Dickens doesn’t provide him with much depth in terms of contrasting qualities, he uses him as a vehicle to project the notion and image of the virtuous lower-class laborer, one who falls victim to high society despite displaying moral rectitude.
In the second section, Reaping, things take a dramatic turn.
Two new characters are introduced, both villains of sorts. The first is James Harthouse, a sophisticated and manipulative dandy who rides into Coketown early in the section. He learns of Louisa and quickly ascertains her longing for emotion and passion, and is thus able to capitalize by sparking an easy romantic fling with her. He does this casually and without regard for the mental impact this will have for her.
The next character to be introduced is Slagbridge, a labor organizer, who attempts to unionize the Hands, the laborers to which Stephen Blackpool belongs. Stephen distrusts the new character and opposes the idea to unionize, stating it will only create more conflict. Because Blackpool fails to get behind plans for a union, he is cast out by the other workers from his job. To make matters worse, he’s soon set up by Tom Gradgrind to take the blame for a bank robbery.
The second section ends with Louisa having a mental breakdown. She confronts her father to tell him that she regrets her childhood, and that her inability to feel or utilize imagination has ruined her. She confesses that she doesn’t love her husband but she might love Harthouse. Then, sobbing, she collapses to the floor. As with reaped grain, she’s fallen.
Out of the second section, the problems faced by the main characters are set to be resolved. The pieces are there to be picked up. Are garnering is set to take place.
In the third and final section, Mr. Gradgrind immediately recognizes the folly of his hard-nosed ways and resolves to allow Louisa to develop emotionally. Louisa separates from her husband and returns home, where she is reunited with and can spend time with Sissy, thus adopting her more affective mentality. She never marries, indicating that her brief liaison with Harthouse had indeed broken part of her. However, she gets to experience maternal joy through her relationships with Sissy’s children.
Harthouse is confronted and chased off by Sissy. This is perhaps the clearest and most direct confrontation in the story between the amoral, calculating world view represented by Harthouse and the compassionate, virtuous one represented by Sissy. The good side, in the author's view, wins, in an undramatic and unceremonious fashion.
Tom escapes with the help of the circus. This is ironic due to his father, Mr. Gradgrind’s, initial disparagement of the circus in the first section.
Blackpool is found, having fallen into a mine while traveling back to Coketown. Though he dies, he’s able to clear his name, thus preserving his image and achieving some resolution.
Though concern for social and economic hardship facing the people of England was clearly on his mind, Dickens didn’t try to shoehorn in large political points or social exhortations into Hard Times. Instead, he utilized a character-driven brand of storytelling. In doing so, he imagined how various characters of different stations, personalities, mindsets, and temperaments might be affected by or respond to each other, events, or changes in circumstances, thus driving their growth and development throughout a story. Additionally, he utilizes a simple storytelling structure, one which sets up the characters and provides premises, a second which introduces some change or problem, and a final part in which some resolution is achieved. While Dickens is attempting to depict the resultant problems of cold utilitarianism as a guiding ideology as the well as the redemptive power of humanism, he does so through the personal drama of the cast of characters and their development in a clear, well-written narrative structure.