Review: Hard Times

By David Gill, reprinted from The 313.

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens wrote a short novel that describes the lives of the winners and losers in the fictional “Coketown,” a generic Northern English mill-town. Hard Times was the tenth (and shortest) novel by the author of Great ExpectationsOliver TwistDavid CopperfieldA Christmas Carol and other works. First published in 1854, Hard Times describes and critically satirizes the social and economic conditions and the lives of England’s working class during the Industrial Revolution.

Dickens was born in 1812 near Portsmouth, England, and died in Kent in 1870. He was the second of eight children in a poor family. He was sent to work ten-hour days in a warehouse pasting labels on jars of shoe polish while his father was imprisoned for debt. A turn of fortune in the shape of a legacy ended the nightmare of prison and “slave” factories but forever affected Dickens’s message. After working as an attorney’s clerk, he began in 1833 contributing stories to newspapers and magazines, and in 1836 started the serial publication of his Pickwick Papers. Over the next twenty years he published his major novels.

In Hard Times, the contrast between the financially comfortable lives of Thomas Gradgrind, Josiah Bounderby, and James Harthouse, on the one hand, and the difficulty of the laboring class members like Stephen Blackpool  and Rachael is vividly drawn. The disrespect and disdain shown by the pompous hypocrite manager Bounderby toward Blackpool and other workers helps explain the attraction of Marx and other radical reformers to workers of that epoch.  

While greed certainly plays a part, the real culprit in Hard Times is “utilitarianism,” understood by Dickens as the worship of facts and numbers to the exclusion of all else. Gradgrind and his manager Bounderby are “all business” – life and work are only about reason, calculation, numbers, and “facts.”  Mystery, imagination, sentiment . . . these are obstacles and failings to overcome. Part of the consequence is the inhuman treatment of the workers and the environment. But Dickens dwells at length on how this philosophy also corrupts the families and souls of its practitioners. Gradgrind’s daughter is condemned to a lifetime of repression and misery as she yields to her father’s value system. Gradgrind’s son turns into a thoughtless, empty, thieving scoundrel. The polluted air, the bleakness of the industrial town, the loss of beauty and music, laughter and love, the rigidity of the economic classes despite the professed belief in upward mobility for the self-disciplined, the phoniness and hypocrisy . . . these were truly hard times.  

In 2023 our cultural and economic environment put the focus on personal consumption and corporate profits. Life and success, our identity, purpose, and meaning, seem to be primarily defined monetarily. But a decent life does not consist merely of “the abundance of things we posses.” Underneath it all we can see the ideology of “technique” – the constant invasion of machines and devices and the worship of measurable, quantifiable efficiency. The sweat shops and factories may not look the same but extreme and growing inequality remain as in Hard Times. The dehumanizing aspects of work remain, even with a new face.  This is a great little book not just for personal reflection but group discussion. Workplace discipleship – at all levels, in all work arenas – is the answer.

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