Monday, January 23, 2012

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

My historical fiction/history book group chose Hard Times by Charles Dickens for its next meeting. Having never read Dickens, and feeling that this omission should be remedied, I was pleased by the choice. As an added bonus, I am able to count this for my 19th century choice for the Back-to-the-Classics Challenge.

Hard Times follows the rather bleak life story of Louisa Gradgrind, inhabitant of the poor/working-class milltown, Coketown. Louisa was not a member of the working class. She had the (?even worse?) misfortune of being born into the family of a Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, a teacher, and a proponent of the school of "facts." He had his children (primarily the two eldest, Louisa and Tom) brought up in a way that admitted no "wondering," no imagination, no play. They are taught a philosophy of rational self-interest. Thomas Gradgrind was eventually called away to Parliament and had less influence over the lives of his younger children, but Louisa and Tom were doomed to miserable childhoods and unhappy futures. Gradgrind also brought into his house one Sissy Jupe, the abandoned daughter of a wandering circus performer. She was supposed to be educated in the same fashion, but Sissy was too resilient – meaning he got to her too late. She had already developed a compassionate heart.

Louisa grew to be a pretty young woman and so she was snatched up by a friend of her father’s. The friend, Mr. Bounderby, was a blustering braggart, a self-professed self-made man, owner of a factory and the local bank. Louisa saw no option to marrying him. She hated him, but her brother Tom wanted the marriage. Tom, the only person Louisa truly cared about, had gone into service with Bounderby. He knew he would be getting into scrapes and he relied on Louisa’s influence with Bounderby to get him out of them.

Other characters are introduced: a gentlewoman fallen into poverty who works for Bounderby and spies on Louisa, a bored dissolute young gentleman who, having nothing better to do with himself than enter politics, comes to Coketown and falls in with Bounderby. He is taken with Louisa and sets himself the challenge of seducing her. There is also an upright, honest working-class man, Stephen Blackpool, as well as the generous, kind woman he loves, Rachel.

Hard Times takes a good long while introducing the characters and setting the stage for the plot. The characters (or caricatures) are fairly exaggerated representations of types. Dickens has a point to make and he wants to be absolutely certain the reader cannot miss it (although he buries Stephen Blackpool’s impassioned speeches in some painful-to-sort-through dialect. I took away the gist of what Stephen was saying but I had to start skimming over Stephen’s part of the dialogues to preserve my sanity.) About 3/4 of the way through the book, the plot-lines begin to come together and, finally, tension begins to build. There are unexpected twists, some poignant, some farcical. And the book hammers home its message.

This is Dickens’s 10th novel and it is supposedly his shortest. My reaction is...mixed. There isn’t much in the way of actual story and what story is there is melodramatic. But the book is very carefully constructed, not so much for the plot itself, but for the way it is told. The characters represent what was wrong in society and what was right, and how people’s view of that right and wrong was often upside down. It was surprising (or maybe not) how much of the social commentary could be lifted out of 19th century England and superimposed on society today. I think I went into the book expecting to be more entertained than preached to, and if my expectations had been more appropriate I would have better appreciated the book. As a political text, this is a remarkable piece of commentary that still speaks to us today. As a novel...well... it’s interesting political commentary.