- Hard Times by Dickens


The British Industrial Revolution began in the late eighteenth century and lasted into the early nineteenth century. It was a movement of urbanization where people flocked to towns to work in factories. Consequently the cities were overcrowded. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato blight famine (1845-49) added to the disease and hunger for thousands of the laboring class.

Industrialisation saw the invention of the power loom and factory production which brought about riches for a few and unemployment for many. Surplus labor then caused wages to drop. In order to survive families had to work in the cotton and woolen mills or the coal mines. Workers were exploited, particularly children who had to work twelve hours a day. In 1819, a child labour law was enacted which limited to eleven hours a day the working hours of children five to eleven years of age. However, this law was not enforced. Studies of the working and living conditions in England between 1800 and 1834 showed that 82 percent of the workers in the mills were between the ages of eleven and eighteen. Up to 62 percent of the workers in the fabric mills had tuberculosis. The Hard Times setting, Coketown, is a representation of the average industrial city.

Life in the nineteenth century was dominated by economic theories. Laissez-faire was projected by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations. Jeremy Bentham and T. Malthus proposed the philosophy of Utilitarianism, the principle of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number." These economic theories advocated that the government allow the economic situation to adjust itself naturally through the laws of supply and demand. This system resulted in one person becoming a millionaire and others beggars. The Utilitarians, however, helped bring about the repeal of the Corn Laws and the abolishment of cruel punishment limiting the death penalty to two offenses: murder and treason. Dickens' novel is a criticism of the greed of Victorian industrial society and its misapplied utilitarian philosophy.

Hard Times makes social comments on the state of the country after the 'Hungry 40’s'. This was a period in the 1840s when Britain experienced an economic depression, causing much misery among the poor. In 1839 there was a trade slump which created a significant escalation in unemployment, together with a bad harvest. The next two years also saw poor harvests, which increased the hunger in a rapidly growing population. The Corn Laws had also maintained the price of bread artificially high by imposing duties on imported cereals like wheat, barley and oats. This had favoured domestic landowners but raised prices for the British public. They were repealed in 1846.

The social degradation in the country in the 1800s made reforms a priority to avert a civil war. Parliamentary representation was updated by the 1832 Reform Bill. It withdrew representation from the so-called rotten boroughs run by landowners and gave it to representatives of the highly populated towns. This formed a new Parliament made up of members from the middle classes.

In 1833 slavery was ended by the Emancipation Bill, though industrial slavery continued. In the same year the Factory Law forbade employment of children under nine and reduced work time for those between 9 and 13 to nine hours daily. 

In 1834 the Poor Law established workhouses for the indigent. Conditions in these government run places were so bad that Dickens excoriated them in Oliver Twist. The alternative to the workhouse was starve or steal but the latter landed you in prison. In David Copperfield, Little Dorrit and The Pickwick Papers the novelist described the terrible conditions in debtor prisons, well known to him personally since his father was incarcerated in Marshalsea prison for debt and Dickens had to work in a blacking factory to repay what was owed.

What effected most change in conditions was workers banding together in trade unions. The 1871 Trade Union Act legalised unions and three years later two working men were elected to Parliament. Karl Marx founded the International Workingmen's Association in London in 1864 and shortly after he published Volume 1 of Capital. The Fabian Society appeared in 1884 headed by upper middle-class intellectuals. They believed that evolution towards socialism would happen without violence.


Hard Times, Dickens’ tenth novel was published in three weekly installments in the Spring of 1854, each named: Sowing, Reaping, Garnering. It is a satire of the industrial society in the fictional Coketown, probably modelled on Preston. It is also a story of capitalist exploitation of the working class.

The three titles of the serial parts of the book allude to several meanings. They are agricultural periods and contrast with the new industrial age which did away with rural life. They also remind the reader of the biblical passage from Galatians 6 "As you sow so shall you reap." This is a moral warning that you will pay for the consequences of your actions. It may be the author's comment on the ethics of his characters and their capitalist, utilitarian and rationalist values.

"Sowing" plants the seeds of the plot. Mr. Gradgrind is the dickensian model of the utilitarian who believes only in facts. Two of his sons are named after Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus, economic determinists. Gradgrind supervises his schools using utilitarian philosophy where the pupils are treated as processors of facts. This may be a satirical reference to the father of John Stuart Mill who tried to bring up his sons as utilitarians. Mr. Gradgrind is against any emotional display even to his family. Bounderby, another satirical character, is a representative of the arrogant self-made man and factory owner. 

"A man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon, and ready to start. A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. A man who was always proclaiming, through that brassy speaking-trumpet of a voice of his, his old ignorance and his old poverty. A man who was the Bully of humility."

Coketown, the setting, is a utilitarian construction in its uniformity. Its inhabitants are cogs in the new industrial machine.

The other aspect of life, imagination, is represented by Sissy and the circus family who are shown as loving and cooperative. Yet, at the end of the first part Louisa is forced into a loveless marriage with Bounderby, in exchange for a position for her brother in her husband's company.

Reaping’ introduces the moral conflicts of the plot. There are new characters: Harthouse, a good-looking gentleman and Blackpool, a worker. The latter suffers a double victimisation: first he is ostracised for not joining the trade union; then he is fired by Bounderby for criticising the company's robotic treatment of its workers.
Handsome Harthouse realises that Louisa is in an unhappy marriage and establishes an uncertain friendship with her. There is a robbery in Bounderby's bank and Blackpool is suspected as he has been loitering near the bank.

Gradgrind begins to reap his comeuppance when Louisa comes home to tell him of her planned elopement with Harthouse. Gradgrind realises that his unemotional relationship with his children was a mistake when he cannot help Louisa. His factual rationality and logic are of no use in this situation.

The 'Garnering' brings the plot threads to conclusions by separating villains from the good-hearted. Harthouse is persuaded to leave town. Gradgrind recognises Louisa's moral qualities. Bounderby agrees to divorce Louisa and then is shown to have been lying about his past when his mother appears. Tom is suspected of the bank robbery but the circus family help him escape abroad. Gradgrind experiences the limitations of logic when he makes an emotional appeal to the selfish, deterministic Bitzer. Blackpool incarnates the suffering of the workers by falling down a mine shaft and being rescued alive, but incapacitated.

Death comes to Bounderby, Blackpool and Tom at the end of part 3. Gradgrind is shunned by his associates. Louisa devotes herself to helping the factory workers.



This philosophy concentrated on “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. However, it also lessened the significance of the individual.
Gradgrind and Bounderby personify utilitarian ideas through their practicality, materialism and lack of emotions. Both lend support to an education system which dispensed hard data, neglecting emotional intelligence. In family life Bounderby abandoned his mother and forces marriage on Louisa; Gradgrind paid little attention to his children and finally realises that Louisa's unhappiness and Tom's criminality and hypocrisy are the result of his emotionless pragmatism:

"It was very remarkable that a young gentleman who had been brought up under one continuous system of unnatural restraint, should be a hypocrite; but it was certainly the case with Tom. 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."


The schooling system is organised like a factory. Gradgrind is a school supervisor out to reform education by concentrating on factual information and eliminating imagination. Education is viewed as a useful practicality and so the humanities and arts are dropped from the curriculum. Industrialisation is turning humans into machines by denying children their emotions and imagination. Both the workers in Bounderby's factory and Gradgrind's pupils in school are mechanical cogs in the industrial production, not full human beings:

"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 mind of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them."

Louisa is a victim of her emotionless upbringing when she cannot resolve her unhappy marriage. She turns to her father for help Gradgrind but he realises the failings in his own philosophy and in the way he brought up his children.


The Christian ethic is apparent in the titles of the serialised parts: Sowing, Reaping and Garnering.
The first two sections enact the proverbial phrase "As you sow, so shall you reap.", a paraphrase of Galatians 6/7. The fate of the characters in the narrative is the natural outcome of their choices and thinking. Gradgrind's incapacity to help with Louisa's emotional problem is a direct result of his utilitarian lifestyle. Her upbringing has also led her into a loveless marriage and a failed elopement then a divorce to solve it. Tom's selfish upbringing turns him into a swindler and a exile.

The final part is named “Garnering,” which is a way of wrapping up the reaping metaphor. The biblical reference is to the parabke of the wheat and tares. These crops have sprouted beside each other because of a villainous trick and when the wheat is ready it must be separated from the trees. Both are garnered but wheat is stored and the tares are destroyed:

Bounderby's falsehoods are uncovered and he dies suddenly. Gradgrind lives on, ostracized by his peers, but changed in heart when he sees how his philosophy has ruined his childrens' lives. Louisa may finally find peace working to help others. The characters' good thoughts survive; their egoism and hypocrisy are destroyed. Those who are generous survive and thrive in the novel; those who are selfish are fated to unhappiness and loneliness.

The privilege that accompanies one class is criticised in the novel when the reader finds that divorce does not depend on rights, but 
wealth. Blackpool had an alcoholic wife but his finances don't allow for the expensive divorce proceedings; Bounderby and Louisa are able to divorce due to their money.
The working class are exploited by the new rich middle class for their own benefit. The social divisions are extreme and while the proletariat often starve the bourgeoisie become extremely rich.
Dickens worked as a newspaper, court, and Parliamentary reporter and his experience taught him that the legal system and even trade unionism worked in favour of the employers and against the 'hands'. These were the factory workers who only counted as producers in the new industrial age. They were underpaid and worked in the factories which were unhealthy, barnlike, open structures.


In the Victorian Age the belief was that the moral backbone of the family was the mother. The novel portrays the same beliefs in its female characters through their compassion: Bounderby's mother waits for her son, as does Sissy when she tends to her children, though she was  brought up in selfish utilitarianism. Louisa did not retain her womanly qualities, although she wants to help others.
Gradgrind treats his boy and girl pupils in the same way, despite the rigorous curriculum which in fact almost totally removes the feminine aspects of Louisa's character, as she says to her father:

"How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, oh, Father, What have you done with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here? Said Louisa as she touched her heart."

City and Country

"Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays. You only knew the town was there because you knew there could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town. A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now that way, now aspiring to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter: a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed nothing but masses of darkness—Coketown in the distance was suggestive of itself, though not a brick of it could be seen."

The seasonal changes are fixed on the three serial titles: " Sowing,” “Reaping,” and “Garnering”. But the narrator goes further and notes the changes of seasons, which exemplify natural change against the mechanical uniformity imposed by humans in Coketown.

The comparison between Nature's cycle and industrial time underlines how mechanised the previous agrarian lifestyle has become. Agriculture proceeds on a natural rhythm, whereas factory time marches in a clockwork uniformity. 

Hard Times describes Cocktown as filthy and colourless. The factories and the city buildings are uniformly ugly dedicated to useful business, not beauty. The 'hands' are all alike and are exploited for their productive labour, with no other purpose or meaning in life.

The surrounding countryside is also corrupted by the industrial city and feeds it through coal mines, railways and canals. It is just as unsafe as the city and Blackpool finds that out when he falls down a mine shaft. Industrialisation is shown as an encroaching danger to Nature in all its aspects. 

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