The Short Version: In a small industrial English town, the utilitarian teachings and beliefs of Mssrs. Gradgrind and Bounderby are put to the test by young Louisa Bounderby (nee Gradgrind) and her brother Tom. Coketown is not much but a sooty industrial hamlet but it’s still populated by the classic Dickensian characters one expects to see in London – and hits home with a message much harsher than one might usually be accustomed to.
The Review: So in Penguin collecting “The Great Works of Charles Dickens” into a box set, beautifully designed by Ms. Coralie Bickford-Smith, one expected a certain inclusion of works. A Christmas Carol, Olivier Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, perhaps Bleak House, then probably Great Expectations and David Copperfield. Or maybe Our Mutual Friend gets thrown in, as it was his final novel. I admit to you, reader, that I had no idea Hard Times was anything more than a saying and a Patrick Wolf song until I saw this list announced. Even that Monty Python bookshop sketch that runs through all the Dickens jokes never mentions this book (to my recollection, anyway). So how did it come to be included in the great works of Dickens?
Having done a little diligence before diving in, I found that it was an anomaly even in its day. Far shorter than any of the other novels, it’s also the only novel predominantly set outside of London. It was most noted, both then and now, for being Dickens at his most acerbic towards a certain philosophy as well: that of utilitarianism. And suddenly things begin to make sense.
The novel is set in a very English, very J.S. Mill, town in England – the descriptions of the way Coketown stands out on the horizon as a sort of smudge of soot are themselves worth the price of admission. The opening of the novel, Bounderby and Gradgrind speaking to young students, is a wake-up call in and of itself. These adults are insisting that the children fill themselves with facts. Facts are what’s most important! Young Sissy Jupe notably stands up against this concept when she answers questions more intuitively – instead of giving a numerical answer for a question about percentage of deaths, she instead looks to the cost to the survivors and the families of the deceased. It’s a brilliant takedown of what was then a valid philosophy – all the more brilliant for coming from a child.
The story itself is not all that weighty. Louisa Gradgrind (later Bounderby) is the main character and we can see her life turn in an instant, when her father discovers her and her brother peeping in at a traveling carnival show. The force of imagination being squashed out of her is palpable. She grows up a serious young girl, loving to her brother, and marries Bounderby for his sake. After her brother turns nasty and rather horrid – and she discovers what love looks like in the form of Harthouse – she has a bit of a collapse and Bounderby throws her out. Meanwhile, she befriends a working woman and a kindly working man who sees himself slandered by friends and foes alike. It’s all very Dickensian stuff, you know? Not world-shaking – but it shakes the worlds of each character who passes through the story. And that, of course, is why we read Dickens: few (if any) have ever so beautifully captured the little shocks that happen in even the most ordinary lives.
A note now on the character of Mr. Bounderby, who is easily one of the most entertaining characters I’ve come to know in recent literature. A blustery man whose name is so well-suited to his person, he’s the sort of blowhard we still see puffing about the place today. He constantly turns the conversation to himself, belittling while at the same time praising himself (saying things like “now I didn’t know so much comfort, I grew up in a gutter!”), and managing to simply barrel through life and conversation in a haughty, heavy, imperious way. A bit like an overweight GOB Bluth.
Speaking of humor, I suppose this is the most distinct thing I noticed about this book: how goddamn funny Dickens can be. The humor that my family excels in – dry turns of phrase, commenting on a situation, that bring listeners to tears of laughter – is the sort of thing that Dickens mastered so long ago. I wonder if we might be related somehow. There was a moment towards the beginning of the book where Bounderby thoroughly blusters at Mrs. Gradgrind to the point that she stops talking – but the way it was described was so droll and winkingly funny that I had to stop and call my sister to share the quote – a quote that, completely without context, she also found hilarious. People always talk about reading Dickens for the social commentary and for the characters and the (sorry to steal a fantasy term) “world-building” – I think I shall look forward to reading him for his humor.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Although it gets a little flat at times and the plot could’ve wrapped up at something more approaching novella length than 300-pg novel, it’s a smart book. It says a lot very quickly and makes you think about it. We’re still battling about proper education to this day – the world has changed but the argument has not, really. The conditions of workers is still an issue politically. The scope of this tale is far smaller than we expect from Dickens but, in doing so, he’s taken laser-sharp aim at a point and it’s impossible to escape the book without feeling as though he’s hit his mark dead-on.