View Full Version : Hard Times - the start

10-16-2013, 06:05 PM
I have just started reading this, and so far I don't know what to make of it. I was surprised becaused it is written in a different style to the only other Dickens books that I have read, Great Expectations and A Christmas Carol. So far it seems to be an attack on science and reductionism. Gradgrind has heavy, square features and he lives in a house with the same number of windows on one side as the other. I wonder whether this is going to be some science v arts controversy.

10-17-2013, 05:44 AM
I was interested to read in Ch 4 that Mr Gradgrind had named two of his sons after Robert Malthus and Adam Smith. Whenever I read a book about sustainability it mentions Robert Malthus, either to say he was wrong or that he will eventually be proved right. He thought mankind would overbreed, deplete its resources and then suffer a population crash. The earliest book I had read that referred to him was On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Hard Times was written in 1854 so that beats it. The notes in the back of my copy of Hard Times say that Adam Smith was an advocate of laisser-faire capitalism. It's interesting that Charles Dickens expects his readers will know who these people are. Also, given that Mr Gradgrind named his children after them, and knowing what a bleeding-heart liberal Dickens was, one suspects what Dickens' opinion of the Robert Malthus and Adam Smith was.

10-17-2013, 09:13 AM
More "heart in the right place" than "bleeding heart".

A bleeding heart is "A person who is considered excessively sympathetic toward those who claim to be underprivileged or exploited." Can you name any character to whom Dickens was excessively sympathetic? Dickens does generate a lot of sympathy for his down-trodden characters, but they deserve it. Take David Copperfield, which I'm re-reading at the moment. Dickens shows a lot of sympathy for David, but surely none of it is misplaced. He also shows some sympathy for Mr Micawber, but mixes that with a satirical lampooning of his character, e.g., portraying him singing a drinking song "Go Dobbin, go..." just as he and his family are plunged into the direst financial problems. So you get the sympathy, but you also get the necessary caveats, which saves Dickens from being a "bleeding heart".

As regards Hard Times, I don't think Dickens is condemning science at all, but is attacking the concentration on "facts, facts, facts..." at the expense of the emotions. The attack on Malthus & Smith is very topical, reminding is that the very fact driven sciences of these two men need to be tempered by common humanity. Just look at where the laissez fair capitalism of Thatcherism got us (18 months on the dole in our cases, Kev!)

10-17-2013, 11:09 AM
I was being facetious about Dickens being a bleeding heart. I know he was a good guy most of the time.

I expect you are right about the book not being an attack on science and industry, just that there are dangers in thinking progress depends entirely upon them. I was reminded of the ghastly redevelopment of many British cities during the 60s and 70s. For example in Reading a large part of the town centre was cleared to build an inner distribution road, and some horrible concrete offices, shopping malls and multi-storey car parks were put up. These were all thought very modern at the time.

I am also reminded a bit about what seems to be the drive to increase the take up of STEM subjects at schools and colleges, presumably at the expense of humanities. I am not sure what to make of that myself.

I thought Mr Gradgrind would be some sort of ogre, but he seems not to be, at least not entirely. It could be that there are some red herrings at the start of that book.

10-18-2013, 08:08 PM
I am half way through the first volume, and I have to admit that I am not enjoying it as much as I did Great Expectations. I find Hard Times harder to follow. The writing is a little convoluted and it contains more unfamiliar references and words. I preferred the first person narrative of Great Expectations too. I liked young Pip.

I thought this book was about factory workers, but so far it seems to be about education. I am not totally sure what Dickens was driving at. Mr Gradgrind likes facts and does not care for wonder. Does this mean that he thinks only subjects such as mathematics and science should be taught at school, and that subjects such as literature and art are a waste of time? Is Dickens hinting that there are limitations in a positivist approach to knowledge acquisition? (I am reading an introduction text book on social science which discusses this sort of thing.) It seems like a small point. It seems really odd that Gradgrind is so against any form of entertainment or even using your imagination. Was there a heated debate about this sort of thing in Victorian society? I thought on the contrary, that there was too much Latin and Greek and not enough mathematics and science taught in schools at the time.

Anyway, I hope the book starts taking off soon.

11-05-2013, 06:06 AM
I see Polly Toynbee of The Guardian is comparing the current minister for education, Michael Gove, with Thomas Gradgrind (link (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/05/gove-austen-orwell-dickens-die-out)).