Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times (1854) is arguably his most overtly political novel.  Set in the fictional and intentionally representative town of Coketown, it is sharply critical of the modern factory system that pollutes the environment and exploits the working class, subjecting it to dangerous working conditions while a minority enjoys the profits. 

In addition, the novel goes further than this to attack the philosophical and moral concepts that are used to justify this industrialised socio-economic system, as well as attack an education system that seems to be intended to underpin it.  In his critique, Dickens appears to be informed by romanticism and a Christian ethical perspective rather than socialism (although many socialists may find much to appreciate in this novel). 

In this context, his criticism of the education system as overly fact-based and coldly rational has behind it a celebration of the value of imagination and emotion as sources of truth and as sources of aesthetic value and creativity.  In this respect, not only does his critique reflect the romanticism that was prominent in his era but also the values of the progressive education movement of his time. 

Dickens attacked the ideological and moral philosophies that he believed underpinned the toxic and exploitive modern industrial urban environment that he found so distasteful, such as laissez-faire economics, individualism, free market liberalism, Malthusian demography, and utilitarianism.  Dickens was famous for portraying members of the ruling classes, the aristocracy and capitalist middle classes, as corrupt. This was very much the case with the characterisation of the major industrialist in Coketown, Mr Bounderby, who is an empty braggart who celebrates himself as a self-made man who rose from poverty but this is shown to be a lie, a revelation that suggests that the liberal promise of upward social mobility is a false promise.  Industrialists have made Coketown into a man-made hell of toxic pollution and harsh working conditions where the workers are dehumanised, exploited and oppressed.  In addition, Dickens was aware that at this stage in the Industrial Revolution, the capitalist middle class was in the process of displacing the aristocracy as the ruling class and he depicted Mr Bounderby as having the local aristocrat, who had lost her fortune, working for him as his ‘captive princess’. 

Dickens used the working-class character Stephen to preach his solution to the troubles of industrial Britain.  Dickens was not a socialist and he was suspicious of trade union leaders.  He did not advocate radical social reform and a restructuring of the socio-economic system.  Instead, he called on people to show greater understanding and be kinder to each other, which is an approach more in tune with Christian ethics.  To Dickens, every individual should be seen as precious.  Stephen will eventually be martyred in a Christ-like manner.  

Mr Bounderby is presented as close to the educationalist Mr Gradgrind, which suggests that the education system seems to be designed to serve the needs of the capitalist class and its laissez-faire economics.  Dickens saw a fact-based education system that also emphasised logical reasoning as intellectually stifling, as likely to stamp out imagination and feeling, as well as unable to cultivate the sound ethical values based on Christian virtues that Dickens regarded as essential for living a good life.  Gradgrind’s philosophy of education is coldly factual and rational, at the expense of developing young people into ethical beings with the capacity to vividly imagine or enjoy their childhoods.  Consequently, the education system produces morally and emotionally stunted people who have heads full of useless facts and rational paradigms that are of little use to them in achieving a quality life.  In addition, the mode of teaching is authoritarian.  Dickens sets the circus up as the polar opposite of Gradgrind’s school.  It is a place of fun, fancy and wonder. Rather than being strictly authoritarian it is warmly communal, a place where emotion is valued, and where the imagination is stimulated.  It the place where children naturally prefer to be.    Dickens depicts it as more in tune with the true nature of humanity and he presents it as capable of developing the valuable dimensions of human nature that were neglected in Gradgrind’s school.  To Dickens the education system of his time was flying in the face of human nature and neglecting what is quintessentially human. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Hard Times meaning, Hard Times themes, Hard Times analysis, Hard Times notes