Hard Times

What the head had left undone and could not do, the Heart May have been doing silently.

-Charles Dickens, Hard Times

– And what did you read to your father, Jupe.

– About the fairies, sir, and the Dwarf, and the Hunchback and the Genies,

– Hush, that is enough. Never breath a word of such destructive nonsense any more.

-Charles Dickens, Hard Times

The writing of a novel presupposes that fiction is truer than fact. Novelists take what facts they find useful – but never ALL the facts – and go beyond those facts with their imagination to find out what deeper truth lies beyond them. “You must punch through the mask of reality,” says Melville in Moby Dick; “If you focus on the surface things, the reality – the reality I tell you – fades,” says Conrad in Heart of Darkness; and “The deadly statistical clock is very hollow,” says Dickens in Hard Times. Thus it is very strange to me that critics so often base the merits of Hard Times on its truthfulness – how factually it represents utilitarianism and its characters. Asking Dickens to be entirely factual with his representations in Hard Times is like asking Cecilia Jupe to define a horse as a, “Quadruped. Gramnivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in the marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth. Thus and much more.” It’s outrageous. The novel goes beyond such facts, and shows us that its truest representations lie in the muddle of things, where quantitative reality breaks down, and the truth is only accessible to its imaginative characters and author, and not to its unimaginative characters and critics, who both demand the same thing: facts.

The critic Humphrey House says that Dickens “Falsified his own observations and knew nothing of Utilitarianism or Unions.” Even F.A. Leavis, who, in his “Note on Hard Times,” generally argues that the novel justifies itself, admitted a lack of factuality, but commends the factuality of Dickens critique on Utilitarianism. John Holloway countered this, following the line of House, saying that Dickens, “Deliberately falsified what he knew from his visit to Preston,” pointing out misrepresentations by quoting encyclopedias, textbooks, and government reports. Other critics, like David Craig, counter this, but do it with more textbook facts. These critics are missing the point. One can almost imagine Gradgrind and Bounderby having this argument, quoting from textbooks and never looking at the imagination of the work beyond textbooks. The Point is not whether Dickens represented Utilitarianism as it was in Preston at the time, knowingly or unknowingly. As the Gradgrind-and-Bounderby argument among these critics highlights, there is a muddle surrounding those facts. So instead of following the pointless arguments of people like Gradgrind, Bounderby, and the critics, Dickens uses his imagination and imaginative characters to probe that muddle and find a deeper truth. If it were not for the precise degree of Utilitarianism he created, be it a factual representation or not, he could not have written this passage, which states the point of Marx, the great compiler of statistics, more chillingly than Marx ever stated it, “Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you!” This is the truth of utilitarianism beyond the facts of textbooks, only accessible through the imagination.

Critics also argue about the representation of people in the Hard Times. Some say the circus folk are too keen, that Steven Blackpool is too good, that Cecilia is too strong-willed and Harthouse too evil, and Louisa too changing, while others say that they are all perfectly believable people. Fittingly, the unimaginative characters in the book have the same qualms with the other characters. Gradgrind and Bounderby both believe the circus folk to be stupider than they are, Bounderby thinks Blackpool is a thief, while Gradgrind ends up arguing otherwise, Gradgrind believes Cecilia is uninformed but can be taught, while Bounderby suggests she is too strong-willed to be taught, and should thus not be taken on as a lodger, and should be kicked out of the school altogether, both of their opinions of Louisa change as she does, and Bounderby entirely falls for Harthouse.

Again, the point has been missed by Bounderby, Harthouse, and the critics alike. The proper judgment of these characters does not lie in judging them as people, but as characters, who are part of a novel that is probing beyond the facts of simple people, and exploring the muddle of humans and human relationships. It is in the novel’s most muddled moments, where fact explains the least, and the characters can be called least real, that the deepest truths of human reality are revealed, and we can see that the characters are wholly justifiable within the bounds of the novel. Like fairies, dwarfs, hunchbacks, and genies are created to best suit fables, Dickens’ characters are best suited for his novels.

In one of the most muddled moments of the book, after Tom has escaped, and everybody, particularly his father, is left not knowing how to feel, Mr. Sleary gives his final speech, “It theemth to prethent two thingth to a perthon, don’t it, Thquire?…one, that there ith a love in the world, not all Thelf-inertest after all, but thomthing very different; t’other, that it hath a way of ith own of calculating or not calculating, whith thomehow or another ith at leatht ath hard to give a name to, ath the wayth of the dog ith.” Whether a circus-hand this poetic existed or not does not matter, what matters is that in a situation where facts failed to explain the muddle of human interactions involved, Dickens imagined a way to explain the them so poetically.

Blackpool, the character that introduces the term muddled to this novel, clears up the muddle of his death scene a bit, with his last words, “But in our judgments, like as in our doins, we mun bear and forbear, In my pain an trouble, looking up younder, – wi’ it shinin’ on me – I ha’ seen more clear, and ha’ made it my dyin prayer that aw th’ world may on’y coom together more, an get a better unnerstain’in uz one another, than when I were in’t my own weak seln.” After falling into the unrealistic-in-itself Old Hell Shaft, and emerging surrounded by the people who had been so cruel to him, and still giving these last words, it would be ridiculous to say that he is “too good.” If he weren’t this good, these words would not resonate with us, nor the other characters, which would bleakly end the novel without us getting closer to the truth between all these characters. Because Blackpool is so good, the characters carry him off on their shoulders like a king, and continue to unravel the muddle of the novel.

Likewise, Cecilia’s strong will, realistic or not, is crucial to the novel’s progression and probing of the muddle. When even Gradgrinder cannot “tick her off into columns in a parliamentary return” we understand why she can hold on to her father’s medicine despite all her learning: she has the imagination to believe that people can be altruistic. This imagination is crucial as a counterpoint for the novel, as well as a plot point, because the character of Harthouse, “Weary of everything, and putting no more faith in anything than Lucifer,” must be banished, with his form of nihilism, which infects Louisa, causing her to go mad at these words, “What did it matter, she had said to her father, when he proposed her husband. What did it matter, she said still. With a scornful self-reliance, she asked herself, What did anything matter – and went on.” Only Cecilia, with her unfailing belief in altruism could sit across from a man as unmoved as Lucifer, and banish his nihilism from the novel. This ability of Celia’s, whether realistic or not, is necessary for the progression of the novel, and it gives the novel a clearer view of the muddle of human life, moving it away from pure nihilism.

In Luisa’s ever-changing attitudes, there is this same necessary though possibly unrealistic characteristic. At first presented as a spirited child, during the gap of time in the novel, she becomes Gradgrind’s prize student and favorite child, but when she is married to Bounderby, she still has the spirit enough to realize his shortcomings, as she is constantly annoyed with his self-elevation, and provokes the novel to remark, “He must have overleaped at a bound the artificial barriers he had for many years been erecting, between himself and all those subtle essences of humanity which will elude the utmost cunning of algebra until the last trumpet ever to be sounded shall blow even algebra to wreck.” Then, finally, provoked by the appalling force of nihilism in the novel, decending the imaginary staircase of deception, she shouts to her father what may be the phrase closest to the novels moral, and changes even his opinions, “All those causes of disparity of which arise out of our two individual natures, and which no general laws shall ever rule or state for me, father, until they shall be able to direct the anatomist where to strike his knife into the secrets of my soul.”

In Hard Times, Dickens does not give pure representations of his subject, nor a pure fable. He takes the elements of his subject that he finds useful, and balances them with his fable to probe his subject beyond its surface facts. He portrays utilitarianism, humans, and human interactions, as muddles by which no general law shall ever rule. And while writing the tale of this muddle, Dickens heart silently picks up where his head leaves off and cannot go, and produces a balanced picture of the world, truer than any picture of facts could be, a picture true to itself, and true to life.

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