Summary: Explores the thematic opposition between fact and fancy, or the head and the heart in Charles Dickenss novel Hard Times. Explores the rivalry between these philosophies as a central theme to the Hard Times, as well as a fundamental crux of human existence.
Charles Dickens lived in England during the 19th century, during a period of rapid economic growth when the industrial revolution was in full swing. Industrial cities sprung up throughout England, sustained solely by their factories, which furiously churned out wealth and merchandise and employed thousands of working class citizens. The living and working conditions for factory laborers in these towns were extremely poor, and the wealthy bourgeoisie prospered marvelously by greedily exploiting their employees, unfortunate people who toiled long hours in grimy factories to barely earn their subsistence. Utilitarianism was a prevalent viewpoint during this period of industrial frenzy, for it embraced the values of practicality and efficiency; and the success and survival of the participants of industrial society often depended on these standards. Dickens was disgusted with the single-mindedness of his society and with the dreary, inanimate atmosphere that accompanied it. In his novel Hard Times, an ongoing struggle ensues between the ideas of ‘fact’ and ‘fancy’– or the ‘head’ and ‘heart.’ The rivalry between these philosophies is a central theme to the Hard Times, not to mention a fundamental crux of human existence as well. Should an individual base his life on fact and rationality, or should he live by the whims of his imagination and fancy, following his heart? Dickens advances this theme persistently throughout the Hard Times, employing frequent use of descriptive imagery and metaphor throughout novel to animate the conflict between Fact and Fancy, and the result of this emphasis is a broader, encompassing critique of industrialized society in general.
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Dickens most clearly addresses fact and fancy through his portrayal of the education system in Coketown. The first chapter of the novel commences with a speech given by Mr. Gradgrind, addressed to the pupils at his school: “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.” Gradgrind takes enormous pride in being “eminently practical;” a “man of realities;” and he nobly (in his opinion) endeavors to bestow these qualities on the youthful pupils–or rather, to smother them in factual instruction. In short, Dickens gives an unquestionably condemning impression of Gradgrind and the school by depicting their forceful, joyless educational methods in contrast to the innocence and fragility of the children.
Just as Gadgrind rigorously enforces his utilitarian standards in his school, he is equally fervent in adhering to these principles in his own home. He genuinely believes that his ideals are essential to leading a successful, productive existence, and instructs his children accordingly, applying his “mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections.” Louisa and Tom must absorb enormous amounts of factual knowledge from an early age, while, simultaneously, their father systematically represses and eradicates any notions of wonder or imagination that they might entertain, chiding them, “Never wonder!” Not surprisingly, Mr. Gradgrind seeks through his parental guidance to elicit the same results as in his school–the transformation of children into machine-like workers, lacking in personality yet supposedly ideal for efficiently performing the monotonous, repetitive labors of industrial Coketown.
In addition to his firm commitment to everything factual, Gradgrind himself physically personifies the ideas fact and practicality. Dickens uses abundant imagery to give descriptions of Gradgrind’s physical appearance, which is decidedly severe and methodical, including his “square forefinger,” “square wall of a forehead”–as if the shape of a square itself denotes the very notion of ‘fact’–and eyes which “found commodious cellarage in two dark caves.” Later his face is more generally described as “unbending” and “utilitarian,” and on the whole, every aspect of his appearance serves to emphasize his rigid devotion to cold facts and his thorough disregard of any sort of non-factual nonsense. Dickens employs more imagery to describe the tedious existence of the Gradgrind children under their father, saying that “life at Stone Lodge went monotonously round like a piece of machinery,” and Tom later describes Louisa as stuffed full of “dry bones and sawdust” by their father.
Mr. M’Choakumchild, a teacher at the school, is another individual who is characterized figuratively by Dickens. Although his name is more than ample evidence to confirm his detrimental effect on the children, there is further evidence of the harmful nature of his methods. The damaging repercussions of his educational torments are especially pronounced when Dickens compares him to “Morgiana in the Forty Thieves;” the teacher peers into “all the vessels ranged before him,” and Dickens’s narrator addresses him: “Say, good M’Choakumchild. When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within–or sometimes only maim him and distort him!” In this analogy, the ills of suppressing emotion and fancy become disturbingly concrete; for someone to endure a twisted, crippled fancy could possibly be presumed as bad or worse than possessing none at all, and this potential hazard is manifested later in the novel.
Next to Tom and Louisa, Sissy Jupe is another character in Hard Times who, perhaps most acutely, feels the oppressions of prohibited fancy in Gradgrind’s schoolroom. As the daughter of a circus performer, she is naturally very accustomed to thinking wild, imaginative thoughts, and she struggles in vain to acclimate herself to the meticulously factual lessons in class. In one instance, when Gradgrind commands Sissy to describe a horse, she is already so petrified by Mr. Gradgrind’s stern, unsympathetic countenance, as well as the intellectual constraints of the lesson already imposed heretofore, that she fails even to offer a response. On the other hand, Bitzer, a boy in her class, gives a highly abstruse, scientific answer which pleases Mr. Gradgrind immensely: “Quadruped. Gramnivorous. 40 teeth. Sheds coat in spring…”
Later Dickens uses more imagery to directly contrast Sissy and Bitzer, implicitly furthering the development of ‘fact’ and ‘fancy.’ When he describes the two pupils, who happen to sit in the same row-and, at the time, in the same sunbeam-Sissy, who is full to brimming with fancy, is literally radiant in the sunlight: “the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive more lustrous color from the sun.” As for Bitzer, who is already crammed full of information and utterly devoid of any sort of imaginative faculty, the light functions to “draw out of him what little color he ever possessed…his skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.” In this manner, Dickens underscores the ghastly effects of an oppressed imagination by setting off the colorless debility personified by Bitzer’s physical appearance, from the sunny vitality that shines from the fanciful Sissy; thus, once again, Dickens exemplifies the backwardness of Coketown’s educational system.
Aside from ornamenting his descriptions with frequent imagery, Dickens also uses various metaphors to emphasize the opposition between fact and fancy. The particulars of Gradgrind’s utilitarian slant on the proper education of the youth are peppered with metaphors that Dickens draws on to mockingly embellish his obstinate convictions. Gradgrind’s schoolroom is a “vault,” and his pupils are “little vessels” and “little pitchers,” neatly displayed and naively awaiting the “imperial gallons of facts” that will be crammed into them. Gradgrind intends to forcefully rid these delicate “vessels” of any fancy and imagination entirely, considering these merits to be useless follies that serve no practical use in the real world, and Dickens emphasizes Gradgrind’s over-zealous capacity for destruction when he describes him as “a kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts, and prepared to blow them clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.” In short, Dickens gives an unquestionably condemning impression of Gradgrind and the school by metaphorically depicting their forceful, joyless educational methods in contrast to the naiveté and fragility of the children.
A primary objective of Coketown’s industrialized environment soon appears to be uniformity itself, another theme that is greatly enhanced by metaphorical language. When Mr. M’Choakumchild is introduced, Dickens informs us that “he and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs”–thereby effectively likening the training of teachers to industrialized manufacture, and also hinting that the process of mass producing standardized machines of people is a fundamental, driving force in Coketown’s society. This force permeates the education of the youth in school, where the machine-like teacher will mass produce industry-proficient citizens from the raw materials available in the pliable little pupils. And if they are to be suitably equipped for the real world, Gradgrind presumes that these children will need facts–slews of facts–and innocence and imagination are to be rooted out and discarded. The finished products of this rigorous training will emerge by the dozens, aptly-suited to excel in the industrial drudgery of Coketown.
Louisa and Tom Gradgrind, unsurprisingly, feel the incompleteness of their existence even at an early age, and in one instance when their curiosity gets the better of them, they can’t resist peeping through a fence at a circus performance. When their father catches them in the act, he is astounded, angered to find them in such a “degraded position.” At this point Tom merely gives “himself up to be taken home like a machine” (my emphasis), but Louisa is not quite so conditioned or obedient as Tom and shows more resistance to her father. Dickens depicts her singular, pitiful expression in this moment: “struggling through the dissatisfaction of her face, there was a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow, which brightened its expression.” Louisa’s inner fire becomes a recurring metaphor throughout Hard Times that symbolizes her suppressed imagination, and it takes on additional meaning later in the novel. In this passage, the fire burning inside Louisa is already starved but persists nevertheless. Figuratively speaking, her imagination smolders weakly and smokily among the “dry bones and sawdust” that she has been filled with, and instead of a healthy fire of emotions and imagination, Louisa is filled with “languid and monotonous smoke.”
Later in the novel, the long-term effects of enduring a childhood devoted to facts become blatantly obvious. Once Tom obtains his long-awaited independence from his father’s cold, scientific command, the rigorous training of his childhood violently backfires. Tom spirals downward in a chain of increasingly irresponsible, self-indulgent behaviors, including gambling and drinking, and eventually he gambles himself into monetary crises. His true colors come to the surface as he tries to deal with his problems, and we find out that, with all the facts and figures that his father ground into him, Gradgrind had apparently either overlooked or fallen short of instilling any sort of moral fiber in his son. Ironically, Tom ends up seeking refuge from the law by performing in disguise in the circus, the last place his father would have predicted during Tom’s disciplined youth. Ultimately, Tom ends up fleeing overseas after he rebukes Louisa for not helping him with his debts, and on foreign soil, full of remorse, he sickens and dies while attempting to return to his beloved sister. All in all, Gradgrind’s terrible parenting is the cause of his son’s failures in life; Tom’s squashed feelings of curiosity and enchantment exploded out of control once they were unbridled, resulting in his swift and fatal downfall. Through Tom’s dismal fate, Dickens grimly illustrates the repercussions of Gradgrind’s utilitarian influence on those under his care.
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Louisa, on the other hand, does not encounter so desolate a fate as her brother, but the effects of her deprived childhood are nevertheless pronounced. While still young, Louisa marries Mr. Bounderby, an ill-fated decision that resulted largely due to the dispassionate countenance that her father infused in her from an early age. Later, like her brother, she easily succumbs to temptation once she is freed from her father’s iron grasp. In her case, the temptation is an affair with James Hearthouse, a man who easily appeals to Louisa’s immature, undeveloped emotions. However, Harthouse rouses Louisa’s long-dormant feelings into a sluggish agitation, and before she consummates any infidelity, the emotional poverty of her life engulfs her in a jolting, inescapable reality–the realization that she is destined to lead a numb and passionless existence–and so she returns to her father full of anguish and reproach, accusing him of ruining her. The ‘fire’ metaphor appears again, for the once-sedated imaginative tendencies inside of Louisa have become destructive, burning “within her like an unwholesome fire.” She spends the rest of her days at Stone Lodge under the loving influence of Sissy, trying to regain what had become withered and stunted under her father’s care. Regrettably, Louisa has been permanently robbed of her inner spirit, her ability to live in feeling, and she ultimately endures a bleak existence, unable to secure a home or children of her own.
Fortunately, Mr. Gradgrind is able learn the error of his ways, but his conversion does not spare the ruin of his two eldest children. When Louisa returns and reveals to him the effects of his parenting, he is at first doubtful, but is ultimately convinced by the “wild dilating fire” in his daughter’s eyes. Once he comes to terms with the fact that his life and beliefs, everything he had previously stood for, are in error, he arrives at the wise conclusion “that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart.” Later he acknowledges that Sissy, “by mere love and gratitude,” has brightened his household and his youngest daughter: “what the Head had left undone and could not do, the Heart may have been doing silently.” Gradgrind’s realization is ironic, for he is the last character who we would expect to admit the shortcomings of ‘facts’ and the powers of the ‘heart.’ Dickens’s message is clear: neither the Head nor the Heart is inherently bad; instead, the rival philosophies complement one another, and both should wholeheartedly embraced and juxtaposed so that nothing can be “left undone.”
Finally, Sissy Jupe serves as a stark contrast to the other ill-fated characters. After her father abandons her early in the novel, she takes up residence with none other than the Gradgrinds themselves. Sissy is innately inclined toward fancy and an animated imagination, and her experiences in the classroom show that she tends to speak from her heart, rather than conforming to the spiritless design that Gradgrind’s school holds in store for her. Indeed, her heart proves too strong and passionate to submit to the corrupting coaching she receives in school, and consequently she is withdrawn as a result of her ‘inaptitude.’ Despite the halt in her education, Sissy grows into a sensible, compassionate woman during her years with the Gradgrinds, still retaining her robust imagination–a rather astounding accomplishment considering the notoriously unwholesome atmosphere of Stone Lodge. Later in the novel Sissy becomes a beacon of morals and kindness to the troubled Louisa: “In the innocence of her brave affection, and the brimming up of her old devoted spirit, the once deserted girl shone like a beautiful light upon the darkness of the other.” Furthermore, only Sissy can begin to mend Louisa’s misshapen spirit with her “soft touch” and “sympathetic hand” and breathe the beginnings of life into an emotionally dead soul; and again it is Sissy who gives the youngest Gradgrind daughter the affectionate nurturing that Louisa and Tom needed so badly in their youths.
By emphasizing the concepts of fact and fancy in Hard Times, Dickens paints a discerning model of the industrialized Victorian society, exemplifying its defects in characters like Gradgrind and Bounderby. On the whole, Dickens renders Gradgrind and his school entirely destructive and sinister, thereby presenting a possible critique of the schools in Victorian England at the current time. More importantly, however, the smaller world of the classroom directly reflects the larger, zealously industrialized society that exists outside–both Coketown itself and the world in which Dickens lived. Through the main characters and their experiences in the representative environment of education, Dickens exemplifies the shallowness and decadence of industrialized economy, which is epitomized by Coketown. Gradgrind and Bounderby deem the Coketown workers, like Louisa and Tom, to be “eternally dissatisfied and unmanageable,” and Dickens openly speculates that there is an “analogy between the case of the Coketown population and the case of the little Gradgrinds.” Furthermore, Coketown itself embodies the characteristic descriptions of Gradgrind’s home and classroom, shown in the lines “Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial,” and the previously noted harms of the Coketown classroom are amplified in Coketown’s factories, where machinery is “chopping people up” and the workers face death “young and misshapen.” Additional descriptions of Coketown give evidence of the inherent frailty of its moral and societal underpinnings, for although the town appears mighty and deathless, with its raging factories of fire and smoke and its tyranny over the enslaved workers, Coketown’s machinery throbs “feebly like a fainting pulse.” The lack of any sort of supporting foundation is further emphasized by the patchy, insubstantial quality imparted on the buildings by its soot and grime: the town is “shrouded in a haze of its own,” “a blur of soot and smoke,” discernible only as a “sulky blotch upon the prospect.” Moreover, Dickens actually suggests that this industrialized society is essentially corrupt and sinful when he conveys Coketown as “nothing but masses of darkness” that “confusedly” aspire to “the vault of Heaven,” with its chimneys “rising up into the air like competing Towers of Babel.” These descriptions cast a very accusatory, judgmental light on industrialism and its perpetuators in general.
In Hard Times, these perpetuators, or the bourgeoisie on the whole, are represented by Mr. Bounderby, a truly despicable, selfish character, and a “self-made Humbug” (in his own words) who claims to follow the same philosophy as Gradgrind, and he constantly proclaims the fantastic tales of his impoverished, abandoned childhood and unlikely rise to fortune. When Gradgrind encounters Mrs. Bounderby at the end of the novel, he hastily reproaches her, wondering at her audacity in showing her face to her son, to which she replies, “Lord forgive you, sir, for your wicked imaginations.” This statement is ironic on several levels, for Gradgrind has only recently abandoned his rigid dependence on facts–but now, that which he deemed most dependably factual and true is revealed as a pinnacle of fanciful lies. Furthermore, Gradgrind himself formerly propagated the notion that imagination is useless and wicked; subsequently, there is now a sort of role-reversal between himself and Bounderby’s mother. Lastly, Bounderby, that sturdy and respected upholder of rationality and fact, is exposed as an utter hypocrite. He is a man so deeply embedded in ludicrous fabrications that his entire public identity is an invented façade, a jumble of ridiculous, fanciful delusions, analogous to the elusive, ethereal qualities of Coketown itself. It is his imagination that is truly wicked, and he merely endorses utilitarian views as a result of his greedy self-interest. By portraying Bounderby as a shameless deceiver who is oblivious to the plight of his employees, Dickens suggests that industrialized society has been created and sustained without regard to human compassion or morality, and that, as a system, this type of society fosters only vice and misery.
In summary, Dickens creates a loveless, greed-driven world within Coketown’s schools and factories, where the principles of the market take precedence over human compassion. By sanctioning the proliferation of fact and rationality, as well as the oppression of imagination of fancy, Bounderby has no benevolent motive. He seeks to increase his wealth by increasing the efficiency of his workers, and the specialized education of the youth in Coketown is merely one manifestation of industrialized greed. Gradgrind, on the other hand, harbors good intentions for the children, but as to the effects of his actions, he is gravely mistaken, as Dickens so explicitly shows. Although Dickens does not offer a clear solution to society’s ills, he portrays the goodness of humankind in the members of the circus, who “cared so little for plain Fact,” and about whom “there was a remarkable gentleness and childishness” and an “untiring readiness to help and pity one another.” On one note, however, Dickens is quite clear: human nature cannot be reduced to a plethora of facts and figures, and neither can it be predicted as such:
It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but not all the calculators of the National debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice… at any single moment in the soul of one of these quiet servants.
Dickens repeatedly illustrates the grave repercussions of Coketown’s society, of stifling the fire of imagination, giving a disturbing perspective of human greed and its power to corrupt.
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