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The story is set in the fictitious town of Coketown. Coketown is used to represent a typical industrial town in the Northern area of England; many agree Coketown has certain similarities to Preston and Manchester but as Dickens had never been there he did not wish to offend them in the novel. Although the industrial revolution did many things to boost the economy of Britain, Dickens reveals the darker side the industrial revolution that consisted of slums, poverty and a monotonous and lifeless existence for many people. Mr Gradgrind's model school in Hard Times is not a real school. Dickens's generalized all the things, he thought were wrong with the education system into this school to show is contempt for the education system.
Right from the start we learn about the utilitarian education system of the day (an education system based around facts and usefulness rather then fun and imagination.). We are introduced to Mr Gradgrind who is referred to being "eminently practical" throughout Hard Times. Dickens uses Gradgrind and many other characters in a novel as a vehicle to portray measure. The novel's opening lines spoken by Mr. Gradgrind, they sum up his rationalist philosophy by saying "Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts." This shows how the pupils in the class are brought up on facts, they are not told to investigate these facts but are told to "plant nothing else, and root out everything else". Dickens uses plant imagery to show the teachers were planning to reap what they sow as Gradgrind says, "Nothing will ever be of any importance to them". Later on Gradgrind refers to the pupils as "reasoning animals" and compares their minds to fertile soil in which facts can be sowed but ironically he treats them as machines by depriving them of feeling and fantasy. Dickens exposes that in this way of teaching there is no room for imagination as apparently it is of no use to them. Dickens believes you can never suppress a child's imagination as he says "dost think that thou wilt always kill the robber Fancy (imagination) lurking within" which tells us that he thinks you can't suppress something that can't be suppressed in a child all you will do is "maim him or distort him". This shows the context of the title of chapter 2 "Murdering the Innocents" which is in essence what Dickens is trying to portray, that the education system is doing more harm then good. Some may say that having the facts is much more useful then having an imagination. However, if you have an imagination as well as the facts surly it will help the pupils understand the facts more and explore and investigate them.
The qualities of imagination and heart of which Thomas Gradgrind despises are embodied in the circus folk. Dickens uses Sissy Jupe to show the values of innocence and imagination. It is for that reason that she does not thrive at the school. Dickens shows his contempt for the education system when he exposes the utilitarian education theory as flawed as he shows the way Mr Gradgrind reacts to Sissy Jupe's name. He says, "Sissy is not a name" and she should call herself "Cecilia". This shows that Mr Gradgrind is only interested in fact and if the name "Sissy" is playing around with fact then it is not precise enough so she must be called Cecilia. Dickens's exposes that something as trivial as shortening a name, which children often enjoy being called as it gives them a certain amount of independence, is not allowed in a school of fact so a vital part of childhood is being lost. One may argue that when you introduce yourself for the first time you should use your proper name, as it is more formal. However, MR Gradgrind says that Sissy is not a name so she should never be allowed to call herself it regardless of whom to.
Mr Gradgrind asks Sissy to give her definition of a horse. Dickens uses this to show how the children are brought up on facts and these facts are all Gradgrind cares about. He says that Sissy possesses "no facts, in reference to one of the most commonest animals". He then tells Bitzer to give his. He then gives facts such as "Quadruped. Graminivorousâ€¦" Dickens shows how a boy who may not of ever seen a horse before gives a perfect scientific definition of a horse that involves no imagination what so ever. Dickens compares Bitzer and Sissy as he says ""But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to received a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed" He is trying to say that sissy is so full of vitality because she lives a life of imagination and kindness whereas Bitzer and the other children have been "bleached" of all imaginative thoughts and life because of the Gradgrind educational system. This is further emphasized when Sissy is addressed only as "Girl number twenty'" by Gradgrind. He has got rid of names as they show individuality, instead he uses arithmetic as it is an exact science and one by which Gradgrind abides by and uses as identification. Dickens is trying to depict that Gradgrind thinks of his children "vessels" that need to be filled with fact, instead of living and breathing pupils that need to be nurtured. He does not want to get to know them but just pour all that he knows into them no matter how boring it is. Some may that that Gradgrind only uses numbers so he doesn't have to remember the names but if this was true then why would he insist on Sissy calling herself Cecilia.
Geometry especially that of squares and circles, is an important thematic function in Hard Times. Thomas Gradgrind, has a "square forefinger," "square wall of a forehead," and a "square coat, square legs, square shoulders." Dickens uses this geometry (squares) to show Mr Gradgrind as being a rigid and insistent pedagogue (educator). He is trying to show how teachers in the utilitarian education system are so strict and dogmatic that they are not willing enough to change their ways. Dickens use of geometry continues when he describes Stone Lodge. The building is essentially the reflection of Thomas Gradgrind. Dickens also uses irony when he describes stone lodge as "everything a heart could desire," as well as long lists such as "calculated, cast up and proved". He describes the garden "like a botanical account book". The description of the house shows, like Thomas Gradgrind, a lack of vibrancy and has an austere feel. This description displays Dickens's contempt for the education system. He is telling the reader how unimaginative and uninspiring the places were that these teachers chose to live in. How were the teachers ever going to encourage imagination if they, themselves had none!
The novel contrasts two different views. The world of "factsâ€¦. and nothing but facts" is represented by Thomas Gradgrind and the world of fancy is represented by the Sleary's circus, which is presented as a philosophical counterpoint to the utilitarian view. Dickens based the circus on his childhood memories of Astley Circus, which he had written Sketches by Boz on. Caught between these two opposing views are Gradgrind's children Louisa and Tom, who are caught peering into a circus. Dickens shows Gradgrind's hate of the circus when he says, "He had reached the neutral ground upon the outskirts of the town, which was neither town nor country, and yet was either spoiled, when his ears were invaded by the sound of music." Dickens makes this an ugly scene, as he wants to show the reader how the circus appears to Gradgrind. Gradgrind feels the music is an invasion of his world of fact and is therefore ugly, as his world opposes the imagination used to create it and therefore the circus. Some may say that Dickens has deliberately given us a negative first impression of circus (imagination) to make it impressive, however, I think he is trying to make us feel the weaknesses of Gradgrind's way of thinking.
The way Dickens shows how Louisa and Tom react when they are caught and how he describes them shows us how bringing a child up on facts does more harm then good. At first when they are caught Tom gives himself up to be taken home like a "machine" (figurative language) and can't look at Gradgrind. He grabs their hands and leads them away. Dickens is trying to illustrate us how Gradgrind does not treat his children like a father and Tom does not treat him like a father, he is rather scared of him. Dickens shows how Tom has been rendered emotionally sterile and shows no emotions. The description of Louisa reveals a girl who has certain qualities harshly neglected and uncultivated, "would have been self-willedâ€¦â€¦â€¦but for her bringing up". Dickens shows that as Mr Gradgrind has brought her up on facts and has suppressed her imagination so all she can do is wonder. This is why Louisa has gone to the circus and disobeyed her father. Some may say that Mr. Gradgrind had a right to be angry as his daughter has disobeyed him, however, if she had been brought up to imagine things then maybe she wouldn't need to go and see it for herself and disobey her Dad. Dickens says "there was an air of jaded sullenness in them both" and in Louisa "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." Dickens is exposing how a girl that could have so much potential "a light" is not being allowed to reach this potential as she is being restrained by her father "with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn," Dickens reinforces the fact that we cannot eliminate imagination from a child, we can only "starve" it. He picks the word starve as to show how imagination is like a person, it needs to be able grow and flourish. Dickens also refers back to how even a little piece of imagination in a child can "brighten it's expression"
In Hard times Dickens continually argues that "fancy" (imagination) is needed for reason to exist; this desire is reflected through the idea that there needs to be the right balance between Fact and Fancy. He argues that divisions between fact and fancy are false, and focusing on one of them can be very dangerous. As in the words of Elaine Ostry in the book Social Dreaming "Without imagination, reason becomes distorted; it becomes a warped image of fancy. It becomes more than illogical; it becomes destructive." In Hard Times Dickens underlines the problems with a utilitarian education system through the use of his characterisation and language but does not offer practical means of changing it.