Hard Times takes place in the fictional town of Coketown with Dickens description of the town setting the mood for the novel. Coketown is described as an urban jungle full of noise and dirt, a monstrous mass urban society based on rationalism, anonymity and dehumanisation
"It was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled...where the piston of the steam engine worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant a state of melancholy madness...inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work and to whom everyday was the same as yesterday and tomorrow."
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This description contains both metaphor and connotation, with the serpents being a biblical metaphor for sin and evil. The scorched and stained chimneys give the image of hell whilst the very notion that each building twinned the next is reflected in the way Coketown abides by a strict uniform. The depressed citizens mirror this miserable setting as they go about their daily routines.
Dickens appraises both social and contemporary issues throughout this condition of England novel and echoes many of Carlye's arguments against the power of materialistic views; however, Hard Times also shows that human nature is a strong force and the positive traits that it holds such as hope, compassion and imagination are not easily extinguished. These qualities are preserved in characters such as Rachael, Sleary and Sissy, even Mr Gradgrind eventually reveals some elements of humanness.
In truth, Hard Times is an attack on the Manchester school of economics and is critical of the way society basis itself on the Laissez-faire system of capitalism. The 1800's witnessed the Industrial Revolution sweep across England. Dickens saw the industrial revolution as a negative event and one that stripped people of their rights in favour of profit and aimed to turn man into machine. The lower class workers began to face even more poverty as the callous factory owners exploited them for as much money and production as possible. Fines were a regular occurrence for workers who dared to take a rest, even if pregnant. Dickens viewed the industrial revolution through humanitarian eyes and believed the generalisation of workers a merely 'hands' took away any form of individuality as they became a voiceless and powerless number in the eyes of the factory bosses. Stephen Blackpool expresses this view "look how we live, an' wheer we live, an' in what numbers...and how yo are awlus right and how we are awlus wrong"
Although the Laissez-faire system was supposed to offer the individual freedom of choice, Dickens uses Blackpool to show that this is not the case. Although he could quit his job, he would not be free as there was no benefit system to take care of the unemployed. A new job would have to be acquired and inevitably, it would come with the same cruel conditions and the same oppressive attitude from another self-serving boss doing their upmost to obtain as much work for as little pay as possible.
Dickens essentially uses Blackpool as his spokesperson as he portrays the oppressed, unappreciated worker, his sacking at the hands of Bounderby in an attempt to show the power he holds over his employees highlights this. Bounderby personifies the Laissez-faire system; he preaches the ideology of facts over imagination by demonstrating himself as the perfect example of somebody who has come through adverse poverty to be a self-made man. Yet he is living in his own imaginary world as none of his fables of a poor upbringing are true, therefore Bounderby's beliefs and his actual life make an interesting paradox.
Because of the Industrial Revolution society changed with a new middle class emerging whose moral duty, in Dickens eyes, was to fight for the rights of the powerless lower class. Many of these new middle class individuals would start trade unions and even join parliament in an attempt to change the laws to benefit the poor, however the notion that workers should join in trade unions was not something Dickens embraced. In Hard Times, the trade unions lead by Slackbridge are portrayed disapprovingly.
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Dickens does however suggest that love could diminish exploitation and this is symbolised by the union of Sissy and Louisa, which also shows that no matter where a person comes from or what class they are, they are equal and should be afforded the dignity of basic human rights.
Dickens also challenges the drudgery of the education system, the opening lines of the novel, spoken by Mr Gradgrind
"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"
Is a reflection of the oppression children faced within the classroom. Mr Gradgrind based his beliefs on the utilitarian theory and made it the foundation and philosophy for his school. This resulted in the children being viewed as empty vessels to be filled with facts. Mr Gradgrind reflected this philosophy through his persona
"He seemed like some kind of cannon loaded to the muzzle with facts and prepared to blow them clear out of the regions of childhood in one discharge"
This description of the schools philosophy is ironically contained within the chapter 'murdering the innocents'.
The problems with such philosophy is shown through Louisa who is a perfect product of the school of facts yet lives an unfulling life as she is incapable of enjoying or appreciating what she has in an emotional manner as she has suppressed her emotions long ago. Much emphasis was placed on filling the children with facts whilst neglecting all other aspects of their development. This is the key failure of Gradgrind's school and is shown via the satirical portrayal of Mr M'Choakumchid, one of the teachers charged with installing the facts into the children. The very name M'Choakumchild is a paronomasia as he literally choked the child with facts.
Gradgrind's school dehumanises the children whereas the circus restores humanity, this divide of fact and fancy symbolises an adult's attitude on life. This is not the only binary opposition in Hard Times as we see Sissy as a happy, imaginative and colourful child, opposed by Bitzer who is devoid of all imagination and colour, he is a dull person and this is shown in his appearance.
This is a weakness within the utilitarian education system that Dickens highlights, yet he fails to recognize that without this system many children would receive no education and would be forced to either work in the coalmines or be incarcerated (much the way a 12-year-old Dickens was) to work in the workhouses.
Dickens shows a great stratification between the working class and the higher class, there was indeed, as Disraeli stated, "two nations of England, the rich and the poor"
The utilitarian system, Industrial revolution and Laissez-faire capitalism all come under harsh criticism from the pen of Dickens because these systems allow for neither compassion nor the nurturing of human qualities that enables people to love and live life rather than go through life as a stereotype regurgitating facts.
The overriding message to the public is that people born in squalor are not only exploited but also void of any rights and privileges and this is a social ill that needs addressing.
Hard Times is
"Essentially an exploration of economic and ideological systems...Dickens stylistic extravagancies in themselves challenges the heartless abstractions of utilitarianism. " (Foster 107)
Gaskell, like Dickens, used her bildungsroman novel North and South to draw attention to the social issues of the time and also used an omniscient narrator, allowing readers to become familiar with the internal convictions of each character. Through the main protagonist, Margaret, she shows the divides in society and the attitude and contempt the lower class are held.
As Gaskell fond the weekly instalment format limiting she added epigraph quotations at the beginning of chapters to help set the scene.
Margaret moves from the Southern town of Helstone to the Northern industrial town of Milton, which is in the middle of the Industrial Revolution, due to her father's decision to leave his post as a pastor and move north on the advice of his friend Mr Bell. These two differing climates serve as a metaphor for the experiences and people by whom Margaret is surrounded. With her father now viewed as a dissenter, he takes the role of a tutor. This shows the nineteenth century concern of the crisis of the church.
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Margaret is an independent strong minded and out spoken woman who detests one of her father's pupils, John Thornton who is a mill master, as she sees him as an unsympathetic man whose only interest is money.
"Elizabeth Gaskell describes a kind of apartheid in early Victorian Manchester, where members of the middle class can walk the streets of the town without ever entering the slum districts, thus remaining ignorant of poverty in their own zone" (Wheeler 38)
Gaskell looks at unrest between master and worker; Margaret witnesses the workers going on strike due to Thornton reducing the wages because of pressure coming from America. To compound issues he does not give an explanation to the workers, however, he does give an explanation to Margaret
"Do you give your servants reasons for your expenditure, or your economy in the use of your own money? We, the owners of capital have a right to choose what we will do with it" (Gaskell 468)
Contrary to Thornton Margaret tries to build empathy with the workers as she tries to explain the situation of the capital holders and farmers to the workers during the strike.
As money become short so too did the supply of food with the workers meals often been replaced by tea as this gave the body the impression it had eaten due to the caffeine and sugar content. This was cheaper for the mill owners but resulted in malnutrition. The main source for nutrition such as bread and potatoes became a luxury the worker could not afford and an unnecessary expense in the eyes of the employer. Just as Dickens disapproved of the workers unions so too did Gaskell as Margaret viewed the unions as tyrannical as the very masters they were striking against.
The tea symbolises the class divisions with the poor drinking it simply to survive whereas the higher class would drink the tea as a luxury commodity, which is significant as Victorian society based a lot of social judgement on how one would take their tea/meals.
Gaskell uses dialect speech to show that she understands the world of which she writes for example Margaret suggests redding up the Bouchers' house and even offers jokingly to teach her mother words such as knobstick.
Margaret forges friendships with both upper and working class families and as she is unfamiliar with the trouble between classes, she has an unbiased view on the people and acts as a mediator within her small circle trying to highlight the problems caused by the class conflict.
Through Margaret, the 'weaker sex' is empowered yet Gaskell struggles to examine the role of women in Victorian England, using Bessy as the heroine. Gaskell, instead, concentrates on industrialization and the effects it has on class divisions.
Margaret has to accept the social effects of the Class system, but through Higgins and Bessy, she learns that no matter what, people are still people regardless of the class they have bestowed upon them.
Just like Dickens Gaskell highlighted the importance of human nature and used the uniting of different ideologies and classes to criticise the dehumanising Laissez-faire belief that Thornton held when refereeing to his workers as 'hands'.
For Gaskell communication between the classes is the only way to achieve harmony within society. Although class struggle cannot be distinguished, it can be reduced for mutual benefit.
Gaskell like Dickens was "writing the kind of novel that asked all the questions and was at least aware of a whole range of possible answers." (Pollard 193)
Margaret's unspoken resolution to marry Thornton signifies Gaskell's vision of a union between the ruthlessly capitalistic, industrial north and the more humanistic south, essentially uniting binary oppositions.
Gaskell highlighted the plight of women and the underprivileged workers and demanded the wealthy mill owners address the ills of the industrial age; she believed that Christian charity and good heartedness could bring about the social change.
Dickens was also concerned with the predicament of women and their struggle to survive in a man's world. Victorians strongly believe that a woman's place was in the home, thus she was known as the 'angle of the house', as traits such as compassion and sensitivity are generally associated with women, traits that Dickens claims can counteract the mechanical wonder of industrialisation, Dickens shows that women are equally important to the workd as men.
Both Dickens and Gaskell represented the deprived society as well as attacking the oppressive nature of Victorian society and its failure to assist the poor. Aware of their ability to reach out to middle class readers and motivated by their sense of social conscience, both wrote in an informative way about the working class struggles, both however "sidestep the case for radical change to class structures, relying instead on the reconciling plots of marriage and reunited families." (Tucker 83)
and, "From their middle-class world-view, neither writer could possibly see the class system as intrinsically oppressive and exploitative, a social construction that might need deconstruction." (DeVine 5)
Conversely Jane Stevenson claims that Gaskell's "direct knowledge of the lives of the poor probably exceeded that of Dickens." (Stevenson
Both these condition of England novels "specifically demands some kind of response from the reader to the wrongs which it exposes." (Wheeler 88)