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Hard Times illustrates the depression and progression of men and women respectively. It follows the role of women in Victorian society, where women were associated by specific, stereotypical traits such as sensitivity and transparency, but develops into a story highlighting the importance of femininity in society. Hard Times professes Dickens’s views on femininity, as he prophesises and analyses the true nature of women.
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During the reign of Queen Victoria, a woman’s place was within the home. A woman’s mind was seen as only capable to perform certain domestic and mothering jobs, and this was seen as sufficient emotional fulfilment. However, during the Victorian Era the role of women extended and Victorian feminism began to emerge. Cecilia Jupe embodies and epitomises the Victorian femininity that regulates mechanization and engineering. During the first chapter Sissy or ‘girl number twenty’ is largely portrayed as the incapable girl, who believes that flowers should be cast upon the floor, much to her alter ego’s, Mr Gradgrind’s disgust. One of Sissy’s original traits was her constant blushing and curtseying; women were compassionate and polite, never arguing and never having an opinion. Cecilia is again portrayed as incompetent when she is asked to define a horse, however is unable and shown up by an exaggerated ideal Gradgrind in the making, Bitzer, who with ease programmes his mind to calculate an exact answer and proves his right to be called a man, or machine. At the end of the chapter it seems Gradgrind slams a door on Cecilia’s mind telling her ‘you are never to fancy’ and lectures his students on the importance of ‘facts, facts, facts’ but if I am not mistaken this translates to ‘Men, Men, Men’. Sissy is an emotional girl, represented in her blushing blood filled cheeks, does not confine in Gradgrinds fact/men only perspective. She has personality and opinions and becomes a missing piece in the Gradgrind machine, flipping the story upside down.
The character of Cecilia Jupe is dramatically contrasted by the performance of Thomas Gradgrind and his promotion of philosophy of rationalism, egotism, and raw, rigid fact. He is portrayed as a rigid man, largely with Dickens comical interpretation of the man’s appearance; “square coat, square legs, square shoulders,” Gradgrind is a strong product of utilitarianism; a strong belief in facts and numbers, common in the nineteenth century. Utilitarianism followers believed only things with a clear function are worth having, no beauty, no decorations, and certainly no flowers on the carpet. Gradgrind represents what was a man; a capable mind full of facts, has authority and has no need for fancy. Bitzer is the perfect pupil in Gradgrinds mind; he is full of facts and nothing else. He has no individual life, opinions or fancy. He has a cold, lifeless exterior. I believe the paleness of his skin represents his inexpressive mind. Everything else reflects off him, and draws all personality out of him, Dickens says ‘he would bleed white’ which symbolises how inhumane he and Gradgrind are. This major contrast between Cecilia and Gradgrind/Bitzer becomes a war between the sexes, and over the course of the book one largely triumphs over the other.
Louisa is Grandgrind’s daughter, later becoming Bounderby’s wife. Confused by her cold-hearted childhood, Louisa feels detached from her emotions and alienated from other people. Louisa becomes the primary female character, however does not embody the Victorian feminine characteristics as Sissy does. Instead Louisa has become cold and lifeless through the life of her father. While at first Louisa unable to comprehend and function within the grey matter of emotions, she can at least recognise their existence and are more influential within society than her father or Bounderby lead her to believe, even without any factual basis. With the help of Sissy and Rachel, Louisa grows and progresses, blooming into a model woman. She defines the story. As she grows and changes as does the story, she is the timeline of feminism and her breakthrough symbolises the start of female equality.
With her ‘Roman’ and ‘exploding’ nose, Mrs Sparsit became a significant comical character within Hard Times. Employed and eventually dramatically fired by Bounderby for her selfish, manipulative, dishonest antics, she plots to overturn Bounderby’s marriage in hope of one day taking Louisa’s place. Mrs Sparsit becomes a key detective in Hard Times, taking it upon herself to discover who robbed the bank, probably in hope of impressing Bounderby. Mrs Sparsit largely comes under the fire of Dickens’s hyperbole. His constant mocking of her particularly large nose, attempts to shadow her extraordinary character. I believe Dickens is scared of her character and scared of appearing too ‘pro-women’ and must restore a small amount dignity by mocking a woman. Her character is so strong and ‘unladylike’ he must fault her. She is the opposite of how a woman was seen, and must therefore turn her into a comic. I think Dickens is very fond of Mrs Sparsit and ruins her passionate character to hide his affection.
Eventually, after the introduction of all the characters they slowly progress and attack the plot. The female characters begin to take action and wake from their sleep.
‘Louisa awoke from a torpor’ if I were to summarise the story with one sentence this would be it. This quote defines the plot, and the Victorian situation. Dickens tells us the Louisa along with all women are awakening into realisation. Louisa is waking from her nightmare counter life, where Gradgrind decoyed her conscious, and being born as a woman ready to tackle the world. Louisa’s story can be related to many modern fairytales where the women are put to sleep until saved and brought back to society. Sleeping Beauty tells the story of a passive, naÃ¯ve girl being put under a spell. Much like the spell Gradgrind bounded Louisa with. The only way to release the spell was a kiss, an icon of emotion. Louisa was ‘kissed’ by Sissy and Rachel with emotions and unleashed.
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After the rebirth of Louisa the evil Gradgrind machine imploded. With Louisa increasing individual perspective on life she soon realised her marriage was not worth suffering for and confesses her depression her father. Gradgrind becomes conscious that his system of facts was in fact a failure. Confirmed by the learning of Tom robbing the bank Gradgrind admits “The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet.” His children have taught him something. Following my decision the facts equalled men, I believe this system symbolises the inequality of men vs women. The destruction of this system resulted in Gradgrind recognizing the potential of women; ultimately “making his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity.”
Sissy’s journey does not develop as much as she was waiting for the world to develop around her. Sissy was ready from the beginning however she couldn’t bloom until her confidence grew. She eventually grew and woke Louisa up. Sissy triggered all other developments of femininity and became the blushing epicentre of women.
In conclusion, Hard Times tracks and predicts the progression of feminism within the world. Through the various female characters in the novel, Dickens suggests that feminine compassion is essential to restore social harmony. We can assume that Dickens was a hidden feminist, whether he tried to mask it with mocking humour or not, this piece of feminine ante litteram highlights Dickens ingenuity and feminine side. It’s his protest or warning, informing society on the rise and bloom of women.
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