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THE NOVEL
OTHER ELEMENTS

THEMES

Hard Times is a unified, compact novel. Its themes often overlap as Dickens points an accusing finger at a specific time and place: England during the time of the Industrial Revolution. The themes are discussed throughout The Story section as they relate to the plot. They are listed here so that you may be aware of them as you read. MAJOR THEMES

  1. THE WISDOM OF THE HEART VS. THE WISDOM OF THE HEAD

    Gradgrind represents the wisdom of the head. His philosophy is based on utilitarianism, which seeks to promote "the greatest happiness for the greatest number." The philosophy is based on scientific laws that dictate that nothing else is important but profit, and that profit is achieved by the pursuit of cold, hard facts. Everything that isn't factual is considered "fancy," or imagination.

    The wisdom of the heart is embodied in Sissy Jupe. Simple, considered uneducable, Sissy brings goodness and purity to bear on many of the characters, including Gradgrind. As he sees the products of his philosophy shattered around him, particularly Louisa and Tom, he begins to wonder if the wisdom of the heart that others have talked about really exists. Sissy proves to him that it does, and she salvages a great deal that might have been lost.

    Closely related to this theme is man's need for "amusement." Sleary, the owner of the traveling circus, insists that people can't work and learn all the time- an idea once odious to Gradgrind.


  2. EXPLOITATION OF THE WORKING CLASS

    We see this theme worked out through the character of Stephen Blackpool, a factory worker. Stephen's life is "a muddle," in part because he and the other workers are exploited from all sides. Their employer, Bounderby, thinks that their lives are easy and that their complaints stem from selfishness and greed. The utilitarians who run the schools and the government are interested only in profit. The union organizers are driven by power-hungry self-interest. At one point Stephen indicates that the workers have bad leaders because only bad leaders are offered to them. Throughout the novel, the workers are almost all faceless, nameless individuals. They are called by the reductive term "hands," because it is their working hands that are important to the employers- not their souls or brains or spirits.

  3. THE EFFECTS OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

    Closely connected with the theme of exploitation, this theme is more all-encompassing. It reveals the abuses of a profit-hungry society that result in a variety of social disgraces: poor education of its children; smoke-filled cities and polluted water; dangerous factory machines; dreadful working conditions; substandard housing for the workers. This corrupt society is more interested in productivity and profit than in the health and happiness of its citizens. These issues are still relevant today in different degrees in different parts of the world; well over a century has passed since Dickens the reformer wrote Hard Times, but some of the abuses to which he called attention still linger.

  4. THE FAILURE OF THE UTILITARIAN EDUCATION

    The opening scene in M'Choakumchild's classroom sets the tone for this theme. Students are taught according to what is factual and are ordered to avoid anything imaginative. As governor of the school, Gradgrind not only sets the policy of hard facts but also practices it in the raising of his own five children. Educators like Gradgrind see children as "empty vessels" to be filled to the brim with facts and statistics. They never take into account the child's need for poetry, song, and fiction- those elements that feed the heart and soul, as well as the mind. The failure of this system is seen through Louisa and Tom Gradgrind, and the ambitious sneak Bitzer.

  5. THE ARROGANCE OF THE UPPER CLASSES

    Mrs. Sparsit and James Harthouse represent this theme. Mrs. Sparsit clings fiercely to her heritage and faded glamor. She is haughty to those "beneath" her and despises the efforts of the workers to organize a union.

    Harthouse is revealed as cynical and directionless. He treats his seduction of Louisa as a diversion, without thinking of the consequences of his actions.

    A related minor theme is the worship of the upper classes by those of the middle class. This is demonstrated in Bounderby's pride over Mrs. Sparsit's lofty background, in his acquisition of the trappings of wealth (despite his apparent disdain for them), and in Tom's admiration for Harthouse's worldly ways.

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