Hard Times will stand up to a critical reading far better than any earlier novel of Dickens, Bleak House alone excepted. It portrays figures as remarkable for their individuality as any in the whole of Dickens, but, for the most part, they serve the considerations of Theme. And the Theme is one capable of engaging serious attention. For Dickens has made a highly serious claim. It is tripartite in character: that the paranoid temperament fosters a paranoid creed. Utilitarianism, and that this creed extends itself in practice into the irresponsible development of Industry. It is not Industry per se that Dickens is fighting; rather laissez-faire, which polluted the atmosphere, allowed open mine-shafts to fester, employed or starved workers according to the market without any sense of human need or potential. Not industry alone is in question, but the philosophy operating behind it. "Your sister's training has been pursued according to the system" says the broken Gradgrind; and it is true. Hard Times, then, is Dickens's attack upon the System by which the claims of individual human beings are trampled in a general melee. Society itself cannot survive under such circumstances. The answers of Hard Times may be invalid; the questions it propounds are still with us. It is the most flawed of Dickens's classics, possibly, but it is still a classic.
Philip Hobsbaum, A Reader's Guide to Charles Dickens, 1972
[Hard Times] seems to me an unsuccessful novel, and for fairly obvious reasons. It has a bleakly deterministic view of the hopelessness of the human situation, and I think it is a sort of thesis-novel. Dickens marks out his enemies, Gradgrind and Bounderby, and he makes of them mere cyphers, predictable, hateful and easily condemned. But between them they represent a way of life which is meant to be powerful enough to squeeze out all hope for human decency. At the end of the novel, the circus- owner Sleary remarks to Gradgrind that
people mutht be amused. They can't be alwayth a learning nor yet they can't be always a working, they ain't made for it. You mutht have us, Thquire.
Sleary undoubtedly is seen as embodying the novel's positive values; but his remark is feebly prescriptive. The chance of "fun" is infinitely remote from the lives of the Coketowners. And in terms of what the novel proposes, it follows that the people of Coketown are as good as dead.
John Lucas, The Melancholy Man, 1970
In fact, if what is best in this novel is reviewed generally, it cannot but suggest reflections which extend beyond itself. For the passages in Hard Times where Dickens most shows his genius, is most freely himself, are not those where he is most engaged with his moral fable or intent (if we think, mistakenly, that he is so at all) on what Dr. Leavis called "the confutation of Utilitarianism by life." Rather, they appear when he comes near to being least engrossed with such things; when he is the Dickens who appears throughout the novels: the master of dialogue that, even through its stylization, crackles with life, perception, and sharpness, the master of drama in spectacle and setting and action.
John Holloway, "Hard Times," Dickens and the Twentieth Century, 1962
DICKENS AND TRADE UNIONS
There is, however, one real failure in the book. Slackbridge, the trade union organizer, is a mere figment of the middle-class imagination. No such man would be listened to by a meeting of English factory hands. Not that such meetings are less susceptible to humbug than meetings of any other class.
Not that trade union organizers, worn out by the terribly wearisome and trying work of going from place to place repeating the same commonplaces and trying to "stoke up" meetings to enthusiasm with them, are less apt than other politicians to end as windbags, and sometimes to depend on stimulants to pull them through their work. Not, in short, that the trade union platform is any less humbug-ridden than the platforms of our more highly placed political parties. But even at their worst trade union organizers are not a bit like Slackbridge.... Dickens knew certain classes of working folk very well: domestic servants, village artisans, and employees of petty tradesmen, for example. But of the segregated factory populations of our purely industrial towns he knew no more than an observant professional man can pick up on a flying visit to Manchester.
George Bernard Shaw, "Introduction to 'Hard Times,'" (1912), in Dickens: The Critical Heritage, 1971
THE ENDING OF HARD TIMES
It is the only conclusion in all Dickens that allows only the reserved "happy ending" of peace, of passion spent, of the end of disaster. It has no damaging bright glow of a future happiness for Louisa. Sissy's happy ending is not damaging, both because she has never been an actively, only a symbolically, prominent character; also because her happy marriage is brought in to emphasize Louisa's lack of glow. For once, even the children on the last page are tolerable.
There is a formality and solemnity in the language, and its quiet and reserve,... a vox humana with a difference, not too deep, shrill or ecstatic, and a turning away from grand climax. The moral suggestiveness is optimistic, but not only does the quieter language underline the mere spectator's solace that remains for Louisa, but also points two ways for the Dear reader. Though the last sentence speaks for the Better way, it does so in the unradiant imagery of death, with no heavenly sunset glow but gray ashes, just right for Coketown. Coketown can be remembered in the last lines of Hard Times as the slums are not at the end of Oliver Twist or Bleak House, and this is right, since the human discovery has not cancelled out the world of Coketown.
Barbara Hardy, "The Complexity of Dickens" (1970), in Dickens 1970
Blackpool himself is a further experiment in the direction of the fully achieved emblematicism of A Tale of Two Cities. In other words, he stands for a situation, a class, a predicament, without having to exist for us in quite the same way as Louisa or Sissy exist for us. We must avoid any temptation to condemn him as unreal, and recognize a perfectly valid literary mode. Dickens is doing something difficult and unprecedented here; he is creating a character real by the standards of Victorian realism, but capable of functioning as a symbolic, almost an abstract term in an argument.
Geoffrey Thurley, The Dickens Myth, 1976
There are so many things that Dickens could have done with Stephen. More could have been made of the mine-shaft down which he falls: it ought to have been fenced in after it had been finished with, just as, when in use, its firedamp and propensity towards explosion could have been countered with protective devices: but at no point does Dickens erect it into a social indictment. More could have been made of Stephen's scanty income and conditions of labour at the mill. It is significant that never once in this industrial novel does Dickens show us the day to day life of men in a factory. It would take more than a visit to Preston or Hanley to dramatize this in any depth of detail; yet some such undertaking ought to have been at the heart of the book. Stephen, in fact, is not dramatized as archetypal working man so much as a personification of a victim; not a social victim, either, but the victim of a broken-down marriage.
Philip Hobsbaum, A Reader's Guide to Charles Dickens, 1972
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