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Dickens's distinctive style is one of the most admired in the English language. Here are some of its notable characteristics, followed by examples from Hard Times.


    Dickens had a great love of language, which reveals itself in elaborate descriptions of people, places, and events. Long, complex sentences are common, but the words are rarely wasted. When simplicity is called for, Dickens can be frugal with his words. If he does get carried away, remember that his readers were used to long, spacious books with full descriptions. Books provided the main source of entertainment for Victorians, so readers liked to get their money's worth!

    Look at the second paragraph in Chapter 10, Book the First. (It begins "In the hardest working part of Coketown;"). The entire paragraph is one sentence, built of prepositional phrases and subordinate clauses that lead to the introduction of Stephen Blackpool. Not only is this device highly descriptive, but it underlines the importance of the subject of the sentence- Stephen Blackpool- and provides a very dramatic way to introduce him.


    Repeating words and phrases within a sentence or paragraph adds emphasis and musicality to Dickens's prose (and makes it fun to read aloud).

    Read carefully the second paragraph of Chapter 1 of Book the First, beginning "The scene was..." Notice the repetition of such phrases as "The emphasis was helped" and such words as "square." This technique is typical of Dickens's style, and is often imitated.


    Hard Times is rich in symbolism, from Louisa's identification with fire to Tom's depiction as a sad clown in one of the final scenes. Metaphorically, Coketown is described as a jungle, its smoke a series of serpents, its steam engine an elephant's head.

    Other metaphors abound. Gradgrind's hair is a "plantation of firs"; Mrs. Gradgrind is "a bundle of shawls"; time is compared to machinery, with "innumerable horse- power." Watch for Dickens's use of metaphors as you read. Draw up a list of your favorites.


    Dickens peppers his works with allusions to literature, mythology, the Bible, current events. Most of his readers would be familiar with these allusions, but some of them might be confusing to the modern reader. This guide will help you to understand the most important ones.


    Rhetorical devices are those which mirror techniques used in speech-making: exclamatory sentences, direct address to the audience (and to characters), questions. There are times when you might feel that Dickens is making a speech rather than writing a novel. "Ah, rather overdone, M'Choakumchild," he chides the teacher in Chapter 2, Book the First. "Where was the man, and why did he not come back?" he wonders about Stephen Blackpool in Chapter 5, Book the Third. "Dear reader!" he says in the final chapter. Many readers find these devices pretentious and inflated, but others find them energizing and vivid. How do you feel about them? Do they contribute to your enjoyment of the book?


    There are few greater comic writers than Dickens. Some say he is a better writer when he is comic than when he is serious and sentimental. Hard Times can be a grim and bitter novel, but it is saved from being completely depressing by its comic moments (although there are fewer in this novel than in most of Dickens's work). The tension is relieved by Sleary and his troupe, by Mrs. Sparsit (before she decides to undo Louisa), even by the pathetic Mrs. Gradgrind with her total lack of logic.

    Look at Chapter 6, Book the First, "Sleary's Horsemanship." The tension is high because Gradgrind and Bounderby have come to scold Jupe for bringing up so poorly educated a daughter. But Jupe is missing, and everyone is afraid of Sissy's reaction. Dickens relieves the tension by the comic jousting among Bounderby, Childers, and Kidderminster. Bounderby doesn't realize he's being made fun of, but the ways in which the two performers deflate his pomposity enliven a gloomy scene.

    The lack of humor in the Stephen Blackpool scenes is one reason some readers feel these parts of the book are less successful than others.


ECC [Hard Times Contents] []

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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