Hard Times–Book the First: Sowing

I have been reading Hard Times by 1800’s British novelist, Charles Dickens. This specific novel’s main theme, at least from only reading this first part, seems to ‘facts.’ The main family (the Gradgrinds) are obsessed with facts and advocate ‘never to wonder.’ We see the rational mind pitted against the imagination.

The part of the novel so far, is looking at Louisa Gradgrind, the daughter of the tyrannical Mr. Gradgrind. In looking at Louisa (as well as Sissy Jupe, a poor circus daughter taken into the Gradgrind family), we see the a desire to have more than mere facts.

When we first meet Louisa, after intently looking at the circus performers and being reprimanded by her father, the narrator describers her as such:

There was an air of jaded sullenness in them both [Louisa and her brother, Thomas], and particularly in the girl. yet, struggling through the dissatisfaction of her face, there was a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow, which brightened its expression. Not with the brightness natural to cheerful youth, but with uncertain, eager, doubtful flashes, which had something painful in them, analogous to the changes on a blind face groping its way. (p. 19)

Here, we see the devastation of a child trampled by facts, a flame being put out by facts. But there still exists a hope for the flame to grow stronger. There is still room to imagine and to be able to feel compassion and actively love our neighbors. This is essentially what the disjunction is: facts or feelings. But both of these terms are misunderstood by characters in the novel. Facts are good, as the Gradgrinds would proclaim. Nevertheless, facts are not sufficient in and of themselves. Feelings are good, as Sissy Jupe and the circus folk would sing. Yet, feelings are only good if they are not directed merely at the self.

We see this image continued on within the Gradgrind house. The room in which Louisa and Thomas Gradgrind frequently inhabit, Louisa is constantly ‘wondering’ at the fire–intently looking at the fire.

Young Thomas expressed these sentiments, sitting astride of a chair before the fire, with his arms on the back, and his sulky face on his arms. His sister sat in the darker corner by the fireside, now looking at him, now looking at the bright sparks as they dropped upon the hearth. (p. 54)

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‘I was encouraged by nothing, mother, but by looking at the red sparks dropping out of the fire, and whitening and dying. It made me think ,after all, how short my life would be, and how little I could hope to do in it.’ (p.57)

Louisa looks and wonders at the fire, something forbidden in her house for fear that facts and reason might be subverted (never wonder!). Yet, Louisa’s wonder causes her to “think,” to contemplate. And even though this quote talks about the lack of hope, there still exists in Louisa a hope that the flame will grow stronger, that she will be able to reconcile her mind with love–something unheard of in the Gradgrind family.

But alas! Louisa (~20) receives a proposal from Mr. Bounderby (~50), a close friend of Mr. Gradgrind, who has been around the Gradgrind family for forever, watching Louisa grow up. This man started from dirt and has become a ‘self-made’ man–he even lives under the subconscious (and maybe even conscious) notion that he has created himself. Even though Mr. Bounderby diverts a little from Mr. Gradgrind’s beliefs, this man is just obsessed with facts as Mr. Gradgrind himself.

Louisa accepts this man’s hand in marriage and the flame of hope is stifled. Louisa began to feel compassion for Sissy’s waiting for a letter from her father. Yet, when she accepts this proposal, she begins to treat Sissy with cold reserve:

After this, whenever Sissy dropped a Curtsey to Mr. Gradgrind in the presence of his family, and said in a faltering way, ‘I beg your pardon, sir, for being troublesome – but – have you had any letter yet about me?’ Louisa would suspend the occupation of the moment, whatever it was, and look for the reply as earnestly as Sissy did. And when Mr. Gradgrind regularly answered, ‘No, Jupe, nothing of the sort,’ the trembling of Sissy’s lip would be repeated in Louisa’s face, and her eyes would follow Sissy with compassion to the door. Mr. Gradgrind usually improved these occasions by remarking, when she was gone, that if Jupe had been properly trained from an early age she would have demonstrated to herself on sound principles the baselessness of fantastic hopes. Yet it did seem (though not to him, for he saw nothing of it) as if fantastic hope could take as strong a hold as fact. (pp. 64-5)

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When Mr. Gradgrind had presented Mrs. Bounderby [i.e. Louisa], Sissy had suddenly turned her head, and looked in wonder, in pity, in sorrow, in doubt, in a multitude of emotions, towards Louisa. Louisa had known it, and seen it, without looking at her. From that moment, she was impassive, proud, and cold – held Sissy at a distance – changed to her altogether. (p. 102)

What is it in this engagement, in Mr. Bounderby, that causes Louisa to dispose of her love, her compassion, for Sissy? The answer, I think, would be the idolatry of fact. When reason is God, the most important thing, the world is turned inward–the focus is on each individual: “The only thing that matters is that I come to learn more facts.” Love and compassion have no room in the mind of those obsessed with facts. And this love has been stomped out of Louisa.

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Book 2: Reaping

Book 3: Garnering

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6 thoughts on “Hard Times–Book the First: Sowing

  1. * It seems to me that the essential disjunction is not facts versus feelings so much as facts versus fancy, although feelings often play a role in our fancy.

    * “the tyrannical Mr. Gradgrind”? The narrator describes him this way, “He was an affectionate father, after his manner” (p. 17).

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    • I think fancy is the word that the Gradgrind’s would use. The narrator pits Facts against “idle imagination” (p. 25), “wonder” (pp. 52-58),”fantastic hope” (pp. 64-65), and love (implicit, but can be seen on pp.97-98, and elsewhere). Love is a feeling, so I didn’t think I was going too far from what Dickens is communicating. But I could see an argument that Fact is not, in fact (pun-intended), contrasted with feeling.

      And I see that sentence. I do not think that Mr. Gradgrind is an abusive father, but he certainly runs a strict household. And even if Mr. Gradgrind is not considered a tyrant (explicitly) by the narrator, the narrator does describe Fact as something that takes the children “captive” (p. 16)–and Mr. Gradgrind is the father of this household that enforces fact and prohibits wonder. This seems tyrannical to me.

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      • “Mr Gradgrind though hard enough, was by no means so rough a man as Mr Bounderby. His character was not unkind, all things considered” (p. 32).

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      • Yes, Mr. Gradgrind has a general kind manner that the prideful Mr. Bounderby doen’t have. However, a mere outward disposition that is “not unkind” does not negate the fact that Mr. Gradgrind controls his children and their education meticulously. Mr. Gradgrind has manner, but he is also tyrannical and controlling when it comes to his children.

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      • “His character was not unkind, all things considered.” I’m intrigued that the narrator says “character,” a word that conveys something about the inner man, whereas you’re emphasizing “manner” and ” mere outward disposition,” which conveys something about the outer man. I agree that Mr Gradgrind is “controlling” but I wouldn’t describe him as “tyrannical.” He is, after all, a Victorian father. Conduct that we might regard as “tyrannical” in 21st-century America was probably more typical of fathers in 19th-century England. The clearest example of Mr Gradgrind’s “not unkind” character is when he takes Sissy into his own household as a charge once he learns that she has been deserted by her father; this shows a degree of compassion or care, even if it is self-interested. Of course, “not unkind” doesn’t mean Mr. Gradgrind is Mother Teresa. It just means he’s not a tyrant.

        Parents are often controlling of their children for a variety of motives, some good and others bad. To take a straightforward example, a parent controls a child who wants to touch a hot stove in order to protect her. To take a more complex example, a parent controls a child by educating her in a certain way, which may be for her own sake, his own sake, or a combination. I want to ask: why does Mr Gradgrind want a fact-only education for his children (and others)? Is it to punish kids? Is it to compensate for deficits in his own education? Is it because he genuinely, although I would say mistakenly, believes that such an education is conducive to human flourishing?

        Bottom line: It seems the narrator gives us a complicated figure in Mr Gradgrind. Most parents do what they think is in their children’s best interests; only time reveals whether that’s true or not.

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  2. Pingback: Hard Times–Book the Second: Reaping | Lankford Press

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