The University of Toronto at Scarborough

ENGB02Y: English Literature: Historical Survey (SpringTerm)

Instructor: Melba Cuddy-Keane

Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)

Web Resources:

Mental "hyper-links" in this course:

The critic Raymond Williams has described Hard Times as "a thorough-going and creative examination of the dominant philosophy of industrialism." Published in the middle of the 19th century, Hard Times probes the heart of Victorian Society. The Great Exhibition of 1851, housed in the Crystal Palace built especially for this extravagant event, celebrated the explosion of products and inventions facilitated by the new technologies. Only a few years later, in 1854, Dickens attacked the fundamental inhumanity of the industrial system. But in doing so, Dickens was not introducing a startlingly new approach; he was in many ways summing up and consolidating a long tradition of social and cultural critique.

Being now in approximately the middle of this term of study, we can use the representative quality of Hard Times to review many of the ideas and motifs in our reading to date. There are numerous connections that can be made--mental hyperlinks to other works. I'll suggest some here; you try to think of others.

Education: (nature of, importance of): Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, ("The Prelude"), Mill
Childhood: Blake, Wordsworth
Pastoral ideal embodied in a natural, innocent world: Blake, Wordsworth, Arnold ("The Scholar-Gypsy")
An interest in ordinary life, ordinary speech: Wordsworth ("Michael"); Anna Barbauld; Joanna Baillie
Honesty, decency, family values, love, exemplified in lower class or rural people: Wordsworth ("Michael")
Importance of the Imagination and Fancy: Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge
Limitations of Utilitarianism, facts, logical analysis: Blake (Newton); Mill
The City: Blake ("London"); Wordsworth, "("The Prelude"; "Michael")
The corruption of social institutions: Blake ("The Garden of Love"; "London") Shelley
Capitalism: Carlyle
Abuse of the working-class: Shelley, Carlyle
The "disease of modern life," failure of belief: Arnold, Mill
The conversion experience as a turning point: Carlyle, Mill
The pattern of fall, retribution, and (a qualified) redemption: Coleridge
The ideal woman as sacrificial, self-forgetting: Keats ("The Eve of St. Agnes"; Byron, "Don Juan")
Marriage and a woman's life: Wollstonecraft, Byron, ("Don Juan")
Woman's suffering: Charlotte Smith
The disappearance/lack/failure of modern heroes: Byron ("Don Juan"), Arnold, Tennyson ("The Lady of Shalott"?)
Father and father-figures who fail in relation to their children (Wordsworth, "Michael" (?); Carlyle)

Remember that all I've done is to point out a possible connection; you need to think about how that connection works and what its significance is.

One work that is noticeably absent from the above is Byron's Manfred but that may indeed indicate the way that Manfred's deep personal angst and aloof self-sufficiency failed to address the problems of the time as they appeared to the mid-Victorians. Remember that Mill found no relief in reading Byron and turned to Wordsworth for consolation and encouragement. Similarly, in an earlier work of Carlyle's, Sartor Resartus (1833-34), the narrator, coming out of a state of despair, declares "Close thy Byron; open thy Goethe!.

Another interesting gap is the lack of forerunners of Sissy Jupe--a new kind of heroine who not only represents positive values but who displays the "agency" associated with heroic characters by intervening in the action in a way that changes the course of events. There have been of course earlier female figures who exert agency but the typical romantic or melodramatic plot casts the female figure more usually as the one to be saved rather than the one who does the saving. Raymond Williams, who well perceives the significance of Hard Times in relation to industrialism, nevertheless displays an interesting blind spot when it comes to Sissy. Williams writes:

The scathing analysis of Coketown and all its works, and of the supporting political economy and aggressive utilitarianism, is based on Carlyle. So are the hostile reactions to Parliament and to ordinary ideas of reform. Dickens takes up the hostility, and it serves as a comprehensive vision, to which he gives all his marvellous energy. But his identification with Carlyle is really negative. There are no social alternatives to Bounderby and Gradgrind: not the time-serving aristocrat Harthouse; not the decayed gentlewoman Mrs Sparsit; nowhere, in fact, any active Hero. (Culture and Society, 1780-1950).

Williams's comment, written in 1958 before the rise of feminist criticism, expresses his own interest in the working-class and his disappointment that, while Dickens won sympathy for their suffering, he did not present active working-class figures, capable of effecting their own remedies. True, there are no "Captains of Industry" here; nor any Heroic Workers. But whereas Williams treats the Circus as an escape, a critic today is more likely to note Dickens's empowerment of the figures who inhabit the margins. It is the Outsider here who represents the potential for change.

These notes are intended for the use of students in a lecture course; for any other use, please acknowledge this site.


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