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Hard Times

Term Definition
Hard Times

Hard Times – For These Times is the tenth novel by Charles Dickens, first published in 1854. The book appraises English society and highlights the social and economic pressures of the times, much like A Christmas Carol.

A novel by Charles Dickens

Hard Times- For These Times is the tenth novel written by Charles Dickens (one of the most epic literary authors of the victorian era) in 1854. Famous for its appraisal of English society and the social and economic pressures of the times, the novel is often considered unusual in several ways. The shortest of Dickens’ novels, it is just barely a quarter of the length of the novels written right before and after. Unlike Dickens’ other works, Hard Times lacks any preface, illustrations, or scenes set in London, England. Uncharacteristic for a Dickens novel, it is set in a fictitious Victorian town, similar to Manchester. It is suspected that the town in the novel is passed off of the town of Preston in the nineteenth century. The novel was originally written in hopes that publishing the novel in installments in his periodical, Household Words, would increase the publication’s sales. The venture proved successful, though the feedback from the public and critics alike was mixed. While some were enthusiastic about their praise of the novel, while others were keen to criticize it. 

Theme of Hard Times

Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times in order to educate readers about the harsh reality of working conditions of the industrial factories in Manchester and Preston. Dickens used this novel to challenge the notion that prosperity goes hand-in-hand with morality. He also sought to emphasize the importance of imagination and that people not reduce their life to statistical analysis and material facts. 

Early in the novel, Dickens developed the theme of fact vs. fancy. Imaginative and aesthetic ideas and characters are eradicated from the story, while logic, analysis, and mathematics are highly emphasized. Fact is represented by Mr. Gradgrind, who teaches nothing but facts at his model school. Fancy is meant to represent anything that does not have a concrete, physical function and is depicted in the novel by the circus. The ringleader is frowned upon by Mr. Gradgrind, but the ringleader understands and connects to people better. His daughter struggles in school, but is extremely virtuous and fulfilled anyway. Characters close to Mr. Gradgrind, like his son Tom, who falls into a life of gambling and thievery, and Bitzer, who follows Mr. Gradgrind’s lessons strictly, end up being uncompassionate, empty, and alone.

Critical response

The response from critics that Hard Times received was very diverse. Critic John Ruskin credited the novel’s exploration of pertinent social problems with making it his favorite of all of Dickens’ works. Conversely, Thomas Macaulay called the book ‘sullen socialism’, accusing Dickens of not fully understanding the politics of the times. 

This sentiment was echoed by George Bernard Shaw, who saw the book as a revolt against the industrial order of the contemporary world. He believed that Dickens misrepresented trade unions of time and called the characters figments of middle-class imagination. Shaw did, however, acknowledge that the novel was entirely different from anything else Dickens had ever published. 

F. R. Leavis referred to the novel as a moral fable. He said the work exhibited the entirety of Dickens’ genius and praised it as a true work of art. In an introduction to an alternative edition of Hard Times, Walter Allen called the book and unsurpassable examination of industrial society. G. K. Chesterton called it the harshest of all of Dickens’ works while George Orwell praised it and its author for its generous look into human emotion. 

Without a doubt, the response from critics has been incredibly varied. While a number of prestigious and well-respected names in the literary world have acclaimed the book as groundbreaking and startlingly honest, an equal number of highly-qualified writers and experts have criticized the book for its punitive judgement of industrial society and its focus on imagination and fancy. 

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