A Research Hypocrisy in Hard Times
Hard Times was originally written as a weekly serial in a journal called Household Words. It was written in 1854 to depict what life was like during the industrial revolution and reflect the distinctions between the classes during that era. The novel centres around a theme of a convincing criticism of utilitarianism, and every character in the novel plays a role of reinforcing this theme. Utilitarianism doctrine reflects that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, should be the aim of all social and political institutions — so it is ok for the working people to suffer, as long as the economy as a whole benefits. The novel uses its characters to expose the huge division between the rich and the poor of England and Dickens wanted to focus on the heartless views of the middle and upper classes. Hard Times has been viewed in varied and even conflicting ways by different critics.
One critic of Dickens’s work was E.M. Forster who saw Dickens characters as ‘lovable’ but merely ‘two-dimensional’. Forster also stated that they were drawn in detail, but with no convincing relationship to the real world, and with no inner life. In my opinion, the majority of the characters in Hard Times are ‘flat’ as oppose to ’round’ characters. The definition of a ‘flat’ character for the purpose of this essay is one that is lacking depth and maintains those characteristics throughout the story.
The characters in this novel are developed to reflect different aspects of humanity. Dickens uses his characters and their personalities to depict his moral themes. For example Tom Gradgrind Jr. represents all that Dickens felt was evil. Tom is only interested in looking after number one. He even goes so far as to be willing to sacrifice his sister (Louisa) to better his own social situation when he wants her to marry Boundarby (the rich banker). His philosophy of life revolves around rationalism, self-interest and fact. His father raised his children according to this philosophy, and does not allow them to engage in ‘fanciful’ activities.
The circus people represent fun, fancy and imagination. They are not based on fact. “They cared so little for plain Fact, these people, and were in the advanced state of degeneracy on the subject …” (Dickens). Gradgrind looked down on people who did not believe the facts — he could not understand why people would not accept the facts. “The wretched ignorance with which Jupe clung to this consolation rejecting the superior comfort of knowing, on a sound arithmetical basis, that her father was an unnatural vagabond, filled Mr. Gradgrind with pity” (Dickens).
Sissy Jupe is a member of Sleary’s circus and she represents all the fancy free impulses that Gradgrind’s children were not allowed to cultivate. She represents the opposite of everything that Gradgrind stands for. She remains untarnished. In a conversation with Louisa relating her feelings about her schooling, she talks about how she just does not understand how Mr. M’Choakumchild could feel that if twenty-five people were starving to death and a million were not, that could be described as prosperous (Dickens). Sissy was optimistic and refused to believe facts — she instead lived in hope as depicted when she talked about the return of her father. “That girl believed her father had not deserted her; she lived in hope that he would come back and in faith that he would be made the happier by remaining where she was” (Dickens).
The names Dickens gives to his character’s give hints as to what their personalities are like, for example; Gradgrind (think of grinding facts); Sissy (which implies passiveness and weakness) and Mr. M’Choakumchild (which implies unpleasant personality ie. ‘Choke a child’). Each character is instilled with designated qualities either good or bad. They are not overly dynamic to say the least. Dickens characters in this novel, do not go through significant growth or change. He uses his characters to give us examples of the extremes of human behavior. His characters are overly exaggerated to enable him to portray the theme of the novel.
The characters in Hard Times are not void of humanistic qualities but they come across as shallow. The reader only gets to uncover the first layer of their personality. Gissing reflects Dickens style when he says “I believe him to have been, what he always claimed to be, a very accurate painter of the human beings…” (Gissing). Gissing refers to Dickens as a ‘painter’ of human beings, which is a very two-dimensional metaphor. Dickens characters are like a ‘painting’ — rather flat and straightforward. Most of his characters are not very complex and personify either good or evil. For example Gradgrind’s character reflected a rationalistic and self-serving philosophy on life and we did not see any change in this until toward the end of the story when he gave up his philosophy on fact and became politically active in helping the poor.
Dickens portrays characters in a particular way, he has a very narrow view of society and he places emphasis on class distinctions. “He has not a wide scope; he is always noticeably at his best in dealing with an ill-defined order of English folk, a class (or classes) characterized by dullness, prejudice, dogged individuality, and manners, to say the least, unengaging.” (Gissing). Gissing thinks that even though we may remember the character’s names, that is all that they are to us. They have no depth and the characters do not leave a lasting impression. “Dickens gives us types not individuals; types, moreover, of the most abstract kind, something like the figures in the old Moralities: embodied hypocrisy, selfishness, pride and so on, masking as everyday mortals” (Gissing).
“Dickens method of characterization does not allow for the delicate probing of psychological states of mind; rather its success depends on the artists resourcefulness in creating consistent and empathetically defined patterns of individualized responses to external circumstances…” (Johnson). Throughout many of Dickens stories, his characters maintain similar traits. Examples of this are Sissy who falls into the category of the lost children — in her case, she was abandoned by her father. Gradgrind takes on the characterization of the self-infatuated parent who raises his children according to strict moral guidelines. Louisa resembles the passionate woman who exhibits a divided nature — she marries a man she despises and finally admits she may be in love with another man. Louisa is also envious of Sissy’s ability to demonstrate such passion when she talks about her father.
In conclusion, I would tend to agree that Forster’s statement is accurate. Dickens’ life and his family and friends served as a backdrop for a great many of his characters and as a result do tend to be very two-dimensional. His unhappy childhood, and a life of poverty, colored his view of life and the characters he developed to portray it. My interpretation of his message which he uses his writing to convey is that while logic is useful and important, it cannot override the need for compassion in our life. Through the use of his two-dimensional predictable characters, he achieves a most effective way of expressing this viewpoint.