Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Hard Times

You know how in the good old days shiny new factories fairly employed industrious workers? Yeah, neither does Charles Dickens. Hard Times is a critique against utilitarianism, laissez-faire capitalism, and the idea that the most prosperous are also the most moral. Dickens presents characters like Gradgrind, a factory superintendent who cares only for facts, figures and statistics.  As a utilitarian, he forbids his children the experiences of imagination and humankindness, driving them to ruin. Gradgrind's friend Bounderby is a materialist merchant who believes that his success as a businessman is somehow due to his moral superiority over the working-class people he employs.  Ironically, the only character who displays imagination and warm-heartedness is Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a traveling circus performer.

Sweatshops: Old news? urban legend? fact of life?

Hard TImes takes place in Coketown, a fictional city resembling industrial Manchester or Preston. Dickens' opinion of factory labor was certainly influenced by his childhood experience pasting labels onto bottles in a shoe polish factory.  In the 21st century, child labor and harsh working conditions haven't been abolished, they have merely been removed to distant locations. Is this a necessary fact of industrialism? Is it necessary to capitalism? Can industrialism be separated from capitalism?  Some critics in Dickens' time, including George Bernard Shaw, disagreed with him, calling Hard Times an example of "sullen socialism" and a revolt against the industrial order. Others, such as George Orwell and John Ruskin, praised the novel. I advise you not to venture an opinion until you have read it. Whether you agree or disagree with Dickens' conclusions, you may be surprised at the grotesque portrayal of capitalism.

Themes: fact vs. fancy;  honesty; officiousness and bureaucracy;  utilitarianism
Cold, calculating factory superintendent: Thomas Gradgrind
Unfortunate victim of imagination-ectomy: Louisa Gradgrind
Fully human despite (because of?) inefficient upbringing: Sissy Jupe
Pompous blowhard you love to hate: Josiah Bounderby
Working class man with higher moral character than his employer: Stephen Blackpool
There was a lot of: immovable social stratification, facts, boasting, lying, spying, secret reflection, regret, bad guys who didn't get their just desserts
There should have been more: views into Louisa's thoughts, development of the character of Sissy's father
This book makes you glad you don't have to: work in a textile mill, fear being blacklisted by the union, think all aspects of human experience can be quantified
This book makes you want to: pay attention to where your purchases come from, remind stressed friends that climbing the corporate ladder or improving their material lifestyle doesn't increase satisfaction or make them more successful (and somehow better?) people

No comments: