Hard Times and the Nineteenth Century

Hard Times
Europe began the nineteenth century dominated by the romanticists. The realists changed the face of Europe once more by the middle of the nineteenth century. The importance of science and the industrialization of Europe characterized their movement. Where the romanticists believed in feelings, intuition, and imagination, the realists believed in a movement known as positivism, which applied the scientific method to the study of society. The authors of this period also changed their style of writing by dealing with cultural representation and life. They focused on “the here and now, with everyday events, with his own environment and with the movements (political, social etc.) of his time.” Charles Dickens was an author during this period and his novel Hard Times reflects a number of different themes. The novel focuses on educational and economic systems of Victorian England, the industrial revolution, which spawned how industrial relations were viewed during the 1850’s, and utilitarianism. I have chosen the two major themes of industrial relations and educational system during this period. Although, you can not discuss labor relations without bringing focus upon the class society of Victorian England during this period. I will use the Norton Critical Edition of Hard Times, the Sources of the Western Tradition, and the Communist Manifesto to support my analytical interpretation of Charles Dickens Hard Times.
During this period Dickens wrote for a weekly publication called Household Words, each issue dealt with a different social problem of the period. Hard Times began as a serialization in this weekly publication. In Hard Times Dickens writes about the horrors of the industrial revolution and was sparked by what he had seen first hand in Manchester, England fifteen years prior to writing Hard Times and the present goings on of a labor strike in Preston, England while he was conceiving the novel. The novel is almost biblical in nature as it has three books sowing, reaping and garnering. Book the First, “Sowing,” is the planting of the seeds. It provides a basis for the problems that will affect Stephen Blackpool, who is a factory worker in Coketown. Book the Second, “Reaping,” details the affect the industrial relations had on Stephen. The first to books describe the biblical passage,
“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap”(Galatians 6:7). Book the Third, “Garnering,” describes in a broad way the results of what industrialization did to Victorian England.
The industrialization revolution brought many problems to Victorian England in the 1850’s. Industrial towns such as Manchester and Preston sprung up in northern England. Prosperity came to those who owned the factories or mills, while despair came to the “hands,” the factory workers. Coketown is one such northern England town and Stephen Blackpool is a typical factory worker of the period in Charles Dickens novel Hard Times. The novel exemplifies the problems of an industrial town in 1850 England. Dickens describes Coketown “A town of red brick, or brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as it matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.” He explains the black smoke spewed continuously from the factory chimneys and that the river is polluted by an ill-smelling purplish dye. Josiah Bounderby owns the factory where Stephen Blackpool is employed.
Stephen symbolizes the workers of this period, who put in long hours for little pay and lived under horrible conditions. Josiah on the other hand represents the greedy capitalist, who cares little for his workers. Hard Times illustrates the history of class struggles and is re-enforced by the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto. The struggle between the bourgeoisie, “the class of modern Capitalists, owners of the means of social production and the employers of wage-labour” and the proletariat, “the class of modern wage-labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour-power to live.” In Hard Times Josiah Bounderby and Stephen Blackpool are representative of the bourgeoisie and proletariat classes respectively. Dickens alludes that the government knows the capacity of work the machines can produce, “So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do.” The workers are then paid by piece-work, where they are paid ‘by the piece’ rather than earning a fixed hourly wage.Dickens was also interested in factory safety and the negligence of the factory and mine owners. In his original proofsheets of Hard Times there was a footnote bringing to the attention of the readers “a gruesome report on accidents in factories, “Ground in the Mill.”” There was also an exchange between Stephen and Rachel, his wife, recalling how Rachel’s younger sister had suffered when a factory machine tore off her arm. Both the footnote and exchange were deleted from the final publication.
The deplorable working conditions and the low wages were soon to bring trade unions into being. The Communist Manifesto explains that trade unions came into being because “with the development of industry the proletariat not only increases in number; it becomes concentrated in masses, its strength grows, and it feels that strength more.” The collisions between the employee and the employer are more characteristic of collisions between classes.
“During the period in which Hard Times was conceived and written, a topic frequently brought to Dickens’
attention was that of a bitterly-contested strike.” The strike was in the textile manufacturing town of Preston and was “regarded as a test case of power of the trade unions, which after having declined in influence during the 1830’s had made a remarkable recovery in the 1850’s.” In Hard Times Dickens uses a character named Slackenbridge to move the mill workers towards forming a union. He makes an passionate speech about being enslaved by the iron-handed factory owners. Slakenbridge states, “the hour is come, when we must rally round one another as One united power, and crumble into dust the oppressors.” This reads more like the words of Karl Marx when he writes about the proletariat taking over the ruling class. Dickens uses Blackpool to voice an opinion against the trade union. He is singled out and booed because he would not join the union. Blackpool believes the union will do more harm than good and because of his beliefs his follow workers shun him.
Dickens shows the ruthlessness of Bounderby by firing Blackpool even after he is summoned to the owner’s home to explain about the Combination (union). Blackpool tells Bounderby of how bad the working conditions are in the mill and the living conditions in Coketown, but yet the workers are still faithful and always keep the mill producing. Bounderby states his reasons for the firing Blackpool as “that you are one of those chaps who have always got a grievance.” “That even your own Union, the men who know you best, will have nothing to do with you” and with that he goes on to state, “I’ll have nothing to do with you either” and he dismisses Blackpool. Stephen could do nothing but leave town because if he didn’t work for Bounderby he would be able to work for any other factory owner in town.
The unions force the factory owners in districts to group together. It was the plan of the union leaders in Victorian England to select a particular town and a particular factory to call a strike against them, in this way they hoped to have the firms succumb to their demands. The factory or mill owners joined together in the districts where a strike would be called and instantly closed the door of the unstruck plants.
By the exchange at the public house, where the union meeting was held, and the meeting between Stephen and Bounderby, it is unclear what Dickens’ views are towards unions. While he shows Bounderby, the owner of the mill, as a greedy capitalist he also portrays Slackenbridge as a demagogue who would exploit the workers for his own gratification of power. There is some insight as to what Dickens’ believes in the article he wrote, “On Strike” from Household Words. He writes about the exchange with Mr. Snapper on the train to Preston, he proposes a man may be both friend to Masters and Hands when talking about whom to befriend during a strike. When pressed for a more concise answer Dickens states, “I believe that into the relations between employers and employed, as into all relations of this life, there must be something of a feeling and sentiment; something of a mutual explanation, forbearance, and consideration; something which is not found in Mr. McCulloch’s dictionary, and is not exactly stateable in figures; otherwise those relations are wrong and rotten at the core and will never bear sound fruit.” The article further goes on to state about an ongoing conflict between Master and Hand, that a person above suspicion from both sides would be able to settle the dispute, for Dickens saw nothing but “certain ruin to both in the continuance or frequent revival of this breach. And from the ever widening circle of their decay, what drop in the social ocean shall be free!”
Dickens’ has a more exact view of the educational system from a speech on November 5, 1857 he states, “I don’t like that sort of school – and I have seen a great many of these latter times – where the bright childish imagination is utterly discouraged,. . . . . where I have never seen among pupils, whether boys or girls, anything but little parrots and small calculating machines.” It seems even though Dickens is a realist he still believes children should be taught the arts. Hard Times opening scene is a classroom where the someone is speaking, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” These opening lines are in direct contrast to what Dickens’ believes, but it was the established teachings during this period. Dickens brings out in Hard Times that the schoolmaster, Mr. M’Choakumchild, along with another 140 schoolmasters had been taught everything there is to know. They all had the same principles, the same knowledge on all subjects, as if
they were taught in a factory rather than a classroom. Dickens goes so far as to state that if Mr. M’Choakumchild, “had learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!” Thomas Gradgrind, is the governor where Mr. M’Choakumchild instructs, and he totally believes in the teaching of facts only. The teachings during this period were void poetry, fairy tales, or song. “Simple extracts, relating to Natural History, Elementary Science, Religion, &c. have taken the place of Dramatic Scenes, Sentimental Poetry, and Parliamentary Orations.” Dickens in early satirical writings brings forth statistical research about the state of infant education among middle classes of London. It was found that in children only three miles from London ignorance prevailed. His writings showed that the children believed that Jack the Giant-killer, Jack and the Bean-stalk, Jack and Eleven Brothers, and Jack and Jill were real life people. The children in these areas aspired to grow up like them and slay giants or dragons and ride off with the princess. This was presented at a Conference of Statisticians where the members immediately called for “storing the minds of children with nothing but facts and figures; which the process the President forcibly remarked, had made them (the section) the men they were.” When Hard Times was first published the scholars of Victorian England did not believe that such an educational system existed in England. A review of the novel in the Westminster Review in 1854 states, “that Mr. Dickens launches forth his protest, for we are not aware of such a system being in operation anywhere in England. They believed that there might have been too great a part of the studies dedicated to mythology, literature, and history. “In almost every school in the kingdom passages of our finest poets are learned by heart; and Shakespeare and Walter Scott were among the Penates.”It was their opinion that schools such as the one that Gradgrind governed were in the minority. Now in the opening lines of Hard Times, “we find ourselves introduced to a set of hard uncouth personages, of whose existence as a class no one is aware, who are engaged in cutting and paring young souls after their own ugly pattern, and refusing them all other nourishment but facts and figures.” It seems by the reviewer’s comments he was unaware of Dickens’ feelings towards the educational system of that period. He assumed by the title that Dickens, “could be entrusted with this
delicate task, and would give us a true idea of the relations of master and workman, both as they are and as they might be.”
Hard Times did not receive as much critical acclaim as Dickens’ other novels. This could be because it was written in serial form and a new chapter or episode had to be done weekly. It did however bring to the forefront the plight of the workers during the industrial revolution, of which many were aware, but it seems to have caught the intellects by surprise with his scourging account of the educational system during this period. It is a novel that gave credence to the workers problems and to what the adolescence of England was being taught.

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