The Limits of Radicalism in Hard Times

Akira Ono


Dickens was, almost always in his life, engaged in journalism. Small wonder that his novels tend to be journalistic.1 In other words, they deal with topical issues: Oliver Twist attacks the New Poor Law; Nicholas Nickleby handles educational matters; in Bleak House, Dickens severely criticizes legal and political institutions; in Little Dorrit, the procedures of the Circumlocution Office are the object of his severe criticism. These are just selected examples. Hard Times, which comes between Bleak House and Little Dorrit, deals with topical issues as well. Dickens himself says, 'It contains what I do devoutly hope will shake some people in a terrible mistake of these days, when so presented.'2 'Some people' here refers to utilitarians:

My satire is against those who see figures and averages, and nothing else--the representatives of the wickedest and most enormous vice of this time--the men who, through long years to come, will do more to damage the real useful truths of political economy, than I could do (if I tried) in my whole life....3
The purpose of this paper is to discuss how far Dickens succeeds, in Hard Times, in his attempt to attack utilitarianism and its advocates.

Section 1

The middle classes were politically and economically dominant in Victorian society.4 Gradgrind and Bounderby, the virtual rulers of Coketown (which is the stage of Hard Times), are also middle-class. Having 'retired from the wholesale hardware trade'(54),5 Gradgrind is, at the beginning of the novel, a school owner and, later, also becomes a 'Member of Parliament for Coketown'(129). Bounderby, on the other hand, is 'a rich man: banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not'(58).

In real life, utilitarianism was a way of thinking convenient to the middle classes.6 Gradgrind and Bounderby are also described as radical utilitarians. At the beginning of the novel, Gradgrind says:

"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever he of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"(47)
Many critics point out that Gradgrind's preoccupation with facts misrepresents the philosophical position of the period's utilitarians.7 But, as Philip Collins argues, 'Gradgrind and his coadjutors do represent, in a form simplified and heightened after the Dickensian fashion, important impulses in the life and in the schooling of the period, which masqueraded as "utilitarian."'8 Bounderby, who is Gradgrind's 'bosom friend'(58), shares Gradgrind's philosophy. Comparing the two men, Louisa says, "'Mr Bounderby thinks as father thinks..."'(92).

Putting a high value on hard facts, the utilitarians in Hard Times detest fancying: for example, the government officer, who visits Gradgrind's school, reacts as follows to the word 'fancy' uttered by Sissy: "'Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn't fancy," cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. "That's it! You are never to fancy"'(52). Those who are set against the utilitarians are the members of the Sleary Circus, who are the personification of fancy. For instance, Mr Childers and Master Kidderminster, the first two members (but Sissy) we are introduced to, are described thus: '[Mr Childers's] legs were very robust, but shorter than legs of good proportions should have been. His chest and back were as much too broad, as his legs were too short. He...looked a most remarkable sort of Centaur, compounded of the stable and the play-house. Where the one began, and the other ended, nobody could have told with any precision'(72); 'Made up with curls, wreaths, wings, white bismuth, and carmine, this hopeful young person [Master Kidderminster] soared into so pleasing a Cupid...'(72). The very name of the public house (Pegasus's Arms) where the circus folk stay while in Coketown also suggests fancy.

Section 2

The spokesman for the circus folk is Mr Sleary, who stresses the importance of what Gradgrind and Bounderby might think is incongruous with the middle-class way of thinking: '"People mutht be amuthed. They can't be alwayth a learning, nor yet they can't he alwayth a working, they an't made for it You muth have uth'(italics in original)(308). 'Uth' refers, of course, to the circus folk, who are the personification of fancy. That is to say, Sleary is suggesting in the quotation above that people should have fancy. This opinion corresponds to what Dickens says in his initial address to the reader of Household Words, in which Hard Times was serialized: 'No mere utilitarian spirit, no iron binding of the mind to grim realities, will give a harsh tone to our Household Words. In the bosoms of the young and old, of the well-to-do and of the poor, we would tenderly cherish that light of Fancy which is inherent in the human breast...'9 In short, fancy is, according to Sleary and Dickens, essential for people as an antidote to harsh reality.

Fancy has another function. John Stuart Mill writes:

The Imagination which he [Jeremy Bentham, the founder of utilitarianism] had not, was.. that which enables us, by a voluntary effort, to conceive the absent as if it were present, the imaginary as if it were real, and to clothe it in the feelings which, if it were indeed real, it would bring along with it. This is the power by which one human being enters into the mind and circumstances of another.10
Needless to say, 'imagination' here is synonymous with fancy. The circus folk have a good imagination and therefore can empathize with other people's sufferings. This is shown, for example, in the reaction of Sissy (who is the daughter of a member of the Sleary Circus) to the news of Louisa's engagement with Bounderby: 'When Mr Gradgrind had presented [the future] Mrs Bounderby, Sissy had suddenly turned her head, and looked, in wonder, in pity, in sorrow, in doubt in a multitude of emotions, towards Louisa'(138). This reaction stands in stark contrast with Gradgrind's attitude to Louisa: he cannot understand her feelings because of his adherence to hard facts. This function of fancy (which leads one to sympathize with others) is very important, because Dickens, as will be discussed later, regards sympathy as essential to the solution of one of the most serious problems caused by utilitarianism, that is, the problem of the relations between employers and employees.

Section 3

The representative of the Coketown workers is Blackpool, who lives 'in the hardest working part of Coketown'(102). Their plight under utilitarianism is well expressed in his following words: "'...we are in a muddle"'(180). At his deathbed, he suggests a solution: '"I ha' seen more clear, and ha' made it my dyin prayer that aw th' world may on'y coom toogether more, an get a better unnerstan'in o'one another..."'(291). This is Dickens's own view. He talked about the importance of understanding between employers and employees in his speech in Birmingham Town Hall on 30 December 1853:

If there ever was a time when any one class could of itself do much for its own good, and for the welfare of society--which I greatly doubt--that time is unquestionably past. It is in the fusion of different classes, without confusion; in the bringing together of employers and employed; in the creating of a better common understanding among those whose interests are identical, who depend upon each other, and who can never be in unnatural antagonism without deplorable results, that one of the chief principles of a Mechanics' Institution should consist.11
This kind of understanding between employers and employees is actually established in Hard Times. Not that Bounderby, the factory owner, becomes sympathetic towards his employees. However, his wife (Louisa) tries to understand a worker in his stead. She goes to the dwelling of Blackpool (who has just been fired by her husband) and offers to support him: 'Louisa coloured, and a purse appeared in her hand. The rustling of a bank-note was audible, as she unfolded one and laid it on the table'(189). Blackpool appreciates her kindness: '...his manner of accepting it, and of expressing his thanks without more words, had a grace in it that Lord Chesterfield could not have taught his son in a century'(190). Here we can see understanding between capital and labour. And what helps to establish the understanding is fancy, because, as seen above, we can sympathize with one another by means of fancy. However, Louisa was educated not to have fancy by her utilitarian father, Gradgrind: '"What do I know, father," said Louisa in her quiet manner, "of tastes and fancies; of aspirations and affections; of all that part of my nature in which such light things might have been nourished? "' (italics in original)(136). Is she able to sympathize with Blackpool without fancy then?

The fact is that Sissy has implanted fancy in Louisa's mind. Sissy has been taken under Gradgrind's wing since her father's disappearance But the middle-class circumstances do not exert any influence on her. Instead she exerts a strong influence on people around her.

Louisa is not the only person Sissy influences. Though a radical utilitarian, Mr Gradgrind is described as inherently good: 'Mr Gradgrind, though hard enough, was by no means so rough a man as Mr Bounderby. His character was not unkind, all things considered...'(70). As John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson point out, 'he is redeemable [for his inherent goodness], and the course of the novel shows that he will be redeemed by Sissy. He fails to educate her head, but she succeeds in educating his heart.'12 He eventually comes to acknowledge the significance of fancy or, in his own words, 'a wisdom of the Heart'(246). And he feels deeply repentant for his utilitarian philosophy: "'I so bitterly reproach myself!"'(246). This change of heart of Gradgrind's seems, however, to be too sudden to be convincing; he himself admits that he felt differently 'only this time yesterday'(245). What seems to be more unconvincing is the reaction of Hearthouse, who is not described as inherently good, to Sissy's reproach of him: 'He was touched in the cavity where his heart should have been--in that nest of addled eggs, where the birds of heaven would have lived if they had not been whistled away--by the fervour of this reproach'(254). But these episodes become less unconvincing if we take them to be fairy-tale. Significantly, Gradgrind looks on Sissy as 'a good fairy in his house'(294). She is a fairy put into the utilitarian world of Coketown.

Louisa has been changed by fairy Sissy. This would lead to the following hypothesis: the whole episode of Louisa's benevolence to Blackpool does not go beyond a fairy-tale level. And I argue that the hypothesis is actually correct. This is reflected in the fact that Blackpool stands out in the novel--in the sense that he is isolated from his fellow workers: 'Thus [by refusing, for some obscure reason, to get involved in the Union] easily did Stephen Blackpool fall into the loneliest of lives, the life of solitude among a familiar crowd'(175). In short, he is not the archetype of a labourer.13 It follows therefore that Louisa's benevolence to Blackpool does not reflect understanding between capital and labour. Dickens's 'old ideal of man to man benevolence in the relations between employers and labour in large-scale industry'(italics in original)14 is unrealistic after all. The target of my next discussion is to clarify the reason why Dickens has come to hold such an ideal.

Section 4

At the end of January 1854, Dickens visited Preston (the model for Coketown in Hard Times), a textile-manufacturing town in Lancashire, in order to observe a strike at first hand. The strike he saw there seems to have been different from what he had expected. In "On Strike' (an article based on the observation) he writes:

When I got to Preston, it was four o'clock in the afternoon. The day being Saturday and market-day, a foreigner might have expected, from among so many idle and not over-fed people as the town contained, to find a turbulent, ill-conditioned crowd in the streets. But, except for the cold smokeless factory chimnies, the placards at the street comers, and the groups of working people attentively reading them, nor foreigner nor Englishman could have had the least suspicion that there existed any intenruption to the usual labours of the place.15
According to Humphry House, the Chartist failure in 1848 changed the unions: the unions 'of the 'thrties and 'forties, whether organized locally, by trades, or nationally, had avowed revolutionary aims'16; after 1848, their aims became less political.17 As far as we can judge from Dickens's article quoted above, he seems to have been expecting to find, in Preston, the unions remaining as they were before 1848. Dickens realized the change in the unions for the first time in Preston.

The union meeting in Coketown (in Hard Times) is not, however, a true copy of the one that actually took place in Preston. This is most clearly reflected in the reaction of the union members of Coketown to the demagogic words of Slackbridge, the professional speaker: '...it was particularly strange, and it was even particularly affecting, to see this crowd of earnest faces, whose honesty in the main no competent observer free from bias could doubt, so agitated by such a leader'(170). And, doing the will of Slackbridge, the members even send Blackpool, who will not join them, to Coventry. (Slackbridge himself is true to life: he speaks exactly in the same manner as Cruffshaw does in "On Strike." 18) In contrast, the union members of Preston are not affected by Gruffshaw's demagogy:

But here the persuasive right hand of the chairman falls gently on Gruffshaw's shoulder. Griiffshaw stops in lull boil. My friends, these are hard words of my friend Gruffshaw, and this is not the business--No more it is, and once again, sir, I, the delegate who said I would look after you, do move that you proceed to business!--Preston has not the strong relish for personal altercation that Westminster hath. Motion seconded and carried, business passed to, Gruffshaw dumb.19
The union members of Preston are much more sensible than those of Coketown. Here arises a question: why is the trade union in Hard Times different from its model in real life?

I feel that the description of the trade union in Hard Times reflects the way in which Dickens viewed unionism at large: although, as mentioned above, he learned about the change in unionism at first hand in Preston, he thought, I believe, that the change was just superficial. In short, he considered unionism as more revolutionary than it looked and feared that it would cause social unrest. We can infer from the following extract from "On Strike" that he was negative about unionism: 'In any aspect in which it can be viewed, this strike and lock-out is a deplorable calantity.'20 This view of unionism is shared, in Hard Times, by Blackpool, who suggests a way to improve the relations between capital and labour thus: '"Victory and triumph will never do't. Agreeing fur to mak one side unnat'rally awlus and for ever right, and toother side unnat'rally awlus and for ever wrong, will never, never do't"'( 182). In short, Dickens was prejudiced against unionism. And his prejudice against unionism made him hold the unrealistic 'ideal of man to man benevolence in the relations between employers and labour in large-scale industry.' This prejudice is, as will be shown later, retraceable to his own class consciousness and, furthermore, to his inmost feelings which are the very cause of his class consciousness.

Section 5

Throughout his professional life as an author, Dickens was much concerned with the question of the literary man's status....'21 The status of a novelist was not necessarily high in the Victorian period: 'Thackeray's Arthur Pendennis represents the typical young literary idler who imagines that a bit of writing will support him until called to a proper profession such as the bar.'22 But Dickens appears to have regarded his career as respectable enough: '[Dickens] and Thackeray were always to be at variance on the respectability of the literary profession.'23 To argue about the respectability of Dickens's career as a writer would carry us too far away from the purpose of this paper. The point is that he was always strongly conscious of being a middle-class man.

Pam Morris acutely points out that a sense of fear lay behind the class consciousness of the Victorian middle classes:

The Victorian middle class constructed its identity upon an absolute opposition between its respectability and the moral unfitness of the working class. Despite this, it was hidden, unstated, but generally known that the most common and certainly the most intimate contact between the classes was through prostitution and seduction.... the most proper families could feel vulnerable to the threat of a sudden revelation which might link them by blood with those they affected to despise as morally degenerate.24
Although not 'by blood,' Dickens was also fearful of being linked with the lower classes. And this sense of fear lurks in his class consciousness.

When he was twelve years old, Dickens was forced to start work as a manual labourer in a blacking warehouse. It is obvious in the following extract from the autobiographical fragment that this job humiliated the boy beyond description:

No words can express the secret agony of my soul as I sunk into this companionship [in the blacking warehouse]; compared these every-day associates with those of my happier childhood; and felt my early hopes of growing up to be a learned and distinguished man, crushed in my breast. The deep remembrance of the sense I had of being utterly neglected and hopeless; of the shame I felt in my position; of the misery it was to my young heart to believe that, day by day, what I had learned, and thought, and delighted in, and raised my fancy and my emulation up by, was passing away from me, never to be brought back any more; cannot be written.25
To make matters worse, eleven days after Dickens started to work, his father, John, was imprisoned in the Marshalsea for debt These experiences haunted and tormented Dickens all his life to such an extent that he did not talk about them even to his wife and children, who learned of them for the first time in Forster's Life of Charles Dickens, which was published after his death. Edmund Wilson points out that 'behind the misfortune which had humiliated Charles was the misfortune which had humiliated his father.'26 The latter misfortune refers, first, to the fraud by the father of John's wife (who was a clerk in the Navy Pay Office) and, second, to the careers of John's parents as domestic servants. According to Wilson, 'the background of domestic service was for an Englishman of the nineteenth century probably felt as more disgraceful than embezzlement.'27 It might be said, therefore, that Charles Dickens was born and brought up with a sense of humiliation. This is the reason why he was, throughout his life, so concerned with the status of a professional writer. In other words, his strong class consciousness reflects his fear of being identified with the lower classes. It is significant that, even in the blacking warehouse, he kept himself, as a son of a middleclass family,28 apart from his fellow workers: '...there was a difference of manners between him and the boys that resulted in his being called, perhaps not quite reverentially, "the young gentleman."'29

Quite early in his career as a writer, Dickens became successful. By the time he wrote Hard Times he was a rich middle-class man. He was, however, always fearful of being identified with the lower classes. This is the reason why he was prejudiced against unionism. He was unduly sensitive to it and feared that it would overturn the established order. In short, he feared that it would reverse the positions of the working and middle classes. After all, he was as reactionary as, ironically, Bounderby, the target of his criticism, who calls unionism 'mutiny'(178). In passing, I note that Dickens, in general, was severe on those who were rebellious against the order: 'As has often been remarked, he warmly favoured the hanging of disaffected natives in Jamaica and the blowing of mutinous sepoys from the mouths of cannon.'30


In Hard Times, Dickens is radical in the sense that he exposes the unreasonableness of utilitarianism and the inhumanity of its advocates. Moreover, he suggests a solution for the most serious problem caused by utilitarianism, that is, the problem of the relations between employers and employees. But the solution is far from satisfactory: instead ofjustly assessing unionism (which should be essential for the improvement of the situation on a large scale) he sticks to his old ideal of man-to-man benevolence between employers and employees.

Dickens was strongly conscious of being middle-class. And, like other middle-class people's class consciousness, his sprang from a sense of fear--fear of being identified with the lower social classes. I argue that this fear caused him to laive a prejudice against unions, which he feared would overturn the established order, and, instead, to hold the ideal mentioned above.

In Hard Times, Dickens criticizes the fact that "blue books," which deal with social problems, do not suggest any good solution to them.31 Ironically, however, in this respect Hard Times is more or less the same as "blue books. "


  1. Concerning this, Kathryn Chittick writes: '...the editors of the fifth volume of the Pilgrim Letters remark that Dickens...did not distinguish the profession of authorship from journalism.' Dickens and the 1830s (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990)13-4.
  2. Charles Dickens, "To Thomas Carlyle," 13 July 1854, The Letters of Charles Dickens, eds. Graham Storey, Kathleen Tillotson and Angus Basson, vol.7 (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993)367.
  3. Charles Dickens, "To Charles Knight," 30 Dec. 1854, Letters, vol.7, 492.
  4. According to Anthony Wood, 'the general prosperity during the two decades following the Great Exhibition of 1851 did see the final consolidation of a middle class so large, affluent and positive in their attitudes that the whole period has come to be associated with them.' Nineteenth Century Britain 1815-1914, 2nd ed. (London: Longman, 1982)182.
  5. All references to Hard Times are to Penguin Classics, ed. David Craig (London: Penguin, 1969). The page references are given parenthetically in the text.
  6. For detailed discussions, see Pam Morris, Dickens's Class Consciousness (London: Macmillan, 1991)6-8.
  7. Humphry House even maintains that Dickens's miscomprehension of utilitarianism leads to the failure of the book as a whole: '[Dickens] did not understsnd enough of any philosophy even to be able to guy it successfully. But he obviously felt during the 'fifties, when Public Health and Adiministrative Reform were keeping him so closely to social-political problems, that there must be some essential flaw in the reasoning of such a man as Bright. The creation of Gradgrind is an attempt to track it down. The despondent atmosphere of the whole book reflects the failure to do so.' The Dickens World (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1941)205.
  8. Philip Collins, Dickens and Education (London: Macmillan, 1963)158.
  9. Household Words, 30 March 1850.
  10. John Stuart Mill, The Westminster Review (1838)
  11. The Speeches of Charles Dickens: A Complete Edition, ed. K. J. Fielding (England: Harvester/Wheatsheaf 1988)167.
  12. John Butt and Kathleen Tillotson, Dickens at Wort (London: Methuen, 1957) 209.
  13. Ths is also reflected in his unnatural English. See Robert Golding, Idiolects in Dickens (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985)159.
  14. House 206.
  15. "On Strike,' Household Words, 11 Feb. 1854.
  16. House 208.
  17. See House 209.
  18. See Hard Times 169-70 and "On Strike," Household Words, 11 Feb. 1854.
  19. "On Strike," Household Words, 11 Feb. 1854.
  20. "On Strike," Household Words, 11 Feb. 1854.
  21. Chittick 13.
  22. Chittick 1.
  23. Chittick 8.
  24. Chittick 11-2.
  25. John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, vol.1 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1911) 24.
  26. Edmund Wilson, The Wound and the Bow (MA: Houghton Miffin, 1941) 8.
  27. Wilson 9.
  28. John Dickens was, like his father-in-law, a clerk in the Navy Pay Office.
  29. Edgar Johnson, Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph (New York: Viking Penguin, 1977) 32.
  30. John Carey, The Violent Effigy (London: Faber and Faber, 1973) 8.
  31. See Hard Times 131-2.