“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.”
Dickens seems to have some of the most memorable opening lines in his books; even if you’ve never read A Tale of Two Cities, like most people, you can quote those opening lines. So imagine my surprise when I read the opening lines for Hard Times. I thought, why have I never heard these opening lines cites and repeated as often as A Tale of Two Cities?
Note: if you haven’t read A Tale of Two Cities, you should proceed to do so after reading David Copperfield and Hard Times.
From the beginning, I was curious and excited to learn more about the people in this book from the opening words. Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, no nosense educator in the fictional Coketown, is a firm administrator in the school and the Philosophy of Fact. He’s raised his oldest children, Lousia and Tom, to conform to such a Philosophy, instilling this into all of his students. We meet Sissy (Cecilia), the daughter of a circus clown, who doesn’t seem to grasp the relevance (or reason) behind such education. I felt bad for her in the beginning of the book. She’s embarrassed in front of a room full of students because she can’t recite the facts about a horse. She is shortly thereafter, found to be abandoned by her father and is entrusted to the Gradgrind family as a helper to the sickly and infirm, Mrs. Gradgrind.
When Lousia and Tom run off to get a peek at the circus, Mr. Gradgrind is disappointed. Fun, imagination, entertainment—such endeavors are not compatible with the Facts. Why would one waste their time and energy on such pursuits? Gradgrind scolds Lousia for putting her and her brother, “in this degraded position!” Can you imagine living such a tiresome and boring life under the Philosophy of Facts? When Gradgrind mentions that he will tell Lousia’s friend, Mr. Bounderby, I’m like who’s that?
In classic Dickens style, we are presented with an array of characters, one principal character, Josiah Bounderby, friends with Mr. Gradgrind and his family. Bounderby is a self-made success story, from rags to riches, never letting an opportunity pass to let people know how far he’s come.
“I hadn’t a shoe to my foot. As to a stocking, I didn’t know such a thing by name. I pass the day in a ditch, and the night in a pigsty. That’s the way I spent my tenth birthday. Not that a ditch was new to me, for I was born in a ditch.”
Bounderby, many, many years older than Lousia is of course interested in her upbringing because when she is of age, he’d like to marry her (no, please don’t do it Lousia). Of course I don’t want to spoil anything for you so know that Bounderby continues to talk his face off, we meet Mrs. Sparsit, a widowed woman employed by Mr. Bounderby, who later turns Bounderby’s upbringing on his own head, very unintentionally.
What I loved about Hard Times is that unlike many of Dickens other works, which can be a bit dense but enjoyable (David Copperfield), there are a variety of contrast presented through the characters and the circumstances in Coketown. The rich, the working class, the poor; the intellectuals and the entertainers. Stephen Blackpool, a mill worker, has had a hard life, and seems to be in a hopeless situation (his wife’s a drunkard and he’s found a kind friend that he loves but can’t marry). When Stephen appeals to the powers that be, like many other working class people, he’s turned away because he doesn’t have the means or position, to change them. At the same time Mr. Sleary and Sissy, are instrumental in helping to teach lessons of far greater value than unfeeling facts. By the book’s conclusion, Mr. Gradgrind and Lousia have come to recognize the value of emotional facts and the heart’s capacity for human compassion and love.