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Hard Times

by Charles Dickens

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The average novel by Charles Dickens buries the average reader under an avalanche of characters and description. One critic, George Ford, estimates that in a “typical” novel Dickens introduces 85 characters by name. Anyone who has faced that onslaught knows how daunting that can be!

In college I struggled through Bleak House, finishing it only because I was too stubborn to admit defeat. I remember where I was when I finished, because I joyfully threw the paperback off the roof of that four-story building and watched it flutter to the ground. I remember dimly feeling that Bleak House had almost killed me, but in the end I had killed it.

That’s not the response I want students to have toward Dickens. Instead of working through the stages of resistance, reluctant return, and grudging admission of genius, I’d much rather see students welcome his genius and revel in his stories immediately.

Which brings us to Hard Times. In this novel—a mere 182 pages in the edition I read—only 25 characters are introduced by name. Besides “A Christmas Carol,” this is the best possible introduction to Dickens. Students may sip from Dickens here before they are faced with the fire hose of Bleak House or Great Expectations.

Having said that, I feel compelled to defend Hard Times. Many of Dickens’s novels are justly viewed as masterpieces, but this shorter work is often treated as a lesser effort—almost as though Dickens took short-cuts here. Not true! Hard Times is one of the most cogent, most impassioned arguments against utilitarianism, and it is articulated with Dickens’s usual flare. I admit I still prefer Great Expectations and David Copperfield to this work, but it deserves far more recognition than it receives. Any doubts should be quickly dispelled by the following “mental introduction” of one of the main characters, so typically Dickensian and—it’s to his credit that we have to remind ourselves—so typically masterful:

“Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir—peremptorily Thomas—Thomas Gradgrind. With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.”

Would you be surprised to hear that Thomas Gradgrind actually changes in this story? But that, too, is part of Dickens’s magic: you never know.

by Jeff Baldwin