Charles Dickens published Hard Times in 1854 by serializing it in his magazine Household Words from April to August of that year. He doubled the circulation to his magazine, but the novel is sometimes criticized for the choppy chapters that resulted from writing it in installments. The novel is also only about half the length of Dickens’ other novels, a benefit that some readers find more manageable.
The story concerns Mr. Gradgrind, who is the founder of the fact-based educational system in Coketown. His two children have been raised only on facts, never indulging imagination or emotion. His business associate Mr. Bounderby owns a mill and a bank and employs many of the working class characters in the novel. As Mr. Gradgrind’s children become adults, their education proves a disadvantage in dealing with the challenges of the real world.
Dickens found great acclaim during his lifetime as a historian of the middle class and was praised for his descriptions and characterizations. In Hard Times, Dickens uses his story to advance his social criticism of utilitarianism. Dickens satirizes the educational system that concentrates only on facts to the exclusion of sentiment, as well as exaggerates the character of the successful self-made man. As we would expect in any Dickens novel, he portray evils against the working classes and dark depictions of those living in poverty. But there are likeable characters as well, people who give hope, who we can cheer when things go well and mourn when things go poorly.
If you have never read Charles Dickens before, this would be a good book to start with simply because it is shorter than most. His dark satire may make you chuckle in parts, especially in the exaggerated chapters about the fact-based schooling at the beginning. Whenever possible, I also highly recommend reading an authoritative or annotated text, which provides a few explanatory footnotes and sometimes an excellent introductory essay.
This book was the March 2011 selection of the library’s popular Literature with Lunch book discussion group. Check the library’s calendar for upcoming programs and book selections. Literature with Lunch meets on the 2nd Monday of each month from 1-2:30 pm.