Synopsis: Set in a fictitious city named Coketown, popular for its factories, this novel tells the story of Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy man who believes strongly in factual things and rational ideas. Gradgrind has two children, Louisa and Tom. Gradgrind raises his children to believe in fact and they are not allowed to practice creativity or express feelings. After Gradgrind opens a school in Coketown, he takes in and raises one of the students, Sissy, as a servant (Sissy's father was a performer in a circus and disappeared without taking Sissy with him). Gradgrind raises his children in a way he believes will benefit them in life, but things do not turn out the way as he expected.
Aside from reading excerpts of A Christmas Carol back in middle school, Hard Times was my first Charles Dickens novel. Upon doing research before reading as well as talking with several book-lover friends, I felt like I had a good handle on what to expect from the reading -- humor interlaced with biting social commentary on the working class in London circa 1850. With this book I certainly got that -- one can guess this is going to be about poor financial conditions from the title alone.
Once I got into the flow and rhythm of Dickens's writing, I really enjoyed myself and found some passages to be quite striking. Here is one of my favorites, a passage spoken aloud by daughter Louisa to her father Tom Gradgrind in the novel's climax:
“How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, oh, Father, What have you done with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here?"
For, you see, the town of Coketown is an industrial town made up of two factions -- the Hands, i.e. working class, and the wealthy who do not care to help or improve the city in which they live. They only care to make money, with no consideration for others. The figure-head of the greedy upper class is Josiah Bounderby, friend of Thomas Gradgrind and banker/factory owner in Coketown. He has a finger in every pie around town, all while constantly reminding anyone who would listen that he pulled himself up from poverty and a sad childhood stuck with an alcoholic grandmother. Bounderby's exaggerated characteristics and exclamations made for some big laughs on my end, and he was, arguably, my favorite character in the novel -- despite being rather corrupt.
Dickens's mid-career novel -- apparently the shortest he ever wrote, by the way -- is a good one and I'm glad I started here. Its commentary on creativity, wealth, and poverty is timely still, making Hard Times feel incredibly modern despite being published over 150 years ago. The prose is gorgeous, and the characterization is spot-on. A few chapters in the middle lagged a bit, but other than that I could find nothing wrong or unlikable about this read. I will definitely be reading some more Dickens very soon.