Hard Times in His Novel Hard Times Essay

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Hard Times

In his novel Hard Times, Charles Dickens is not shy in confronting what he sees as the paramount social evils of his day, particularly when those evils come in the form of ostensibly beneficent social movements themselves. In particular, Dickens satirizes Jeremy Bentham's Utilitarianism through the characterization of Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby as men of cold reason and hard facts, and uses the fates of the various characters to demonstrate the destructive potential of Utilitarian ethics when applied without a comprehensive, objective standard for determining good and bad. The city of Coketown represents the physical embodiment of the cruel, alien world produced by the enactment of Utilitarian policy, and contrasts with its creators expressed dedication to facts and reason. By considering the characterization of Gradgrind and Bounderby, the setting of Coketown, and the narrator's particular use of language throughout the novel alongside the philosophy of Utilitarianism as expressed in Jeremy Bentham's The Principles of Morals and Legislation, it will become clear that Dickens' target is not just Utilitarianism, but specifically the way Utilitarianism purports to represent a reasonable, objective moral metric when in reality it represents nothing more than majority rules and arbitrary standards of determining benefit and harm.

Before considering Hard Times in greater detail, it will first be useful to examine the philosophy of Utilitarianism in general, in order to better understand how Dickens depictions of Gradgrind and Bounderby represent a satirization of Utilitarianism's worst practical effects. In The Principles of Morals and Legislation, Bentham describes the principle of utility as "the principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness."

Bentham goes on to describe utility as "that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness [] or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness to the party whose interest is considered."

An issue arises due to the imprecision of Bentham's language, because he does not sufficiently define what is meant by "mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness," such that actions which are deemed "in the best interest" of the individuals they affect can in fact do more harm than good, even if those actions are seemingly justified by the principle of utility (at least from the perspective of the actor).

By failing to provide an objective measure by which action might be judged beneficial or harmful, Bentham ensures that Utilitarianism will always suffer from the dictates of personal, selfish interest, because there is no metric to judge the moral or ethical worth of one's actions except for one's own opinion regarding what is best for society.

Having provided an introduction to Utilitarianism as expressed in Jeremy Bentham's The Principles of Morals and Legislation, it will now become possibly to investigate Hard Times in order to determine how and why Charles Dickens satirizes this Utilitarianism. One must begin with the character of Thomas Gradgrind, if only because the novel itself does, opening with Gradgrind shouting:

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 be 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!

Here Gradgrind echoes the pseudo-scientific air of Bentham's Utilitarianism, and he demonstrates the ludicrous nature of his own position directly when he claims that "you can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts," firstly because he does not offer any evidence to support this assertion, and thus does not demonstrate the devotion to logic and reason he imagines himself to have.

Somewhat more ironically, however, is the reality that this assertion is simply wrong, something that the reader likely presumes already but which the novel demonstrates over the course of the story. Thus, precisely at the same time that he is lauding the importance of Facts, Gradgrind is definitively stating something which is not a fact, effectively demonstrating the contradiction inherent in a philosophy that values fact above all else but which contains no self-correcting mechanism for determining fact from fiction.

Gradgrind's voice is described as "inflexible, dry, and dictatorial," and this description, along with his appearance, reflects the rigid, authoritarian nature of his philosophy, which claims itself as the embodiment of reason but which is actually nothing more that tyrannical dictates about reality based on subjective experience.

Even his name contributes to this characterization, because one can interpret it literally to mean that he grinds on the minds and spirits of his schools' graduates. (Dickens' particular use of language to satirize his characters will pop up again, particularly in the cases of Mrs. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby). Gradgrind is presented as a laughable, if domineering character, who chastises Sissy because she is "unable to define a horse."

By demonstrating this as the kind of "fact" cherished by Gradgrind, the novel immediately sets him up as a distinctly unreasonable man made all the more unreasonable by his own, eternal insistence that this is not the case. Gradgrind is not interested in facts inasmuch as they are means for understanding and discussing reality, but rather he seemingly appreciates them in and of themselves, independent of any context.

This is why the applied dictates of his philosophy feel so arbitrary. His colleague's explanation of "why you wouldn't paper a room with representations of horses" is clearly absurd, because he argues that since one does not usually "see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality -- in fact," then one should not adorn a room with representations of them.

This position regarding proper decorations is a prime example of Utilitarian lack of scientific and logical rigor, because it represents the establishment of an arbitrary rule based on a subjective interpretation of reality that does not actually correspond to reality. In the view of these Utilitarian educators, one should not decorate walls with images of anything (except for maybe more walls), because whatever might be represented on those walls is not "naturally" found there. This bizarre command that representation correspond exactly to the thing represented reveals that Gradgrind does not approach facts from the position of a scientist trying to expand his understanding of the world, but rather as a collector and fetishist who cannot imagine the potential benefits of imagination itself, or that there might be anything to gain by recontextualizing an image or idea.

Similarly, Josiah Bounderby is presented as an equally ridiculous character, "as near being Mr. Gradgrind's bosom friend, as a man perfectly devoid of sentiment can approach that spiritual relationship towards another man perfectly devoid of sentiment."

They are bound, if not by friendship, then at least a kind of common gravity towards the harsh and austere, so long as that austerity purports to be the result of a "reasonable" dedication to facts. Bounderby exhibits the same kind of arbitrary and ignorant dedication to his own particular, subjective interpretation of life, but where Gradgrind seems to fetishize and idolize facts themselves, Bounderby seems interested in "hard-headed, solid-fisted people" only as much as it offers him the opportunity to talk about himself and his past.

Thus, for Bounderby, it is not the facts themselves which are so alluring, but the "hard-headed" people they create; people who, it might be added, are too stultified and crushed to offer any resistance whenever Bounderby starts in on another story about his life.

The narrator goes so far as to call him a "Bully of humility" because his rants about "his old ignorance and his old poverty" are simply a means to laud himself for the life he now leads. Bounderby, like Gradgrind, and somewhat like Bentham himself, suffers from the inability to see his own privilege and its ideological roots, such that he imagines he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps when in reality his success was likely as much due to random chance as any particular skill or knowledge on his part.

Like Gradgrind, his name is indicative of his character, because Bounderby is perfectly content to bound by others on his way to the top of industry, leaving the less-advantaged to fend for themselves while he pretends to advocate a moral system based on finding the most good for the most people. Somewhat paradoxically, it also has a kind of fanciful ring to it, because it sounds so similar to "bounce." While at first glance this might seem incongruous with his character, the analysis of Coketown featured below will provide some insight into this, because as the patriarchal power of Coketown, Bounderby's name actually fits in with its…[continue]

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