Hard Times and Dickens as a Social Critic
As a prominent author of the 19th century, Charles Dickens would be historically contextualized by a time in which the rights of man and the notion of individuality would be rapidly emergent to the collective consciousness. For many authors, this would provide the opportunity to engage in studies of the human conditions by way of a literary tradition that was increasingly and boldly critical of the inequality which had carried over from the crumbling Victorian era. Herein, the focus on the individual development, emotionally and intellectually, of a single subject, would represent a somewhat fanciful departure from traditional narrative approaches. In his 1854, Hard Times, Dickens employs familiar devices such as his indulgence in physical detail, his dark sense of humor and his typically heavy-handed use of archetypal characters in order to help convey a sense of outrage over the inhumane social hierarchy.
There is not much question in a look at his career's work, that Charles Dickens was by his nature a harsh social critic. He would often make his characters morally objectionable in order to demonstrate the ills of society and would take an especially great interest in showing the iniquities of Church and State. In the deeply unequal England of the Victorian era, Dickens felt that he saw a lot of suffering, a great many people in need and a visible disgust of the rich toward the poor. The fact that these conditions had associated so closely with the premise of God and Crown had drawn out in critics such as Dickens a sharp distaste for the British institution girding both.
As we proceed to understand the social impetus which draws such sharp and observable lines of morality in Hard Times, it is useful to understand the biographical disposition which oriented Dickens this way. The sense that he was both emphatically sympathetic to those more disadvantaged and that he was driven by an intellectual fervor to remark critically on the suffering of the poor seem to be based in a childhood of personal affliction. In Forster's landmark reflection on Dickens' life and the pursuit of his profession, he tells of Dickens as one perhaps inevitably given over to this resonance with the oppressed, denoting that "was a very little and a very sickly boy. He was subject to attacks of violent spasm which disabled him for any active exertion. He was never a good little cricket-player; he was never a first-rate hand at marbles, or peg-top, or prisoner's base; but he had great pleasure in watching the other boys, officers' sons for the most part, at these games, reading while they played; and he had always the belief that this early sickness had brought to himself one inestimable advantage, in the circumstance of his weak health having strongly inclined him to reading" (Forster, 1) This intercession of physical limitation and intellectual embrace would produce a writer with a clear sense of emotional distress over those who suffered unjustly.
It is perhaps for this reason that so many of his works centered on the relationship of the rich and poor, separated as such by the unwelcome permeation of authority of the former over the latter. The smallness and limitation foisted upon the poor struck Dickens as something inherently wrong. To the point, the labor conditions Dickens explores in Hard Times through such figures as Stephen are contrasted sharply by the life of decadence and sanctimony denoting the figure of Josiah Bounderby. Clearly the figure through who Dickens channels the greatest pitch of protest, there is a clear hostility toward the hypocrisy and meanness which allows Bounderby to prevail over the poor of Coketown with a divinely entitled and self-declared superiority. It is here that Dickens captures the Victorian era's undercurrent of resentment of the exploitation of God and Church for the interests of rendering selective such universal entitlements as faith and justice.
In doing so, he also appeals to a tactic that is characteristic of many of his most important works, using an exaggerated and even somewhat ridiculous depiction of those most deplorable of figures as a way of magnifying the inhumanity and callousness of the social landscape. To the point, in a figure like Bounderby, there is an almost humorous extremity to a cruelty which knows no limitation but which also seems to emanate from...
It is this approach which causes Chesterton to write in a somewhat affectionate send-up of Dickens that "there was never a more didactic writer: hence there was never one more amusing. He had no mean modern notion of keeping the moral doubtful. He would have regarded this as a mere piece of slovenliness, like leaving the last page illegible." (Chesterton, 1) Quite so, Dickens felt quite strongly that the political, social and economic conditions of his time and place were unjust, and to his perception, this was an obviation that remained somewhat willfully obscured to so many of its perpetrators. In a sense, therefore, he appealed to a satirical overstatement that portrayed those responsible for this inequality, in his perception, as inhumane in both persona and behavior. The habit of demonizing his subjects would be a mode of humor unique to Dickens and unquestionably melodramatic in its tenor. To the point, there is almost a soap-operatic quality to his characters and scenarios, even as they are set to the backdrop of industrializing England.
More than any other character, it is through Bounderby that we are given the opportunity to view the justice system in Dickens' time as something principally founded on inequality, determining a process which is governed by an aristocratic jurisdiction over that which deemed righteous, just and moral. All of these concepts emerge in Bounderby, and especially in a notable encounter with Stephen, and furthermore suggest the most demonstrably inappropriate misuse of religious principles, pointing to Dickens as a brazen critical force in his time.
With Hard Times, Dickens shows that he is specifically interested in dealing with a current and evolving problem of labor abuse. He draws a deeply negative picture of the rationalist political movement with which Bounderby may be identified. This was a powerful movement at the time in England. Rationality was focused on facts, which Dickens believed were used to give strict control over education, values and even creativity. This would impact the making of religion and justice too. The chief characterization of Bounderby captures this points exceedingly well, remarking that "there was a moral infection of claptrap in him. Strangers, modest enough elsewhere, started up at dinners in Coketown, and boasted in quite a rampant way, of Bounderby. They made him out to be the Royal arms, the Union-Jack, Magna Charta, John Bull, Habeas Corpus, the Bill of Rights, an Englishman's house is his castle, Church and State, and God Save the Queen, all put together." (52) The declaration, clearly satirical in its delivery, is nonetheless a premise upon which we will find Bounderby behaving in the most repugnant of ways. Moreover, it draws a connection between the man's trumped up reputation, his unseemly demeanor and his alleged connection to all things institutionalized and empowered. Bounderby would be a thinly veiled conduit for all the qualities of the aristocracy which drew so much of Dickens' venom.
When the aforementioned Stephen, an honest laborer detained in a marriage with an abusive and alcoholic wife, goes to Bounderby, the wealthy mill owner and a public judge, he is denied a request for divorce. Bounderby denies him because poor laborers like him are not expected to have the money to have a divorce. In the scene between Stephen and Bounderby, we can see how the justice system is deeply imbalanced, as are the attitudes of the people in the justice system. When Stephen argues that the legal system wouldn't let him get a divorce was a "muddle," Bounderby disciplines him, "Don't you talk nonsense, my good fellow,. . . about things you don't understand; and don't you call the Institutions of your country a muddle, or you'll get yourself into a real muddle one of these find mornings. The institutional of your country are not your piece-work, and the only thing you have got to do, is, to mind your piece-work. You didn't take your wife for fast and for loose; but for better for worse. If she has turned out worse -- why, all we have got to say is, she might have turned out better" (Hard Times, 84) There is a circular ridiculousness to this exchange that captures the hypocrisy to which Dickens was drawn.
The simple good-natured qualities which emerge in Dickens' poor characters seem in a way to also reveal much in Dickens' nature while themselves remaining thin in character depth. The depth instead pertains to their respective moral compasses. Chesterton, to the point, draws the gentle characterization of such figures as a quality relating to Dickens' own goodness. To this idea, Chesterton contends that "everywhere in Dickens's work these angles of his…
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