Dicken's Pathology of Time in 'Hard Times.'
Levy, Eric P., Philological Quarterly
Most criticism of Hard Times probes the historical accuracy of the novel -- investigating, as Coles observes, "those correspondences between Dickens' fictional world and the world he lived in..."(1) Inevitably, this tendency to evaluate the fiction as a medium of fact deflects attention from its deeper implications. Some critics attempt to overcome this limitation through alternate modes of analysis. These include, among many others, broadening the intellectual context to include, not merely Utilitarianism, but an emerging mentality involving thinkers as diverse as Malthus and Newton (Beauchamp), examining the expressive properties of physiognomy (Hollington) or names (Allingham), and applying the heuristic models of such theorists as Dolezel and Bakhtin to resolve ideological ambiguities (Weber, Fowler).(2) Typological exegesis has been employed to explicate the text as a fairy tale (Mills), an approach deriving ultimately from Leavis' treatment of the novel as a "moral fable."(3)
Yet, regardless of particular emphasis or method, almost every study of Hard Times seeks to clarify the mimetic import of the novel -- to explicate, if only tangentially, the significance of the dystopic condition it concerns. But no critic has yet discovered that the text, while depicting the wretched environment of Coketown and elaborating the doctrine of self-interest on which it depends, provides a profound analysis of the unconscious motive for sustaining such a society. As we shall find, the formative principle of Coketown is the need to create an artificial time that repudiates the natural temporal tendency toward change and decay. In his study of narrative, Brooks relates the universal convention of plot to "the problem of temporality: man's timeboundedness, his consciousness of existence within the limits of mortality."(4) But, as we shall demonstrate, the fundamental purpose of Coketown is to deny or overcome this very predicament.
A review of some basic points will help initiate our inquiry. The novel begins in a Coketown classroom where Mr. Gradgrind inculcates the first "principle" of a new mentality or way of thinking: "Now, what I want is, Facts."(5) The purpose of this education is to permit each graduate to enter adulthood equipped for success, which is here defined as the promotion of "self-interest" (303). To this end, the subjective faculties of "imagination" (57) and feeling -- especially the ability to feel pity -- must be sacrificed in order to develop the one faculty most capable of manipulating the objective world: practical (as opposed to speculative) reason. The perfect product of this education is Bitzer: "His mind was so exactly regulated, that he had no affections or passions. All his proceedings were the result of the nicest and coldest calculation" (150). Yet the ruthless "self-suppression" (195) demanded by this pedagogy ultimately thwarts the "self-interest" (303) it intends to advance. Far from benefitting its adherents by training them to treat every human interaction as "a bargain across a counter" (304) whose sole purpose is personal gain, the predatory mentality encouraged by the Gradgrind system inevitably worsens the condition of everyone under its influence, reducing each to some mode of helplessness. As victims of exploitation, the Hands or workers obviously suffer helplessness, but so do characters of higher station who profit from their plight. The acute distress, experienced in vividly different ways, that afflicts Coketown residents regardless of status (or perhaps it would be more precise to say according to status) contradicts the very notion of personal gain on which their society is founded.
The best way to explicate this paradox is to return to the first page where Mr. Gradgrind describes the "way of thinking" (the actual phrase is introduced later by Mr. Harthouse ) required by his pedagogy. Here the description of Mr. Gradgrind's "square wall of a forehead" (47) is extremely revealing. For the way of thinking which he inculcates does indeed establish a mental wall separating the subject from that which he or she refuses to recognize. As such, this mentality is epitomized more by what it excludes or ignores than by what it admits and retains. In fact, another image frequently associated with this way of thinking involves the barrier. For example, Mr. Gradgrind's beloved daughter and vaunted pupil, Louisa, is described in terms of "the barrier behind which she lived" (207). The barrier image recurs in reference to Mr. Gradgrind's inability to perceive Louisa's "pent-up" emotional need as they discuss the possibility of her engagement to Mr. Bounderby: "But, to see it, he must have overleaped at a bound the artificial barriers he had for many years been erecting, between himself and all those subtle essences of humanity" (135).
Though the passage does not identify the subtle essences of humanity" which Mr. Gradgrind walls off from consideration, Louisa's ensuing lament regarding "that part of [her] nature" ignored by her upbiinging provides a due: "What do I know father ... of tastes and fancies; of aspirations and affections?" (136). The fullest definition of the "subtle essences" neglected by Mr. Gradgrind occurs in a description of the vast area of experience which he prefers to ignore: "human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows ... of ... men and women"(90). Hence, during this conversation about a decision whose consequences will eventually devastate their lives, both father and daughter are positioned behind invisible barriers obscuring from each, not only the other's deepest emotional needs and responses, but also his or her own. Ironically, the driving purpose of Mr. Gradgrind's pedagogy is to maintain such barriers, lest sensitivity to feelings inhibit the exploitative self-interest they facilitate. But in this case his failure to help Louisa cannot be attributed to self-interest alone; for her emotional peril is too obvious and he is not an uncaring man: "He was an affectionate father" (55). Some factor more fundamental than self-interest prevents Mr. Gradgrind from surmounting his "artificial Barriers" (135) and understanding the feelings perceived on the other side.
To uncover this factor, we must turn to the second scene in the novel where the struggle to overcome the barrier first occurs. Here Mr. Gradgrind berates his two children, Tom and Louisa, for "peeping ... through a hole in a deal board" (56) in order to glimpse the equestrian show at the Horse-riding. The full significance of both his outrage and their curiosity begins to emerge when we observe that this fence, through its connection with the later series of barrier references,, ultimately symbolizes the partition separating, not merely two different social worlds, but a repressive mentality from those aspects of human reality which it dares not recognize. Up to now, we have noted these barriers only in reference to Mr. Gradgrind and his closest pupil, Louisa. But he has no monopoly on the psychological barriers in Coketown. As school …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Dicken's Pathology of Time in 'Hard Times.'. Contributors: Levy, Eric P. - Author. Journal title: Philological Quarterly. Volume: 74. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 1995. Page number: 189+. © 1998 University of Iowa. COPYRIGHT 1995 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.