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. …