Dickens's Literary Architecture: Patterns of Ideas and Imagery in Hard Times

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Until the middle of this century the predominant critical view of Dickens was of a writer who, whatever his positive attributes, had only a rudimentary sense of form and structure. George Orwell in 1939 described the novels as "all fragments, all details-rotten architecture, but wonderful gargoyles" (49). Critics such as Edmund Wilson and Edgar Johnson began to draw attention to Dickens's attributes as a literary artist, his poetry and symbolism, and his use of the kinds of literary devices which came to be associated with the experimental novel. Hard Times, however, has always been considered different from Dickens's other novels-Johnson singled it out as a stark, formalized and allegorical morality drama-and often as artistically inferior, that, according to John Holloway, it can only retain our attention if we are enticed by problems but indifferent to art (Johnson 803, Holloway 171). A. E. Dyson provided a more sophisticated rationale for its "artlessness": that since Coketown must be seen and felt as a town from which all imaginative, creative powers were eliminated, Dickens sacrificed "art to art" by extinguishing his distinctive gift for poetic resonance and suggestiveness in favor of a "new ruthlessness of observation"; that he could not risk the artist's paradox that form transmutes content to beauty because he had to achieve, imaginatively, the preservation of Fact in all its deadliness (185, 187). Most criticism has reinforced this view by focusing on the themes associated with the Coketown ethos: utilitarianism, political economy, the Lancasterian educational system, the harsh conditions of contemporary industrialism, the empire of fact and the subjugation of fancy, although some attempts have been made, either directly or indirectly, to redeem Dickens's "art."[1]

What has been overlooked, and what this essay will explore, is the way in which the conceptual treatment of these ideas is consistently underpinned by complex patterns of thematic imagery that construct an architecture Orwell denies and create precisely the artistic paradox Dyson claims Dickens could not risk. Architecture as the art or science of constructing edifices for human use has certain essential aspects, namely the technical, the functional, the social, and the artistic. The idea of a literary architecture also implies these features, but in fictional terms an assessment of it requires especially an analysis of the particular style of structure and ornamentation, and of the linguistic and stylistic devices deployed, which are the bricks, mortar, and ties of such an architecture. On the one hand Coketown represents the domination of an inhuman, utilitarian, industrial ethos, which is reflected in intricate patterns of imagery associated with it. I shall also suggest, however, that in a further paradox other imagery implies a more subtle and ingenious intention, namely the deconstruction of Coketown as the vaunted triumph of fact and reality.

The first of these patterns invests the whole of Coketown with a hard, inflexible, dogmatic character which Gradgrind embodies and of which he is the intellectual arbiter. His educational system is utilitarian, aggressive, dictatorial, and destructive, a "cannon" loaded to the muzzle with facts designed to blow his pupils "clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge" (3), the word "Fact" reverberating like grape-shot through the first two chapters. This "Murdering [of] the Innocents" is official policy, Gradgrind being aided and abetted by a government officer, a Dickensian Teaching Quality Assessor, described in "fistic phraseology" as a "professed pugilist," always in training to prove himself "an ugly customer" by knocking the wind out of common sense and forcing a system down the general throat "like a bolus." "Bolus" is particularly apt since contemporary usage denoted a large pill, or "physic-ball," for treating horses and dogs, often used ironically as in this 1832 example: "Physic him to death with pills and boluses" (OED). …