I started reading this novel because I was studying the time period in which Dickens was writing in History and therefore felt it would give me a deeper insight. It did, and Mr Bounderby is the epitome of the belief in the self-made man, despite what he really turns out to be. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and the different stories that come together make it interesting till the last page.
A theme running through Dickens’s Hard Times was pity. It is a pity towards the unreal or superficial. When feelings become less superficial and forced, this pity lessens; In Mr Gradgrind’s plea to Bitzer, he seems emotionally raw but this grief does not provoke pity in the reader. In fact, it causes the opposite; admiration and joy that he has changed his ways and is no longer governed purely by facts.
The role of the reader is also interesting in this novel. When Sparsit is spying on Louisa and Jem, the reader takes on the same role as a spy. This causes any romance that could be present in the affair to be diminished as it is cheapened and doesn’t mean anything. Jem’s words are full of cliche and for the reader to be swept away, we would have to be part of this conversation. As it is, the reader has no investment in this affair, and nor does Jem considering his willingness to give up and go home. This therefore reveals the scene to have only one purpose which is to ‘wake’ Louisa, and in turn her father, up. Jem has also been compared to Mephistopheles from Dr Faustus which reinforces this impression of him being only present to cause needed disturbance. Sissy is not able to take this role as she is too different from the family as she comes from a completely different social class and situation.
It is interesting how it is the circus people who are able to love naturally and have happy families, as we discover on Sissy’s return for help, whereas the Gradgrinds and others all suffer a lonely fate. This is perhaps to show the family taking on an “intellectual burden” as the lower classes were deemed too simple. This role may have been enforced by Dicken’s own life as he read to the illiterate.
I found the ending fairly depressing. We are, however, reminded that the characters are only fictional and instead of mourning their fate, we should learn from what their mistakes have shown us;
“It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not. We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn grey and cold”