Hard Times by Charles Dickens - Book Review

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

What is critical literacy? What does it mean to read critically?
Search it up and you’ll find lots of definitions on critical literacy. To simplify things for you, this means to look at the texts more closely and from various perspectives. If you read a text, you understand it and you are able to summarize it – that’s reading. However, if you read the text and ask questions to understand or reveal deeper meanings, then you’re reading critically. To read critically means to question. For example: What kind of language is the author using here? Does it reveal something about the character or the plot? Who is the narrator? Although I’m reading a story, I know it’s not just a story. Can I make a text-to-world connection here? Is there a hidden message in this text? What is the author telling us about politics, race, gender issues, etc.? – Questions like these will get you thinking about the broader picture and that is a part of critical literacy

If you’re looking for a summary of this great text, you can find it online. In this brief analysis I’m going to focus more on critical literacy and show you how I engage with texts when I read critically.  Let’s say you’re writing an essay and you wish to write about the use of irony in the text, or about a theme discussed in the novel. Whatever you decide to write about, you’ll have to ask questions.  How do you start? Let’s see!  

Theme – Analysis

Let’s focus on the following themes: Childhood and Education (and some characters)

To do an in-depth analysis of these themes would take many pages, but for our purposes I will only show you how you can begin deconstructing this novel while looking at these theme topics through various lenses.

Many of my students struggled when writing about theme topics. They often asked: ”But what can I write about? I mean, I can write a sentence or two, but what else? I can identify a theme, but that’s all I can do.”

Wrong. Remember, when you evaluate literature, you ask a lot of questions.

The first thing I always do when deconstructing a text is place it in a historical context. Some of the questions I ask are:

– When was the text written?

– What were the politics (on gender, social class, family, etc.) of the time?

– What is the author’s view of the politics of the time? (Now you look at the text more closely)

A bit of research on the historical period:

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

This period is known as Victorian era. It marks Queen Victoria’s reign, from 20 June 1837 until her death on 22 January 1901. The era followed the Georgian period and preceded the Edwardian period, and its later half overlaps with the first part of the Belle Époque era of Continental Europe. (source: Wikipedia)

*Now, do your research on this particular historical period. What else do you find that’s important? Depending on the theme of your choice, you can research information on: childhood, parenting, education, treatment of women in 19th  century, etc.

Here is a brief introduction to the idea of childhood and how it evolved over centuries.

In the book Centuries of Childhood, A Social History of Family Life, by Philippe Aries, the following is stated:

Children weren’t always treated the same. They weren’t always recognized as equal members of the society. “The coddling attitude towards children at the end of the sixteenth century and seventeenth century” was not widely accepted. Montaigne writes that he doesn’t like kissing newborns or watch them being fed. He also states that he cannot accept the idea of loving children “for our amusement, like monkeys”, or take part in their games because they are “infantile nonsense”. This thinking was popular at the time and shared by many, even a century later.

In the late seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth century, people’s idea of childhood began to change. They began to see children as “fragile creatures of God who needed to be both safeguarded and reformed”.

More facts: 16th and 17th century – the need for discipline is recognized.

Schooling becomes longer. Instead of spending one or two years at school, children spend 4 or 5 years studying. Schooling is also seen as an extension of childhood.

The need for (higher) education is recognized but the differences between social classes play an important role here. The “old ways of life have survived almost until the present day in the lower classes, which have not been subjected for so long a period to the influence of the school” Aries writes. He adds: “Child labour retained this characteristic of medieval society. The whole complexion of life was changed by the differences in the educational treatment of the middle-class and the lower-class child.”

– 17th  century: “School discipline was considered to be too strict.”

– “At the end of the century, the Abbe Bordelon was of the same opinion ‘Teach children more for the world than through the school.’”

We know that children of Victorian Era didn’t enjoy childhood the way most of us do today. Many had to work to help support their families. (Research and read more online).

What next? What am I going to do with all this information I found online or in the book? What does it have to do with Hard Times?

Now you compare the two.

Q: How does Dickens describe children in the novel?

Q: Are the boys and girls treated the same? Was this type of treatment common in the 19th century?

Q: How does Dickens mock the educational system of the time? What do you think about his description of Mr. Gradgrind? Do you think he uses humour and/or irony to describe the character?

Think about the opening lines in chapter 1 of the novel: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach those boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” These are the words of Mr. Gradgrind. What do they tell us about this character?

Remember our earlier findings and Bordelon’s argument that children’s learning must be extensive and not only take place in schools? Since we know that Dickens mocks Mr. Gradgrind (it’s evident throughout the story), what do you suppose the author’s opinion is on the philosophies of learning – and formal education of the time?

Q: What do you think of diction (the choice of words) and language used in the first chapter of the book? Why do you think Dickens describes students as “reasoning animals”? Does he speak ironically? Explain.

Chapter 2 is titled “Murdering the Innocents”

Q: Why do you think Dickens chose this title? Who are the “innocents” he refers to here?

Q: He addresses Sissy Jupe as “Girl number twenty”. What does this tell you about Mr. Gradgrind? You might argue that he dehumanizes his students. As you read, think about the way Mr. Gradgrind addresses his children, friends, students and other commoners.

Q: Take a look at the author’s description of Mr. Bounderby. How is he different from Mr. Gradgrind? Although, Dickens mocks both, do you think he favours one over the other? Explain.

Q: What do you think of the author’s description of various members of the Sleary’s company? Take a look at the following passage: “They cared so little for plain Fact, these people, and were in that advanced state of degeneracy on the subject, that instead of being impressed by the speaker’s strong common sense, they took it in extraordinary dudgeon. The men muttered ‘Shame!’ and the women ‘Brute!’”. (Chapter 6)

Is there a use of irony here? Explain.

You might want to argue that, according to Dickens, the children are innocent, rebellious, naturally curious and imaginative. The opening paragraph of Chapter 9 of the novel describes Sissy as someone who “had not an easy time of it, between Mr. M’Choakumchild and Mrs. Gradgrind, and was not without strong impulses, in the first months of her probation, to run away.”

Q: Why do you think Dickens chose such symbolic characters’ names?

Mr. Choakumchild – chokes a child?

Mr. Gradgrind – grinder? Grinds something?

Sissy is described as an innocent, naïve and an opinionated child.

“The wretched ignorance with which Jupe clung to this consolation, rejecting the superior comfort of knowing, on a sound arithmetical basis, that her father was an unnatural vagabond, filled Mr. Gradgrind with pity.” (Chapter 9) Children don’t care about the facts. They respond to emotion and affection, everything that Mr. Gradgrind mocks. When asked “what is the first principle of [political economy]” Sissy responds with “To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me.” (chapter 9)

Q: What does the above quote tell you about Sissy? You might argue that, according to Dickens, the educators must teach children to use their imagination. Also, they must recognize and respect each child’s individuality. Perhaps Dickens teaches us that the study of facts is important, but in order for education to be complete- it must be more inclusive. (Whatever your argument, you must support it with textual evidence).

Q: Think again of the author’s criticism of the formal education of the time. What does he suggest? Who are the true reformers in this education: children or adults?

Here we’ve looked at a number of questions you can ask in order to develop a better understanding of:

– Characters

– Themes: childhood and education

You can continue doing the same as you read the rest of the chapters. How do the characters change throughout the novel? How has the process of industrialization impacted education? What are the narrator’s opinions on the topics discussed in the novel? Keep reading and questioning.