Wow. I couldn't ask for more from my return to Dickens. For some reason, in high school, though I only read one Dickens (A Tale of Two Cities), which I really enjoyed, I decided that I didn't like him. I remember feeling drowned in description, but slogging through it to get to the good stuff. Now, I'm floating - I loved Hard Times.
The novel focuses on an industrial town and two male power figures, Gradgrind and Bounderby, who are men of facts. (Love those Dickens names.) The novel opens with a scene in Gradgrind's schoolhouse. Bounderby is standing nearby. Gradgrind waxes poetic on facts:
Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.
Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything
else...Stick to Facts, Sir!
The narrator then gives a lengthy description of the man speaking, culminating in:
The speaker's obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square
shoulders, - nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an
unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was, - all helped the
Gradgrind's children, Louisa and Thomas are raised on facts alone, and suffer
the consequences. Louisa becomes Bounderby's unhappy wife, while Thomas becomes
a thief and miscreant. All works out in the end, however, with some help from
imagination, creativity, and love (which fall strictly in the NON-fact arena).
I got a healthy dose of wit, that's for sure. The narrator in Hard Times makes snide comments about the characters and setting, winking and nudging his way through the entire novel. I never tired of it.
Dickens is a master of language. My favorite Dickens passages are his descriptions of characters. Bounderby is
a man with a pervading appearance on him of being inflated like a balloon,
and ready to start...He had not much hair. One might have fancied he had talked
it off; and that what was left, all standing up in disorder, was in that
condition from being constantly blown about by his windy boastfulness.
Mrs. Gragrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed
bundle of shawls, surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily...and who, whenever
she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariable stunned by some weighty
piece of fact tumbling on her...
It's easy to see why I enjoyed the book so much. Dickens targets utilitarianism, labor unions, romanticism, and industrialization in one short book. Wonderful!
Next: The Last Witchfinder, by James Morrow