Charles Dickens’ novel Hard Times puts premium on the existing economic and social burdens that pressed on individuals during his time. One of the most noticeable features written throughout the text of the novel is that it is filled with family struggles, sorrow, decaying morals as well as the element of estrangement. For example, Thomas Gradgrind, one of the characters, is depicted as a man whose deep fascination with imprudent utilitarian principles leads him to give full confidence to statistics and facts as well as to the idea of practicality of things.
In essence, the book is thought to be too didactic as it appears to merely express the negative aspects of the industrial age prominent during Dickens’ time, further giving us the impression that the characters in the novel are mere caricatures and that their sentiments sequin inasmuch as the morality is being portrayed as frail. This is one of the many interesting and thought-provoking elements in the novel that has roused the minds of many, with critics taking aim at the very illustration ascribed by Dickens to the characters.
Hippolyte Taine argues that the characters in the novel actually fall under two main distinctions: either the characters are individuals who both have feelings and emotions or the characters lack these two. He further suggests that the characters only serve the purpose of filling-up the content of the novel and inducing more hilarity and that Dickens actually compares the soul created by nature to that of the soul deformed by the society.
The arguments being raised by Taine brings us a closer look into the character portrayals as well as into the context upon which the characters are placed. The claim being put forward by Taine indeed contains a strand of validity with regards to the histrionic villains primarily because the characters in the novel are portrayed as individuals who appear to be guised as machines by obstruct the enhancement in their feelings. This can be observed primarily from the exploits of Thomas Gradgrind and Bounderby where the former teaches his brood and the rest of his family through the use of facts and statistics and the latter handles his factory employees as entities without emotions thereby abusing them to further his own benefits.
On the other hand, one can also perceive the notion that the didactic view of Taine only amplifies the idea that the novel of Dickens is one that is complex. Part of the reason to this can be observed from the fact that the novel itself, by suggesting themes contained in the time of industrialization, has several aspects worthy of looking into. Not only is the entirety of the novel to be treated as a whole and undivided literary work. Rather, it is a complex novel as well, suggesting subject matters such as the automation of the lives of humans, the conflict existing amid fact and fancy, as well as the significance of womanliness to name a few.
Further, there are characters in the novel that exhibit a form of doubles or alter egos which Dickens utilizes in order to challenge the perception of reality centering on the subject widespread in the prevailing forms of culture in classic realism as well as in great Romanticism. Part of this can be reflected on Bounderby’s attempt of using his workers in order to promote his personal interests, suggesting the idea that the character of Bounderby can also be analyzed in terms of personal motivations apart from the idea that the character can be primarily examined in terms of the subject’s actions.
These observations lead us to the assumption that Dickens’ work is more complex than how Taine views it by didactic means. One should be reminded that, although Taine makes a good point in arguing that the characters may or may not illustrate feelings and emotions, the characters nevertheless can be scrutinized further by focusing on the motivations behind their actions and the context of the time where the story operates. It brings into light the complex and intricate strands of unconventional behavior exhibited during times when life ought to have been a little easier for the individual.
The relative complexity of characterization is likewise significant in the novel essentially because it does not only heighten the motifs in the novel but also connects these motifs altogether in a congruent flow of thoughts that establishes the central and major contention of the novel. Among these motifs include the childhood years of Bounderby, marriages that are both uneven and miserable and the comparison of mechanical time to that of the changing of seasons to name a few.
Further, several symbols depicted in the novel also add to the complexity displayed by the characters throughout the story. Some of these include the staircase imagined by Mrs. Sparsit, the Pegasus situated inside the inn, the smoke serpents that relate to the perceptions and actuations of Bounderby, and the fire or, more specifically, the inner fire exemplified in the character of Louisa.
Indeed, these factors and the rest of the literary observations go against the claim of Taine, highlighting instead the complexity of the novel of Dickens as a whole and the dense characterizations of the individuals. It can be said—as opposed to Taine’s dichotomized treatment on the characters—that the characters bend towards flexibility of character, acting as empty of emotion on this aspect and appearing as filled with emotion on the other. Bounderby, for example, shows little or no affection towards the workers while, on the other hand, exhibiting a sense of fulfillment in furthering his interests.
In general, Charles Dickens’ novel has prompted criticisms that seek to critique the portrayal of characters in the novel, raising arguments that aim at simplifying the complex story into seeming dichotomies. Quite on the contrary, the overall image of the novel is already intricate and that the scenes and the characters altogether conjure the complete complexity of the work.
Taine, Hippolyte. “The Two Classes of Characters in Hard Times.” Hard Times : An Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. 3rd ed. New York, NY: W W Norton & Co Inc, 2000. 355.