Hard Times, I didn't expect it to be a rollicking good time and sure enough this was quite a somber tale, with one or two exceptions.
In Charles Dickens' Hard Times, the industrial town of Coketown is divided into the people who run things and the people who toil away in the mills. Mr Gradgrind runs the town school where he teaches only "facts" and the children are discouraged from using their imagination. Then along comes Sissy who lives with travelling circus folk; she just doesn't get it. Gradgrind with the help of his his boss decide she's a bad influence on his daughter, Louisa, and head to the circus to kick her out of school. When they get there, they discover she's been abandoned by her Dad. Gradgrind gets the bright idea to use the girl as an example of how well his system works by adopting her. Using Facts he plans on turning her into a star pupil.
Back at home, Gradgrind's children live a life devoid of colour, even 'wondering' is forbidden. The mother does nothing but complain about them while the father believes whole heartedly in his flawless system. In the end, the system forces Louisa into a loveless marriage and her brother Tom to become a ne'er-do-well.
Among the Toilers is Stephen Blackpool, who's an honourable man but can't get a break. He married his sweetheart only to have her turn into a drunk who ruined him. Now he pines away for Rachael, a woman he works with at the mill. But wait, things are about to get worse! After refusing to join the union, he's snubbed by his friends and has to leave town. When a sum of money goes missing from the bank, Stephen is the first person suspected by the town Big Wig, Gradgrind's boss and Lousia's husband, Mr Bounderby. Did he do it? And if not, who did?
If ever there was a book Dickens dedicated to his cynicism, Hard Times is it. He doesn't have a good thing to say about schoolteachers, or industrialists, or union leaders. The only people he's kind to are some of the poor people (the millers who turned their backs on Stephen are the exception) and they get kicked around by life anyway. Still, in true Dickens style 'the bad guys' get their comeuppance if only in round about ways.
The characters in Hard Times aren't quite as outlandish as in some of his other novels, but you still have the usual suspects: the innocent flower (Sissy), the Bad Guys (Bounderby and Harthouse), the silly woman (Mrs Sparsit) and the comic relief (Mr Sleary). Probably some of the most entertaining and eye rolling scenes involve Mr Bounderby. He's an 'in my day, we walked to school uphill, both ways' guy only he never went to school but grew up 'in the gutter.' He gives everyone a hard time. How he gets his just desserts is poetic justice. I was a little confused and disappointed in Harthouse's character. He's the least developed of any of them, a wolf in sheep's clothing. I get the feeling Dickens threw him in just to stir up trouble.
Hard Times is a much shorter novel than some of his others (Bleak House, Little Dorrit), which I think I prefer. The shorter story keeps him reined in somewhat. He can't go off on tangents or produce a cast of thousands to fill the pages. With only a few characters to concentrate on, he had to keep the story tighter. From what I've read, critics either loved it or hated it. Some felt he was too hard on the wealthy (though isn't he always), while others thought it a work of art. I quite enjoyed it.
Let's ring the bell for this round of Austen Versus Dickens! *Ding! Ding!*
As a side note, my dog has no appreciation for Dickens. She couldn't leave the book alone and was after it every time I put it down. In the end, Dickens suffered a major trauma. I'm not sure how this will affect the outcome of the duel. Sorry, Chuck.