Monday, 1 February 2010

'Hard Times' (1854) - the Victorian satyr

'Hard Times' (1854) is the satyr on industrial England. It touches on all aspects of Victorian society: poverty, exploitation, class prejudices, hypocrisy and all the idiosyncracies of the age. Key Victorian archetypes are represented in its main characters: Bounderby the self-made man, 'the bully of humility'; Gradgrind the zealously rational economist of the Kay Shuttleworth type; Slackbridge the excessively rhetorical, buffoon-like, superficial union leader; and finally Stephen Blackpool the humble working-man, honest and inscrutable, the tragic victim of the novel, and the age.

The prose is rich and wonderfully descriptive. Dicken's 'melancholy elephant' as a description of machinery is an incredibly powerful piece of imagery while Stone Lodge, the Gradgrind family home, is the perfect metaphor for the steely, overly rational middle-class Victorian mentality and its pathological obsession with hard facts and statistics: 'like a piece of machinery which discouraged human interference'.

Dickens' use of irony is both skilful and at times hilarious. Here is a book that reveals to us the hardship and monotony of working class life and the middle-class condescension that kept them in,  as Stephen Blackpool calls it 'a dreadful muddle'. 'Hard Times' is a stark critique of industrial society, yet written in such a way as to delight as well as disgust. The ending is uplifting and points to a way of life beyond the grim world of 'hard facts' and 'National Income' where truly human qualities can flourish. An excellent portrait of the period and an invaluable piece of literature.

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