Dickens started to write Hard Times in 1854, by which time cities had been increasing in size, due predominantly, to growth in the textile, iron and railway industry. Previously working country folk had lived almost along side their employers and had struck up a relationship with them albeit an unequal one. However, in the large sprawling cities there became a large, psychological, as well as physical gap between ‘masters’ and ‘men’.
Dickens believed that part of the problem of industrialised cities, was due to the way children were educated. They were only taught factual information and not encouraged to think and evaluate. Gradgrind’s school children learn nothing but Facts, and he quells the first signs of creativity. This imagination or ‘Fancy’ is represented in Hard Times by the circus from where Sissy Jupe originates. The circus is cleverly juxtaposed with the school, which represents the rationalised society. Sissy had lived with horses for most of her life, however because she was unable to describe a horse in scientific terms, Gradgrind ridiculed her. He was unable to understand how she could simply know about a horse without being able to describe it as a “Graminivorous Quadruped.”
Bitzer (who was an ex-student of Mr M’Choakemchild’s school) was observed to be “..a young man of the steadiest principle..on his father’s death..this excellent young economist had asserted the right of settlement for her (his mother), with such steadfast adherence to the principle of the case, she had been shut up in the work house ever since.” (Pg. 153 ) This shows how the education system had expelled any emotional attachment he had to his mother as Bitzer was quite happy to send his own mother to the workhouse as he saw this as a fact and could imagine no other alternative.
Class division, also underpins the crux of Hard Times; it is illustrated very well when Louisa (the daughter of a wealthy schoolmaster, Mr Gradgrind) “She knew of them (working class) in crowds passing to and fro their nests…but she knew from her reading infinitely more of the ways of toiling insects than these toiling men and women” page 209 This passage demonstrates how efficient her factual education has been in ridding her of any sensibility toward her fellow citydwellers, and also how the ruling classes believed the proletariat to be almost inhuman and thought of them as a collective rather than individuals, with emotions, ambitions and human desires.
Utilatarians felt the need to explain what was going on around them and tried rationalise society in an attempt to improve and develop it into a “New World”. There were few reforms brought in by Liberal reformists such as reducing the working day to 10 hours for women and children. However, the men were not given such consideration and there were no limits to the amount of time they had to work. This meant, of cause there was very little time for any form of socialising or relaxation, which hindered men and women from forming normal healthy relationships. On Sundays, in Coketown,
“boys who were at large – a rare sight there – rowed a crazy boat, which made a spumous track upon the water as it jogged along, while every dip of an oar stirred up vile smells.” This passage illustrates that even when people had the opportunity to enjoy themselves they were still enveloped in pollution and oppression, which the working classes felt they could never get away from. The female characters in Hard Times seem to be included in order to ‘spiritually regenerate’ the male characters who would otherwise be morally lost as seen in the relationship between Stephen Blackpool and Rachel.
Stephen is in an unhappy marriage to an alcoholic wife, who he is tempted to poison in order that he can be with Rachel. However, he is unable to carry this out due to Rachel’s influence on him. “Thou changest me from bad to good. Thou mak’st me humbly wishfo’ to be more like thee, and fearfo’ to lose thee when this life is ower, and a’ the muddle cleared awa’. Thou’rt an Angel; it may be, thou hast saved my soul alive!” Stephen seeks advice from Bounderby but his dreams are thwarted instantly, as he discovers only the very rich are able to obtain a divorce, and their love remains unrequited. This is an example of the moral and financial pressures which where imposed upon the relationships between men and women. Stephen and Rachel’s situation echoes Dickens’ own unhappy marriage, and it is speculated that he was having an affair with a young actress while writing Hard Times. (Slater pg. 135)
Victorian society was very moralistic, however there seems to be no moral questions asked, when women were prostituted into a loveless marriage, for money or other favours. Louisa shows her contempt for Bounderby ( her future husband), when he demands a kiss from her as he leaves. “she stood on the same spot rubbing the cheek he had kissed, with her handkerchief, until it was burning red.. “You’ll rub a hole in your face” her brother sulkily remonstrated..”You may cut the piece out with your penknife, if you like, Tom. I wouldn’t cry!” However despite her hatred of Bounderby, she sacrifes herself to his offer of marriage in order to gain advantages for her brother and to please her father who is his friend.