Hard Times: Dickens' own "Milton" tale

  A Manufacturing Town  (1922) - L.S. Lowry

A Manufacturing Town (1922) - L.S. Lowry

How does Charles Dickens' Hard Times compare to North and South?  I've wondered about this for years, ever since I heard that Hard Times was also an industrial novel. These two stories even appeared back-to-back in 1854. Dickens ran his story in weekly installments from April to August in his magazine, Household Words. Gaskell's story ran from September to January of the following year.

How are these two works similar? Well, in Dickens' book there is a dirty industrial town, a self-made manufacturer (with a mother who worships him!), a poor weaver with integrity and soul, and a heroine who doesn't know her own heart.

And there are similar strains in highlighting what is lacking in the industrial society of the day. Dickens' overall theme boils down to a warning that in the intellectual and self-satisfied excitement of lauding science and industry, it is vital to remember that humans are not machines or numbers, but individuals who need nurturing and care. Focusing on facts, statistics, bank accounts (and social esteem) deadens us to matters of humanity. It's the lower classes--Cissy Jupe, Stephen Blackpool, and Rachel--who understand what life is really about: love.

The most pointed difference, for me, between Hard Times and North and South is in the depth of the characters drawn by the author. Dickens uses exaggerated characters to make his pointed social commentary. It's difficult to feel an intimate connection with characters that are more symbolic than realistic. I felt the most sympathetic connection with the poor weaver, Stephen Blackpool, whose situation and hope reflects the reality of many hard-worn lives of every century. With Gaskell's characters, I can sympathize with each and every one for their very human faults, habits, and virtues. 

Oh, but I love Hard Times'  comedic Mrs. Sparsit! What a perfectly conniving, presumptuous old fortune-seeker! It was glorious to see her get taken down. The scene in which she gleefully endures pouring rain and muddy terrain to spy on her nemesis was fantastically described. This part was Dickens at his best for descriptions and character revelation. She may be my favorite Dickens character yet!
 

 Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby

Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby

Of course, anyone who loves North and South, will be interested in Dickens' dark description of "Milton."

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.
It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.


I really enjoyed reading a shorter work of Dickens. The intricate weaving of the characters into the building plot is Dickens' usual genius. In this story, no scene is superfluous. Every early scene lays the groundwork for the coming climax.

Overall, I liked this better than the over-rated Great Expectations, and maybe even better than Little Dorrit and Bleak House, where I found the length of the novel sometimes tedious. My romantic side would have loved to see a happier ending for a few of the characters, but considering the title of the book I'll suppress my complaint. Nothing here can compare to the romance in North and South.

And that self-made manufacturer in Hard Times? Definitely not John Thornton material! Josiah Bounderby is a pompous old windbag. Sorry about that. But who could compete with John Thornton anyway?

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