Matt Guion's Reviews > Hard Times

Hard Times by Charles Dickens
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Mar 20, 12

Read in January, 2011

Genre: Classic

Synopsis: Thomas Gradgrind, schoolmaster and father of five, is firm on the idea that what should be taught in the home and the schoolroom is facts, nothing but facts. Fancy of any kind is to be discouraged in the strongest possible terms, and it is with this philosophy that he runs his school and raises his children. It seems to him to be the only way to survive in the world, and it is only as the years pass that he begins to see the consequences of such a philosophy in his life and, more importantly, the lives of his children.

Review: This is the first Dickens novel I’ve read, aside from Christmas Carol which isn’t technically a novel, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect from it. I knew Dickens could be rather wordy, but I also knew that he is considered one of the great English writers. Well, reading this book, I can see why.

Yes, Dickens was paid by the word, and yes, many of his books reflect this by being excessively wordy. But here’s the difference between the wordiness of Dickens and the wordiness of, say, Tolkien: I actually enjoy reading these words. The narrator of the story, though not a character in the story, has a distinct personality, and the tone and cadence of the words reflect that. Sarcasm, irony, hyperbole, and all manner of allusions are used to great effect. There were actually moments when I laughed out loud while reading this.

Now obviously, there’s a great deal of historical context that should be examined as well, but I’m not going to do that here, simply because I want to see if the story is still relevant today. And honestly, even though it was written over a century and a half ago, it is. There’s a universality in the characters, either in their absurdity, or in how endearing we find them. I’ll admit the characters aren’t terribly complex, but I don’t think they’re supposed to be. And I think it’s precisely because they’re so simple that we’re able to relate to them as well as we are, despite the context being different. We all know a Gradgrind or a Sparsit or, God help us, a Bounderby.

But also, the message and theme of the novel is definitely one that is still--and probably will always be--relevant: that of fact vs. fancy. At the beginning of the novel, we are introduced to Gradgrind and his school, where all that should be taught is facts, nothing but facts. Fancy of any kind is not allowed. It seems quite ridiculous, and yet we see this in schools today all the time. Even so-called creative expression has become standardized in many cases.

Harry Chapin, a well-known songwriter from the sixties and seventies, wrote a song about this, which tells the story of a boy who was punished for daring to imagine flowers as being any other color than red and green. He finally submits to regime of the teacher and only draws red and green flowers from then on. That’s precisely what we see in this story. The book is split into three parts called “Sowing,” “Reaping,” and “Garnering.” In the first part, we see Gradgrind sow the seeds of his philosophy into his two oldest children. In the second part, we watch the effects of this philosophy, and at the end and into part three, we see Gradgrind come to terms with these consequences. The ending is, therefore, not entirely a happy one. The only character to really come out with a happy ending is the girl who insisted on believing in fancy over facts.

The book is not entirely without problems, and it is admittedly hard to follow at times. Dickens is one of those authors who feels it necessary to write dialects and speech impediments exactly as they might sound, but while some authors are able to pull this off effectively, Dickens isn’t one of them, and those portions of dialogue are rather difficult to read. And for all that it’s an enjoyable kind of wordiness, it’s still wordy, and there were moments where I got so caught up in the words that I kind of forgot what was going on or where and when the story was currently taking place. But the book is still a good one, with a strong message and a story that is still relevant for these times.

Worth Rating: Worth owning (new)
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