Essay // Dramatisation Through Characterisation | Charles Dickens’ “Hard Times” (1854)

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times: “Have a heart that never hardens and a temper that never tires, and a touch that never hurts.”

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Hard Times is Charles Dickens’s tenth novel and follows his tradition as a social critic. Published in 1854, the novel is set in the fictitious town of Coketown during the Victorian industrial revolution. The story revolves around the constant struggle between fact and fancy, while Dickens treats us with characters that are comically characterized in multiple descriptive aspects in a – sometimes satirical – criticism of the social and economic pressure of his time. The story shows the impact of rigid aspects of life (upbringing, choices, circumstances and conditioning) on the characters that Dickens introduces in very dramatic situations – with images and dialogues in perfect tandem to deliver the near magical (surreal) effect he is known for treating his readers to. We will explore and analyse some of the key moments where Dickens uses characterisation before and after the climax in the dramatisation of his story and theme. The characters of Louisa, Gradgrind and Stephen Blackpool will be focussed on while particular attention will also be given to the rebellion against the utilitarian upbringing of a strict father, the blind preaching of fact, and the sad fate of a hard-working man struggling with a heavy drinking wife along with other tribulations of life.

Louisa is introduced to us in book one, “Sowing”, in Chapter 3, where she is caught peeping through the hole of a deal board by her father, Gradgrind. However, before the scene, we are introduced to Gradgrind and through Dicken’s physical portrayal of his character’s appearance, opinions and personality, we are dampened over the expected reaction of the strict father – especially over anything fancy – and in turn are more focussed on the reaction of the children. Louisa who will be focussed upon, is expected to have been fairly restrained throughout her upbringing; as before she is caught, Dickens gives an insight into the young Gradgrinds: “No little Gradgrind had ever seen a face in the moon; it was up in the moon before it could speak distinctly. No little Gradgrind had ever learnt the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle little star; how I wonder what you are! No little Gradgrind had ever known wonder on the subject, each little Gradgrind having at five years old dissected the Great Bear like a Professor Owen, and driven Charles’s Wain like a locomotive engine-driver”. (Dickens, 1995 p9)

While constantly following the theme of fact vs fancy, Charles Dickens uses a repetitive pattern with the “No little Gradgrind” adding a satiric sense which in turn adds to the feeling of mockery towards Gradgrind’s upbringing and his blind focus on facts. However, it also unveils early in the story, how the rigid conditioning of the hard man of facts was insufficient to completely smother Louisa’s inner sadness at not being able to enjoy the “fancy” side of life. Louisa described as “struggling through the dissatisfaction on her face, there was a light with nothing to rest upon, a file with nothing to burn, a starved imagination…” (Dickens, 1995 p11) comes as fairly expected in Dickens’ literature, while also giving us an insight in the children’s feelings; and judging from the outcome further in the story (where she nearly leaves Bounderby for James Harthouse), it tends to lead to the conclusion that the children have had to restrain so much (too much). Louisa’s short reply “Wanted to see what it was like” (Dickens, 1995 p11) gives us a hint about an air of rebelliousness about her character, a child eager to explore her emotions.

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Another character, Thomas Gradgrind, whose role is pivotal to the plot; is also subjected to Dickens mockery. “’Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts, Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’” (Dickens, 1995 p3) Once again, the repetition and focus on “fact” through direct speech gives us a clear description of Gradgrind’s character; however, as the story opens with those lines, we are also exposed to further characterisation which comes in the form of very caricaturesque physical descriptions of the character: “The speaker’s square forefinger emphasised his observations by under scoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve. /…the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall.” (Dickens, 1995 p3) Both, the speech and the near surreal and comical physical description given by Dickens add to the dramatic effect accompanying Gradgrind as the story progresses. We are bound to tag these characteristics to his character from start to finish. Furthermore, the twist near the end is also dramatic, if not even slightly ironic, when the hard man of facts, Gradgrind is treated to his own medicine by Bitzer, who was brought up on facts and taught to operate according to self-interest.

In Chapter 8 on the 3rd book, “Garnering”, we see an extreme shift in Gradgrind’s behaviour when his son, Tom, is found out for robbing Bounderby’s bank; and is also being prevented to leave the country by a product of Gradgrind’s very own school of thought: Bitzer. Unlikely to his character, Gradgrind’s faith in his own methods failed when his own flesh and blood’s safety and future was at stake. “’Bitzer,’ said Grandgrind, broken down, and miserably submissive to him, ‘have you a heart?’ ‘The circulation, sir’, returned Bitzer, smiling at the oddity of the question, ‘couldn’t be carried on without one. No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood, can doubt that I have a heart.’ ‘Is it accessible,’ cried Mr Gradgrind, ‘to any compassionate influence?’ (Dickens, 1995 p220)

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At this point, we are treated to further characterisation by Dickens, as Gradgrind’s deepest feelings are unveiled, and from the strong hard man of facts we had so far been accustomed to, to the man begging for mercy, Dickens set the tone for an unexpected turn of events in both the storyline and the change of “heart”. Furthermore, Bitzer’s response to Gradgrind is fairly satirical to us – if not darkly comedic – as his response is purely clinical and he answers in exactly the same way he answered Gradgrind at the very beginning of the story when he was asked to describe a horse: “’Girl number twenty unable to define a horse! /… ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.’” (Dickens, 1995 p5) When Dickens creates the situation, Gradgrind’s dictatorial authority is showcased; his near religious bewilderment with facts is supported by Dickens’s comical characterisation, when the chapter is started with “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. /… with a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. /…You might hope to get some other nonsensical belief into the head of George Gradgrind, or Augustus… /…but not into the head of Thomas Gradgrind – no, sir!” (Dickens, 1995 p4). While we also find out the speech is usually delivered as an introduction to the public and friends. This unveils the utilitarian nature of Gradgrind and the type of model he sets for the children at his school; but it also points to the strict emotional suppression the latter lives by. The author here seems to have had the story planned, as such depth into the character of Gradgrind sets a strong image in the reader’s mind, and later (as mentioned earlier), the same Gradgrind – a man of facts – imploring the same Bitzer he (back in Chapter 2) who said “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive…” (Dickens, 1995 p5) to the question Sissy Jupe failed to answer. Gradgrind by his actions made Bitzer look like a hero, the same Bitzer who would coldly choose to jail the former’s son; while humiliating Sissy Jupe, the one who would provide an escape route for Tom.

Dickens in his own style of narrative elicits a change of feeling and opinion towards the characters as the story progresses. The dramatic effect at the end is the unexpected turn of events when Gradgrind chooses the way of “fancy”, a line of thought he rigidly objected against throughout much of his life. We are left to spectate the soft side of a man who is initially portrayed as a strict utilitarian who disregards any kind of emotion, but only acts on the rational and the calculated. The way he reacts to Bitzer when the latter refuses to give in to emotions is near comical but elicits pity from us. We see the constant theme of fact vs fancy reoccurring, but this time with the sides reversed when a man’s own flesh and blood is at the centre of all gloomy proceedings.

The wedding of Louisa to Bounderby is also a union devoid of feelings, but based on rationality and status. Dickens throughout the book points to problems of society but never claims the solution to be at the other end.

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Stephen Blackpool, a man who had the choice to freely choose his partner is introduced in Chapter 10 of Book 1. Blackpool is introduced right after the author asserts his opinion about the hard working people of England. Once again, the tone and mood is set by the description of Coketown as an “ugly citadel” as we are placed in the set to feel the hardship Stephen Blackpool goes through as compared to the more affluent characters such as Bounderby and Gradgrind. The description of the “hands”, as the working class people of the times, is saddening with descriptions such as “lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs” (Dickens, 1995 p 50). This gives the feeling of Blackpool being used by the upper tier of society, and to soften our feelings for the character, Dickens goes on to explain how he looked older than his age, has had a hard life working in the factories and later we find out that he is subjected to the irrational behaviour of his alcoholic wife; a fruitless marriage that deteriorated. The combined misery of Blackpool sets an example of a good man totally mistreated by fate. The fact of not being able to be with Rachael (due to the marital limitations of the times), and dying horribly in the end. It seems like the imagery of the lower parts of town consuming the honest man that was Stephen Blackpool, as Dickens described the town as being “a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.” (Dickens, 1995 p18) The negative characterisation of the industrialised city is also a clear indicator of one of the main subjects of Dickens’s disapproval.

The styles of characterisation in the building up of dramatic events is present throughout the novel, however Dickens keeps the debate of Fact vs Fancy as the main guiding thought. The characters are all presented as having their own dilemma to deal with no matter what their social rank and status, however, they are all placed meticulously and depicted precisely in Dickens’s style; which at times defies reality and pushes the audience towards the theatrical and/or the surreal; this works in synchronization with the characters actions and reactions, creating a well-balanced and well-paced plot where the themes of human deficiency – in actions mostly – is successfully portrayed along with interesting points such as fact vs fancy which remains unsolved, but leaves the audience in reflection – free to judge and relate to the characters flexibly and subjectively. Furthermore, the death of some of the “less appealing” characters along with some of the warmer ones, leads to a stale but thoughtful ending; with a near infinite number of morals over the “human” experience to ponder upon.

Bibliography

Main Source (Books/Textbooks):

Dickens. C (1995) Hard Times. Wordsworth Editions Limited, Hertfordshire (Click HERE to purchase from Amazon)

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22.04.2014 | Danny J. D’Purb | DPURB.com

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