Hard Times is a unified, compact novel. Its themes often overlap as Dickens points an accusing
finger at a specific time and place: England during the time of the Industrial Revolution. The themes are
discussed throughout The Story section as they relate to the plot. They are listed here so that you may be
aware of them as you read.
- THE WISDOM OF THE HEART VS. THE WISDOM OF THE HEAD
Gradgrind represents the wisdom of the head. His philosophy is based on
utilitarianism, which seeks to promote "the greatest happiness for
the greatest number." The philosophy is based on scientific laws that
dictate that nothing else is important but profit, and that profit is achieved
by the pursuit of cold, hard facts. Everything that isn't factual is considered
"fancy," or imagination.
The wisdom of the heart is embodied in Sissy Jupe. Simple, considered uneducable,
Sissy brings goodness and purity to bear on many of the characters, including
Gradgrind. As he sees the products of his philosophy shattered around him,
particularly Louisa and Tom, he begins to wonder if the wisdom of the heart
that others have talked about really exists. Sissy proves to him that it
does, and she salvages a great deal that might have been lost.
Closely related to this theme is man's need for "amusement."
Sleary, the owner of the traveling circus, insists that people can't work
and learn all the time- an idea once odious to Gradgrind.
- EXPLOITATION OF THE WORKING CLASS
We see this theme worked out through the character of Stephen Blackpool,
a factory worker. Stephen's life is "a muddle," in part because
he and the other workers are exploited from all sides. Their employer, Bounderby,
thinks that their lives are easy and that their complaints stem from selfishness
and greed. The utilitarians who run the schools and the government are interested
only in profit. The union organizers are driven by power-hungry self-interest.
At one point Stephen indicates that the workers have bad leaders because
only bad leaders are offered to them. Throughout the novel, the workers
are almost all faceless, nameless individuals. They are called by the reductive
term "hands," because it is their working hands that are important
to the employers- not their souls or brains or spirits.
- THE EFFECTS OF THE INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION
Closely connected with the theme of exploitation, this theme is more all-encompassing.
It reveals the abuses of a profit-hungry society that result in a variety
of social disgraces: poor education of its children; smoke-filled cities
and polluted water; dangerous factory machines; dreadful working conditions;
substandard housing for the workers. This corrupt society is more interested
in productivity and profit than in the health and happiness of its citizens.
These issues are still relevant today in different degrees in different
parts of the world; well over a century has passed since Dickens the reformer
wrote Hard Times, but some of the abuses to which he called attention still
- THE FAILURE OF THE UTILITARIAN EDUCATION
The opening scene in M'Choakumchild's classroom sets the tone for this
theme. Students are taught according to what is factual and are ordered
to avoid anything imaginative. As governor of the school, Gradgrind not
only sets the policy of hard facts but also practices it in the raising
of his own five children. Educators like Gradgrind see children as "empty
vessels" to be filled to the brim with facts and statistics. They never
take into account the child's need for poetry, song, and fiction- those
elements that feed the heart and soul, as well as the mind. The failure
of this system is seen through Louisa and Tom Gradgrind, and the ambitious
- THE ARROGANCE OF THE UPPER CLASSES
Mrs. Sparsit and James Harthouse represent this theme. Mrs. Sparsit clings
fiercely to her heritage and faded glamor. She is haughty to those "beneath"
her and despises the efforts of the workers to organize a union.
Harthouse is revealed as cynical and directionless. He treats his seduction
of Louisa as a diversion, without thinking of the consequences of his actions.
A related minor theme is the worship of the upper classes by those of the
middle class. This is demonstrated in Bounderby's pride over Mrs. Sparsit's
lofty background, in his acquisition of the trappings of wealth (despite
his apparent disdain for them), and in Tom's admiration for Harthouse's
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