Dickens felt that the way in which the rationalised education structure, emotionally stunted people, was a component in the unsuccessful relationships between Victorian men and women. Due to Louisa’s repressive education and upbringing, she is unable to see an alternative to marrying Mr Bounderby as she has not been allowed ideas of her own, and would therefore be no hope in ever marrying anyone else, for love. She laments to her father, “What other proposal can have been made to me? Whom have I seen? Where have I been? What are my heart’s experiences?”
Louisa attempts to discuss, with her father, her obvious worries regarding Mr Bounderby’s sexual expectations within the marriage. She sat silently looking out of the window at Coke town, and stated “There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out, father!” “Of course I know that, Louisa. I do not see the application of the remark.” To do him justice he did not, at all. (pg. 132) Her cryptic statement shows Louisa’s inability to vent her anxieties and feelings regarding sex, and her father’s inability to comprehend her plight, leads them to a total communication breakdown. This is a profound illustration of how Dickens feels how sexual repression is one of Victorian societies most concealed and underlying problems.
Her own mother and father have an extremely unequal relationship with respect to power. Mrs Gradgrind is described as a thin and feeble woman both mentally and physically, who whenever she had ideas of her own, they were dashed by her husbands factual philosophy. She was not able to join in the dialogue between Bounderby and her husband while they were discussing her daughter, and merely sat quietly. (Pg. 23)
This shows how difficult it was for men and women to communicate on an equal level and therefore goes some way to explain why Victorian relationships where so unfulfilling for both sexes. Cities had gradually increased to such a size that it became a great concern to the ruling classes. Labour disputes, at this time where becoming a reality due to Marxist theories becoming more and more popular, not least with Dickens himself. During the period between 1853-57, Dickens despaired of the Government’s inability to oversee the Crimean War, it is demonstrated by his description of Parliament as “.the national cinderheap” where Mr Gradgrind and other MP’s. ” throw dust in a great many noisy little fights among themselves” (Slater)
Despite Governments inability’s, there is a lack of enthusiasm for a revolution, and Dickens is frustrated by the lethargy of the working class. G.B. Shaw describes Coketown’s inmates as being” as content as a rat is with its hole”. (Page, ‘Dickens portrait of England’,1912) The mechanistic education system had proved so powerfully successful, that it had filtered down from the educated to the proletariat, and ejected any ‘fancy’ they might have had in gaining a better life. They believed, or wanted to believe that their lives weren’t so miserable. In a letter from Dicken’s to Charles Fechter he states,
“When I did Hard Times I called the scene Coketown. Everybody knew what was meant, but every cotton-spinning town said it was the other cotton-spinning town…” (Page,pg28) The subtle way in which women influence men is demonstrated by Stephen Blackpool’s refusal to join the union, because he promised Rachel he would not make trouble, but he is seen to be ill advised. It is through Stephen Blackpool’s experiences of being ‘sent to Coventry’ by his colleagues and losing his job, that we can see how Dickens tries to influence the reader. He and Marx believe that joining a Union, in order to fight together for their cause, is the only way out of their subordinate position.
In conclusion Hard Times is not Dickens’s most subtle novel. Most of its moral themes are very explicitly articulated through extremely sharp characterisation and the narrator’s frequent interjection of his own opinions and experiences. Dickens was extremely concerned with the miserable lives of the poor and working classes in the England of his day, and Hard Times engages these social problems directly.
What emerges from the book is a very simple contrast between Mr Gradgrind’s philosophy of Fact, which includes pervasive rationalism and the idea that people should only act according to their best interest, and the simple loving honesty of Sissy Jupe, who contradicts Gradgrind’s insistence on Fact by frequently indulging in romantic, imaginative Fancy. The philosophy of fact is shown to be at the heart of the problems of the poor; the smoke stacks, factory machines, and clouds of black smog are all associated with Fact, while Fancy is held up to be the route to charity and love between men and women.
In reality this contrast is oversimplified; clearly a commitment to factual accuracy does not lead directly to selfishness, and a commitment to imagination does not equal a commitment to social equality. However, these contrasting ideas serve as a kind of shorthand for Dickens to enlighten his readers to the states of mind that enable certain kinds of action. Cold rationalism divorced from sentiment and feeling can lead to insensitivity from human suffering, and imagination can enhance ones sense of sympathy
Dexter, W (ed) The Letters of Charles Dickens Bloomsbury None such (1938) Page.N,(ed) Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Great Expectations and Our Mutual Friend: a selection of critical essays. MacMillan Press Ltd (1979) Schlicke P ed Charles Dickens- Hard Times