“Now, what I want is, Facts.” With these opening words to “Hard Times”, spoken by Thomas Gradgrind, Dickens declaims Gradgrind’s values in life. Gradgrind’s gives his instructions to the class teacher in unequivocal terms, using repetition of the word “Facts” several times to emphasise his narrow vision of the purpose of education and he closes with the words “Stick to Facts, sir!”
Through his subsequent description of the classroom and of Gradgrind’s physical appearance Dickens subtly gives us an idea of his very personality. The description of the room as “a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom” parallels the inflexibility and solidity of both Gradgrind’s personality and his physical appearance. He even outlines his appearance in architectural terms, talking of his “square wall of a forehead” and by repetition of the adjective “square”, as in “square forefinger”, “square coat, square legs, square shoulders”, we are given a vision of unrelenting straightness, monotony and solidity.
All this is achieved in a forthright, good-natured manner (like Gradgrind himself), through the use of irony and an exaggerated, satirical humour, which entices the reader into colluding with the writer in his mockery of Gradgrind. In Chapter II he develops this theme through the use of metaphors such as “ready to weigh any parcel of human nature”, and we understand that Gradgrind is without any imagination or humanitarian feelings and is proud of it, seeing value only in measurable and incontestable “Facts”.
Dickens then presents us with two contrasting young people in the forms of Sissy and Bitzer. Once again he uses both the description of the room (Sissy…… came in for the beginning of a sunbeam of which Bitzer……….caught the end”) and their contrasting physical appearances underline the differences between them. Sissy is given in sunny, colourful terms but Bitzer is described as cold and “unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge”, encouraging the reader to value natural, human emotion over cold and bare facts. The very choice of names, an alliterative diminutive (Sissy) for her instead of the warlike surname of “Blitzer” for the boy, gives an contrasting feel to the way we are expected to view these two characters.
Bitzer is praised for his factual definition of a horse, using no imaginative language, and in this way Dickens shows us that imagination is anathema to everyone we have met so far, except for Sissy. Our sympathy towards her is aroused as she becomes confused, frightened and humiliated by the adults. She alone is described in emotive terms such as “thrown into the greatest alarm”. She alone uses words such as “pretty and pleasant”.
Thus by means of irony, exaggeration, metaphor, and humour we are introduced to these three characters. Dickens’ use of repetition, unusual and carefully chosen names and appropriate adjectives leads us to understand the conflicting ideals and personalities of the characters and exposes the parallel conflict between utilitarianism and humanitarianism which is a constant theme of the book. What impression does Dickens give us of the Gradgrind’s home life? Look at the behaviour of Tom and Louisa. What is our impression of them in Ch. 3 and at the end of Ch. 4?
Dickens carries the cold, inflexible feel of Gradgrind’s idealism into his home life and family and, by repeating the word “model”, conveys Gradgrind’s well-meaning convictions. As before, hard facts abound and pressure is applied to create model children. Dickens uses heavy irony to show how the children are prevented from enjoying normal childish pleasures and behaviour. The house itself is appropriately called “Stone Lodge” and the theme of “plain, bare and monotonous” from Chapter II is continued with expressions such as “a great square house”, “all ruled straight”. Comparisons are made between the house and Grandgrind’s dark appearance and the use of metaphor continues when Dickens talks of “bits of stone and ore” (two hard substances in themselves) in the children’s metallurgical cabinets being “broken from the parent substances”.
Our initial impression of Tom and Louisa is that the hard, factual upbringing they have experienced has not succeeded in totally crushing their natural childish spirit. Dickens chooses to introduce them to us as they surreptitiously dare to grab a glimpse of a circus through a hole in the circus tent – something any normal child might do. He uses this incident to show that despite Gradgrind’s best efforts at raising them to value facts alone, they have retained a natural childish curiosity and enjoyment of life. The circus people are described in jovial, jolly and mock high-flown language, giving a feeling of showmanship, exaggeration, excitement and fun – all things which would be thoroughly disapproved of by Gradgrind and have been denied the children.