Hard Times is a novel about Victorian society, in particular the divisions in the newly formed industrial society between the upper and lower classes. Dickens’ message through the book is that while the ruling classes, characters like Gradgrind and Bounderby, have the money and power, they lack in themselves basic human components – love, compassion, etc. Those who have far harder and more monotonous lives, such as Rachel and Stephen, are in effect far better people, prevented by those above them from making anything better of their lives.
Dickens is very clearly on the side of the workers, and throughout Hard Times he develops those characters he sympathises with – Sissy, Rachael, Stephen – into very real personalities, while characters such as Gradgrind and Bounderby are purposefully presented superficially and in a very bad light. This is mainly achieved by his use of satire, and is used on Bounderby more that any other character. Bounderby is first introduced to us as ‘Mr Gradgrind’s bosom friend, as a man perfectly devoid of sentiment can approach that spiritual relationship towards another man perfectly devoid of sentiment ‘
Immediately Bounderby’s positional fate in the novel has been sealed – Dickens’ first scathing remark puts his view of Bounderby across extremely clearly, and his criticism continues for a page before Bounderby first speaks. Even his name seeks to highlight his personality – ‘bounder’, meaning a cheat and deceiver who seeks advancement at the expense of others. Thus, Dickens ensures that the reader has as much ammunition and reason for pre-judging Bounderby as possible, even before he has spoken.
Bounderby is a ‘self-made man’, who has seemingly reached his position of ‘banker, merchant, manufacture, and what not’ entirely through his own struggles and hard work, and he advertises this fact loudly whenever he can: ‘”… you may be astonished to hear it but my mother ran away from me… How I fought through it I don’t know, I was determined, I suppose…here I am, Mrs. Gradgrind, anyhow, and nobody to thank for being here but myself.”‘ He describes his career in his own words as being one of hardship and struggle, and one that culminates in the position that he is at today purely through his own perseverance:
‘”Vagabond, errand-boy, vagabond, labourer, porter, clerk, chief manager, small partner, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown… I pulled through it, though nobody threw me out a rope.”‘ He is an eminently hypocritical character, preoccupied with arrogance and being a publicist for his own achievement. As Bitzer states, “the whole social system is a question of self-interest”, and no-one is more interested in the ‘self’ than Josiah Bounderby.
His hypocrisy is shown in many ways. He avidly upholds Gradgrind’s philosophy that one must always rely on fact, and yet is continuously lying about his own background, to the extent of making himself part of a myth. His view that the Hands’ only ambition is to “eat turtle soup with a gold spoon” shows how little he really knows of any kind of hardship, and it is clear that he himself lusts after that sort of life, to the extent of forcing his own mother into exile in order to prevent her from ruining his myth. And he is hypocritical about all those who presume to know hardship better than he does, even though he himself has never known it, as shown in a conversation with Mrs Sparsit:
“A hard bed the pavement of its arcade used to make, I assure you. People like you, ma’am, accustomed from infancy to lie on Down feathers, have no idea how hard a paving-stone is, without trying it.” His story of a bolter mother, a drunken and abusive Grandmother, and life on the streets is overturned upon the arrival of his mother, alive and loving, who quickly and firmly dispels what she presumes to be mistaken beliefs on Gradgrind’s part, and shows that he is not as self-made as he purports himself to be: “I deserted Josiah! Now, Lord forgive you, sir, for you wicked imaginations… Josiah in the gutter! No such a thing, sir. Never!…a steady lad he was, and a kind master he had to lend him a hand.” Bounderby’s reluctance to offer any explanation only helps to reinforce our view of him as a liar and hypocrite: “Those who expect any explanation whatever upon that branch of the subject, will be disappointed.”