Charles Dickens wrote his novel, Hard Times, in 1854 as a protest about the state of contemporary education and industrial working conditions. For many, life had become monotonous and repetitive. More and more workers felt that their labour was benefiting others, rather than themselves, and formed unions to protect themselves against employers. Children were treated as young, incomplete adults, who were “little pitchers”, to be filled with facts in the factory process of education.
Behind this was the philosophy of Utilitarianism, in which “society should strive for the greater good for the greater number” and therefore economic prosperity triumphed over concern for the individual and the education system was focussed on churning out competent workers. Mr Gradgrind’s adherence to this way of life is demonstrated through his model school and relationship with his family.
Gradgrind sees the school as a factory churning out multiples of people who know the facts, and is only interested in the outcome of the pupils, not the individual process. He does not value his children’s upbringing or childhood, only that one day they will grow up into his “ideal” human being. Louisa, as Gradgrind’s daughter, is part of his educational experiment to test his teaching methods. She is affected significantly by his philosophy and used by Dickens to ridicule and undermine it.
Dickens first introduces us to Louisa in Chapter 3, “A Loophole”. In the chapter title alone, Dickens questions Gradgrind’s teaching methods suggesting that there is a mistake beginning to emerge in it. From the beginning of the chapter, Gradgrind’s view of the model school is clear, “He intended every child in it to be a model -” His view on his own children is also clear, “just as the young Gradgrinds were all models…
There were five young Gradgrinds, and they were models every one.” This makes it seem rather ironic when Gradgrind turns up at the circus, which he sees as a “clashing and banging band attached to the horse-riding establishment”, and walks past “either brushing the noisy insects from his thoughts, or consigning them to the House of Correction,” to find his own model children, Louisa and Tom who are watching the Tyrolean flower-act through a hole in the wall. The introduction of Louisa to the chapter confronts Gradgrind straight away. He sees the circus as a place for people with a much lower social context than himself and his family, “to think of these vagabonds,” and evidently thinks his children would never be seen there.
Dickens uses a satirical tone to his ridicule of Gradgrind by saying “Phenomenon almost incredible though distinctly seen, what did he then behold but his own metallurgical Louisa…and his own mathematical Thomas..” when they are obviously not as metallurgical and mathematical as Gradgrind would like to think. Earlier in the chapter Dickens makes a pun, “..Peter Piper, who had never found his way into their nursery, If the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped at more than this, what was it for good gracious goodness sake that the greedy little Gradgrinds grasped at!” Again using a satirical approach, to show that the Gradgrind children had been starved of a normal childhood and not been allowed to let their minds explore fiction. It is not surprising, then, that they have gone to the circus to feed their curiosity and imagination.
Louisa and Thomas are rebelling against their father’s system showing that they are unhappy with their upbringing. The idea of their childhood being controlled is reiterated in chapter 15, “Father and Daughter” where Mr Gradgrind and Louisa are having a discussion concerning her potential marriage to Bounderby. Louisa asks her father, “what do I know of tastes and fancies; of aspirations and affections; of all that part of my nature in which such light things might have been nourished?…The baby preference that even I have heard of as common among children, has never had its innocent resting-place in my breast. You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart.
You trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream…I never had a child’s belief or a child’s fear.” Louisa here is talking about everything she would have loved to have in her childhood, yet couldn’t because of her father’s beliefs. Gradgrind, on the other hand, sees this as the most complimentary praise he could be given, “My dear Louisa…you abundantly repay my care. Kiss me, my dear girl.” and he feels his years of work have paid off, producing his model being. This is again Dickens using irony to criticize Gradgrind’s methods.
It is clear to the reader that Louisa is not happy with her upbringing, however she knows her father will not be able to comprehend her emotions as they do not follow his “nothing but facts” way of life. Louisa then “unconsciously closed her hand, as if on a solid object, and slowly opened it as though she was releasing dust and ash.” This represents all the fantasies and childhood things that she could have had, had she been in an ordinary family, but they have been starved of emotion and burnt out by Mr Gradgrind.