‘Hard Times’ was written in the Victorian period around 1854 when work had became more important. Coketown is meant to represent a typical Victorian town where people were rapidly moving, to work in the mills. However there was no housing for these people and the town is very polluted. Life for the working class was hard; they became a ‘unit’ with no identity. In ‘Hard Times’ they are referred to as ‘the hands’ indicating they have lost their identity in the factory system and are only valued for their ability to work and produce goods using their hands.
They worked long hours, many doing dangerous tasks, for very little money and lived in poor accommodation. The rich Victorians, generally, were in charge of the poor and could control them. The rich people lived in big houses, had access to entertainments like the theatre and could have their children home tutored. In this period there was no state funded education system, however many factory owners set up schools in towns for their workers children. This is the case in ‘Hard Times’.
Charles Dickens was appalled at the conditions for the working class and wrote the novel to show the middle and upper classes just how bad the conditions were. He hoped that after reading ‘Hard Times’ they would sympathise and understand the working class, and improve conditions for them. Dickens has a very negative view on the education system he felt it was useless and of no value to the children and their futures. There were lots of pupils in one classroom with boys and girls separated by a gap in the middle. The teachers were powerful and squeezed any individuality out of them and constantly promoted facts. They were taught in military style and not allowed to have any fun or ‘fancy’. Many of the children were frightened at school. Dickens strongly disagreed with this system and thought the children didn’t learn anything from it.
There are three adults involved in the opening chapters of the novel within the classroom; Mr Gradgrind who is the local factory owner and funds the school, Mr M’Choakumchild, the teacher, and an unnamed gentleman; a government officer. Dickens presents all three characters as hard and ‘square’. Mr Gradgrind becomes a caricature at the start of the novel. “The speaker’s square wall of a forehead the speaker’s mouth which was wide, thin, and hard set.” This gives the reader the impression that he is a strong character, set in his ways and won’t negotiate. The use of ‘square’ indicates he is not a fair, rounded person. By the end of the novel he develops beyond this. Gradgrind likes to calculate things, its what he does best.
“With a rule and a pair of scales …ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature and tell you exactly what it comes to.” Dickens again reiterates Gringrind’s love of facts and how he thinks they are ‘the one thing needful’. It implies he doesn’t have an opinion on ‘human nature’ he can just ‘calculate’ what it’s worth. We become aware that Gradgrind seems to have taken his theories to a ridiculous level and is no longer able to make judgements or use his instinct. He doesn’t recognise his children’s needs or unhappiness.
The government officer is described as a ‘professed pugilist’ this indicates he is a fighter, stubborn and will fight for what he believes. When he questions the children his questions are likened to a punch being thrown at them, giving us the impression that the children are frightened at school. Dickens also uses significant names to manipulate the impression the reader gets of the characters. ‘Gradgrind’ implies hardness and that he is grinding at the mill of knowledge; grinding factual information into children. Mr M’Choakumchild’s name suggests he chokes the children’s imagination, rams facts down their throats until they choke. Dickens creates the characters of the adults to emphasise the poor education system. He presents them as ‘hard’ people who should not be working with children and do not know what is best for them.
The pupils are addressed by number and not name, this shows they are stripped of their identity and personality. Gradgrind believes what children have to offer is not important; they do not need opinions, imagination thoughts and ideas he thinks all they need is facts. “In this life we want nothing but facts.” This clearly shows his attitude and emphasises the point that he will not only feed them facts but he will ‘strip’ them of everything else. A number or calculation may also be easier for Gradgrind to remember and comprehend as he is ‘a man of fact and calculations’. The relationship between the pupil and teacher isn’t personal. This shows they were taught in a military style. Dickens introduces Bitzer and Sissy to show a contrast, and the effects of the education system. Sissy is from the circus and Bitzer has been in the school all his life. Bitzer is the model pupil.