Childhood is an integral theme in both Hard Times and God of Small Things but both authors have tackled the issue in a vastly different way. Arundhati Roy focuses her book very much on the way children relate to the world around them, while Dickens tends to look more at how children are treated by the rest of the world. This small change in perspective gives a vastly different view of children’s lives, which are further enhanced by the writing styles of the two authors.
Roy’s greatest gift is her power of memory, the kind of memory Charles Dickens is famous for and a small number of other writers such as George Eliot and the poet Wordsworth, which can bring alive for the reader what most of us have forgotten but can recall if jogged. What it felt like to be a child, “a stranger and afraid in a world we never made”, yet endowed with as much or more ability to experience the supposedly adult emotions of anxiety, jealousy, grief, despair, as well as what Rahel’s uncle Chacko tells her are “possible in Human Nature. Love. Madness. Hope. Infinite Joy”.
The novel’s lead characters, Rahel and her twin brother, Estha, become fit carriers for whatever the novel is saying about the human condition, because their very fragility, without the adult illusion of control over life’s fluidity, makes it obvious how vulnerable they, like their apparently less vulnerable elders, are to social, political and emotional phenomena that can devour their lives. While Dickens spreads the focus of the story over a larger range of characters than Roy, he still uses the children’s emotions as a strong conveyer of the sentiment or moral of a scene and the story as a whole.
A great example of this abuse of emotions is Louisa’s continual sadness and confusion as she is bought up to act like a woman while still expressing the characteristics and mentality of a child or youth. When questioned on her feelings for Bounderby she replies “It will be getting away from home”. When Bounderby plants an affectionate (although bordering on sexual or at least overly forward) kiss on Louisa’s cheek she responds by rubbing it away, with no care if she was to “rub a hole in [her] face” This is a situation reminiscent of Esthahappen’s encounter with the Orange Drink Lemon Drink man. While the relationship is different the hatred and fear stemming from it in the two concerned characters is very similar. Roy focuses Esthahappen’s fear away from his actual feelings and concentrates on what is around him to show how Estha is affected. He links his fear to the drink he has in his hand “(Free, fizzed fear)” and withdraws the incident into himself, not even sharing it with his sister. Louisa does not have Estha’s fear of a recurrence, possibly Dickens believing the adult orientated world he places his characters in would mature them more than the relative freedom of Estha’s location, so he removes the long term distress to be replaced with a short burst of angry emotion..
Possibly because of her harsher childhood environment, Louisa is portrayed as a mature character in Hard Times all throughout the book, sometimes more so than the adults responsible for her. Her loyalty and protectiveness toward her brother show her as far more of an adult than her father treats her when they are caught watching the circus. And her stepping in to take the blame from her brother (“I bought him father”) shows not only that she is worried of her brother being upset, but also that she is aware of the disciplining she will receive and does not appear to be fearful of that. Dickens does not give Tom the same respect worthy stance.
He presents Tom as a cowardly boy (growing into an equally weak adult) who is happily willing to use his sister to improve his own life “I had better go where I can take advantage of your influence”. In Tom’s case Dickens presents him with a large amount of intelligence and perception, yet he gives him no incentive or natural will to use his skills in a generally beneficial way. He instead spots a door opened by his sister leading to an easy passage to success, this is displayed to full effect as Harthouse confronts Tom about ‘borrowing’ money from his sister.
Estha and Rahel are given a far closer and more mutually beneficial relationship than this. Roy presents them as a pair of children (a larger group as Sophie Mol arrives) pitted against a difficult life of un-understanding adults. Along with the struggle to cope with their surroundings Estha and Rahel are frequently placed in situations by those they love who act to confuse and affect them even more “Careless words … make people love you a little less”. Roy’s simile of the moth moving on Rahel’s heart gives a clear indication how children can pick up on a comment that seems insignificant to the other people concerned. However to Rahel this one line (“Make me love you a little less”) is embedded onto her mind, and frequently brought to the attention of the reader by Roy as she refers to the moth “lifting its leg” inside Rahel.
Dickens does not go into such imaginative imagery, preferring the harsh scientific approach of the adult characters he creates. The stereotypical image held by youngsters of their elders as fun-hating, rule enforcing ogres is perfectly presented in many places in Hard Times with the most obvious example being the children’s own father. These iron figures seem unimaginably distant from the innocence displayed by Cecilia Jupe and the other youngsters, but this is an illusion shattered by the introduction of Bitzer. Bitzer is incredibly streetwise and while Tom Gradgrind Jr. has learned to exploit his sister, Bitzer takes it a step further and uses the adults to get his wishes.
He knows precisely what his seniors are looking for (“Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth…”) and by giving them the answers they look for he gains enough of their trust and respect to cover his lack of scientific intelligence and to gain information he wants from them. He becomes an expert at understanding Mrs Sparsit and soon begins to have control over her by merely placing ideas in her grasp and letting her take the credit for them “you did object to names being used, and they’re always best avoided”. To watch Bitzer converse with Mrs Sparsit is highly amusing as we are directly seeing Dickens ridiculing her through the boy: “He now and then slided into ‘my lady’, instead of ‘ma’am’, as an involuntary acknowledgement of Mrs Sparsit’s dignity”. Dickens uses Bitzer as a fine example that children (or youths, at this stage in the book) have every right to be as sharp and manipulative as the adults are.
Louisa can also be incredibly acute at times, demonstrated as she conversed with Mr Harthouse, leaving Bounderby perplexed by the speed and insightful nature of their conversation. Harthouse’s innocent phrase “because I have no choice of opinions” is quickly torn apart by an astute Louisa who jumps in: “Have you none of your own”. The rapid fire exchange is broken only by Mr Bounderby mentioning the postponement of dinner. This makes Bounderby appear incredibly out of his depth in the room, and his usual loudness was contained while he “was in danger of bursting with silentness”.