Teresa Morris AS English - "Hard Times" by Dickens VI Form College 3.10.2002
1. Comment on the way in which Dickens presents the characters of Gradgrind, Sissy and Bitzer in Chs. 1 and 2.
"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.
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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.
2. 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.
Dickens shows us that although Louisa and Tom have been repressed and behave dutifully, they still have normal, natural feelings. Louisa is even allowed to express a little of her resentment and rebellion in her reply to her father's remonstrations when caught watching the circus. This is shown again when Dickens describes the incident when Bounderby asks Louisa for a kiss. Even Tom is described as "sulkily" remonstrating with her but it is made clear that Louisa is the stronger character. In these ways Dickens takes us below the factual surface of the incidents and we glimpse the children's true feelings for a moment.
3. How does Dickens want readers to react to his description of Coketown in Ch. 5?
We are introduced to Coketown in the most emotive language. Once again the very name gives the smoky, smelly picture of COKE-town. The adjectives and comparisons he chooses are, like Gradgrind and Bounderby, overbearing and filled with a feeling of all-pervading grimness and practicality. He uses metaphor to connote the fires of hell ("serpents of smoke", "melancholy madness") and the theme of monotony and unrelenting repetition is continued through his description of the motion of machinery and the lay-out of the town. Once again repetition of the word "fact", often ironically, gives the feeling of flatness and unnatural lack of human interest or feeling in the town. This leads the reader to feel a horror of this evil smelling place in which so many poor, working people are not only emotionally repressed, but also physically crushed tightly together in narrow streets.
The opening pages are a social comment on the difference between the abject monotony and poverty of the people working in the mills and the relative comfort of their employers. He uses heavy irony and humour in describing the activities of the people of the town drawing a parallel between their degree of choice and their financial status. While the self-righteous wealthy citizens can indulge themselves in worthy, self-righteous activities such as church going and tea-parties, the listless poor, exhausted by their daily toil, "would get drunk" and took opium. However, living in Coketown, both sets of people are constrained to deny any natural feelings or enjoyment, as life was pragmatic, monotonous and based on "Facts" (with a capital F). Then suddenly, amidst all this pragmatic boredom, he introduces a band of cheerful, caring, visiting travellers in the form of the circus entertainers; people who have not been choked by the Coketown utilitarian ethic. Dickens professes ironic amusement at their simplicity and sentimentality whilst collusively encouraging the reader to join with him in valuing these humanitarian precepts.
4. What have you learned about Mr Bounderby in Chs. 4 and 5?
From his initial appearance Dickens shows us that Mr Bounderby is somewhat like Mr Gradgrind; he first appears (namelessly) at Gradgrind's side in the schoolroom. Later, when the children are discovered peeping through the circus tent, Gradgrind admonishes "What would Mr Bounderby say" several times to emphasise the impression that Bounderby is disapproving, self-righteous and opinionated yet holds a position of social power.
Dickens tells us that he is "a rich man, a banker, merchant, manufacturer and what not" and by this last expression ("and what not") mocks the pompousness of these occupations. He uses irony in "inflated like a balloon" and "Bully of humility" to reduce Bounderby to nothing of any value. The words given to Bounderby are always simultaneously self-deprecating and yet self-congratulatory as he continually reminds us of his humble beginnings, beginnings that Dickens allows him to exaggerate beyond any possibility of belief.
The adjectives applied to Bounderby are even more cold and hard than those used to describe Gradgrind and we are left with an impression of complete heartlessness. Thus, through the devices of irony, exaggeration, metaphor and emotive, derogatory adjectives we understand that Bounderby is a bounder in every sense; dishonest, self-interested pompous, self-absorbed and not to be trusted. Above all he believes, as does Gradgrind, in the sole value of facts and lacks any natural human feelings.