Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Hard Times, by Charles Dickens

Looking about at the commentary on this book, most of it discusses not the novel itself, but rather the rightness or wrongness of Dickens' political premise in writing it. This is understandable, I suppose - the book is, without a doubt, meant to be a political one. The novel discusses the interweaving stories of several industrial titans and a poor worker and his friends, in a fictional industrial English city, called Coketown. The book is meant to be a damning indictment of the Utilitarianism of the industrial magnates, trying to figure up all life in figures and statistics, down to how children should be raised, or the acceptable levels of injury and death in their factories. Having just finished Building Jerusalem, which discusses the idea of the industrial English city at some length, I'm sure I could bore you with my expostulations on socialism, utilitarianism, and all the other isms that are in this book. But I won't.

Instead, let me tell you about the story in this book. It was, in classic Dickens style, very engrossing. The characters are real-and-yet-false in that Dickens way, where the people aren't like people, but they're like the parts of people that you want to learn about, puffed up into extraordinary size. The characters in this book could have been played, I would simply say, by the same repertory troupe that is performing every other Charles Dickens novel. But, the novel is different in its way. In away, this difference is bad. There are some scenes with dialogue that is so obviously meant to tell the reader what Dickens thinks of the book, that it becomes a bit embarrasing. There is some obvious middle-class bias. But, not all the differences are bad - or at least, they were lovely, some of them. In a way I've not read in other books, Dickens sounded frustrated, and that was a wonderful revelation. Dickens (and I say this as someone who really does like Dickens) was, I think, rather fond of the idea that, as an author, one can be the God of a little self-created world. There is a feeling of apartness and benevolent omniscience in the (very distinct) voice of his narration in all his books. Dickens certainly tells you what he feels, but he speaks in a sort of grandfatherly way, not so much trying to convince the reader as to elucidate what he's quite sure they must already agree with him about. This book was different. It had it's moments of that. But it had this strange, fading frustration, that's hard to put a finger on, a feeling that Dickens WANTS this little world to be different, but just can't make it that way, a feeling that Dickens is writing a book that will not let him find a father for an orphan and a happy ending for everyone. For once, Dickens, who is NOT shy about manufacturing the most unbelievable circumstances up to save his characters, must let some of the characters fail.


He loves marriage, but must be content that the female leads leaving her marriage is a good thing, all in all, and that she must content herself with caring for Cissy's children. He hates Bitzer's soul-less calculations, but must admit that the boy will find a pleasant situation for himself at the end. He can humiliate Bounderby, but he cannot destroy him, because rats like Bounderby always find a way to survive. And so on.


So, all in all, I enjoyed this book. I didn't always agree with it, and if I'd read it first, I wouldn't think it was the best book, but it adds a great deal to my affection for the other Dickens books I've read.


Rebecca Reid said...

I've only read a few Dickens' books -- Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities mainly. This one is on the list of course, but I've heard it's called "Hard Times" because one has a hard time reading it (from someone in the What the Dickens! Library Thing group, no less). How do you think it compare to the other Dickens you've read in terms of readability?

Unknown said...

Well, in technical terms, the language is no more or less difficult than any of Dickens other books. There's a few Yorkie accent characters, who speak in dialect, which can be somewhat more challenging, but it's not too terrible.
In keep-your-interest terms, the story is much more allegorical at times than his other books, so that could be a little challenging, I suppose. Additionally, the city is fictional, so the beginning of the book is a little slower, as Dickens educates you on the particulars of Coketown. Once you get through half of book one, though, it's classic Dickens narrative. Bad, if you don't like Dickens, good if you do. YMMV, of course.

L said...

I like what you say about Dickens and his narration in his books. He often is a character in his own novels - meaning his voice comes in loud and clear most of the time. His cry against the middle class is a common theme. I just finished watching Little Dorrit and The Old Curiousity Shop, both about debt and how "the man" takes advantage of the little people.

This one has been on my shelf for awhile. It's not very long, I need to read it. Thanks for the review!

Amanda said...

I don't think this'll be my next Dickens. I have to see if I can get through Bleak House and Great Expectations first...I'm still not convinced I can read these.

Unknown said...

Lula: Yes, I love the Dickens narrator character, usually, it's such a distinct voice. I've always thought it'd be fun to write a sequel to a Dickens novel, and try to write it in Dickens voice - you know, like what happens to Pip after the end of Great Expectations or something.

Amanda: Yeah, don't start with Hard Times. I'd read Great Expectations first, or ToTC. ToTC has French people in it, you know... ;)

Amanda said...

I can just imagine how Dickens treats french people...

Ceri said...

I couldn't get through 'Bleak House' but so many people I know rave about this and his others. Have you read many of Dickens? Can you recommend one to (re-)start out with?

Unknown said...

If you like history: Tale of Two Cities.
If you like happy endings: Oliver Twist (well, not COMPLETELY happy)
If you like books that don't resolve cleanly: Great Expectations.

But, they are all long, I'm afraid. The Christmas Carol is fun, btu not much like the rest of Dickens.