Hard Times
Charles Dickens

HARD TIMES by Charles Dickens

In his 1854 novel, "Hard Times," Dickens puts the poverty-ridden factory towns of 19th century England on trial. The excerpt included here begins the novel, using the town's school to recreate the dehumanizing industrial world in microcosm. In the process, we see a scathingly satirical -- and all too accurate -- portrait of the factory-like charity schools common in U.S. and English urban centers in the first half of the 19th century.  Go to the tale

   B a c k g r o u n d

  • Story Setting: Coketown, England (ficticious industrial city)
  • Story Date: 1850s
  • Publication Date: 1854
  • Charles Dickens: 1812-70

  •    T h e    S t o r y
    (The links bookmark the tale.)

  • The beginning of the tale
  • "What I want is, Facts"
  • Thomas Gradgrind, industrialist
  • Sissy Jupe, circusman's daughter
  • The definition of a horse
  • No horses or flowers on wallpaper
  • You mustn't fancy...Fact, fact, fact!
  • Mr. M'Choakumchild, teacher
  • Thomas Gradgrind's children

  •    T h e    T h e m e s
    (The links bookmark theme-related passages in the color-coded version of the tale.)

  • School & Community: 1, 2
  • Students at Work: 1
  • The Schoolmaster: 1

  •    R e l a t e d    S i t e s

  • Text of "Hard Times" (Project Gutenberg)

  • Text of "Hard Times" (Litrix Reading Room)

  • The Dickens Page

  • David Perdue's Charles Dickens Page

  • The Victorian Web: Charles Dickens: An Overview

  • Charles Dickens by Spartacus Educational

  •    I n t r o d u c t i o n    t o    "H a r d    T i m e s"

       Like so many of Dickens' novels, "Hard Times" puts societal problems of the day on trial. In this work, the problems Dickens focuses on are those of the povery-ridden, dehumanizing factory towns that sprung up in England during the Industrial Revolution. In the world depicted in the novel, workers are treated as little more than interchangable parts in the factory's machinery, given just enough wages to keep them alive and just enough rest to make it possible for them to stand in front of their machines the next day.
       The town in "Hard Times" is called Coketown, taking its name from the "Coke," or treated coal, powering the factories and blackening the town's skies. It is modeled on Manchester, England, one of the most notoriously unlivable factory cities of the time. (If you want to read Dickens' description of Coketown in the novel -- a classic example of Dickens' writing skill and a great thumbnail description of these towns -- click here and a new window will open with the passage.)
       Dickens chooses to begin the novel in the classroom, which he depicts as a microcosm of the inhuman world outside. However, this is not simply a literary device in which the author creates the world of the novel in miniature to foreshadow coming events. In Dickens' view, this classroom has been intentionally created as a factory whose express purpose is to manufacture future workers. Education in Coketown is a process by which innocence and imagination are rooted out of the children so they will grow into souless automatons expecting nothing other than the drudgery of industrial life. By depicting the potential evils of mass education in this very cynical light, Dickens adopts a position often espoused by radical theorists who state that the power structure uses society's supposedly benevolent institutions to perpetuate its own power and to subjugate those whom these institutions are supposed to help.
       Dickens is a master at using overstatement to make a point, but the Coketown schoolroom is drawn more from fact than fancy. It is based on a type of schooling referred to either as the Monitorial System or as the Lancasterian System after its originator, a London teacher named Joseph Lancaster. The system was employed both in England and the U.S. in the early and mid 19th century, especially in urban centers and especially with poor children. In a classic Monitorial classroom, 100 or more students are taught by a single teacher. They are divided into a number of smaller groups presided over by older students, or monitors, who are in charge of general instruction and discipline. Dickens chose well when he used this factory-style method of mass education to begin his novel about the depersonalization and dehumanization caused by the excesses of the Industrial Revolution.
       Most of the literature in the "School Tales" collection is from the U.S., but for Dickens, I make an exception for a few reasons. First, Dickens is one of the great 19th century writers, so he can be counted on to give a rich and revealing picture of contemporary schooling. Second, his stance as social critic gives this passage a ferocity absent from even the most negative portrayals presented by other writers, making it unique among the school-based 19th century fiction I have read. He portrays mass education as a sinister force whose aim is to destroy in its students those qualities Dickens most treasures. Even the most negative among other writers who depict an individual teacher's incompetence or cruelty do not question the underlying value of the schooling the way Dickens does. And finally, most 19th century U.S. fiction about schools is placed in non-urban settings with small schools run at the discretion of individual schoolmasters. Dickens gives us a view of what a more systematized urban school might have been like at the time.
       I have included the first two chapters of the novel and a bit of the third, since these are the only parts of the book directly related to the schoolroom.