Monday, January 23, 2012

Hard Times (For These Times)

Surely there can be no author with a more extensive catalogue of eccentric characters than Charles Dickens? One day, someone with plenty of time and a commensurate amount of motivation, will probably figure out exactly how many (fictional) train carriages these individuals would fill, if they could all be gathered together and made to sit in the carriages. This is pretty unlikely given how noisy, fussy and unaccommodating many of them are. The characters of Hard Times are no exception. As usual, Dickens lines them up and introduces them thoroughly before they have a chance to do very much. His knack for presenting us with a precise summary of each new person as soon as they appear means that we always have a good sense of what we are in for.

Meet Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby of Coketown (and note the suggestive names). Gradgrind, the headmaster of the local school, has lived his life according to his personal philosophy: Facts are the only things you will ever need to get by in life. He has raised his children, particularly the elder two Louisa and Tom, according to this principle. Mr Bounderby, Coketown’s Banker and major manufacturer, will not stop prattling on about his miserable childhood in the gutter and subsequent rise therefrom. Gradgrind’s approach to education and parenting suit Bounderby perfectly; mainly because he has designs on young Louisa.

Louisa — who has been taught never to wonder, fancy or imagine anything at all — when offered Bounderby’s hand in marriage has no words in which to express the reservations of her heart. Hard Times is one answer to the question: why read? Why concern yourself with anything other than what is immediately in front of you, scientifically provable and susceptible to measurement? According to Dickens, it is because the alternative does not bear thinking about, especially in difficult economic times. Naturally, however, you will need to read the book to fully appreciate what that alternative may be.

This is one of his more straightforward novels, much shorter than some of the others, and a very enjoyable one, even if the dialogue is a little overdone in parts. ‘In conthequenth of my being before the public, and going about tho much, you thee, there mutht be a number of dogth acquainted with me, Thquire, that I don’t know!’ It is an excellent novel with which to celebrate the upcoming bicentenary of its author's birth, 7 February 2012.

Life isn't a novel. It's lots of novels, one after the other.