Hard Times by Charles Dickens – Commentary
Charles Dickens’ Hard Times is set during the industrial revolution of the mid-19th century in Coketown, England. The title refers to the era of great change that brought about hard times to the working class. The setting creates a clear contrast between the owners of properties and the people that work for them. Aside from this, the extract also explores the dualities between humans and machines as well as men and women. Dickens offers a criticism of the modern education system using the example of Mr Gradgrind’s method of teaching, one that seeks knowledge and fact above all else whilst disregarding emotion, creativity and imagination. He suggests that compassion and emotion is what makes us human.
The opening line sets up the grave and solemn mood of the passage. In line 1, Mr Gradgrind “squarely point[s] with his square forefinger” at Sissy Jupe and refers to her as “girl number twenty”, indicating he has little respect for “that girl”. Later in the excerpt he repeatedly refers to Sissy as “girl number twenty” (line 1, 26, 56) despite learning her name. This highlights the social class difference between the two characters. Because Mr Gradgrind is of the upper class, he looks down on her condescendingly and shows no respect. He tells her to “call [her]self Cecilia” because Sissy is a weak and cowardly name and he does not want her to be a weakling. In contrast, Bitzer’s name is an informal term for a mongrel dog. Their names highlight what society perceives them to be, but in reality, Sissy is courageous because of her compassion and Bitzer is a person with a single, uniform mind.
Mr Gradgrind refuses to acknowledge Sissy’s father’s role in the circus, instead referring to him as a “veterinary surgeon, a farrier and horse breaker.” He continually disregards her father’s career in order to make it sound more sophisticated and proper. It is because of his authority that he is able to “[wave] off the objectionable calling with his hand” (line 13). This particular education system is about listening to authority, it is not necessarily about the truth but rather what an authoritative figure decides to be a fact.
Mr Gradgrind requests “Some boy’s definition of a horse” (line 29) when Sissy is unable to provide her own definition. This is a notion to the patriarchal society that they live in, where it is generally believed that men were superior to women. “The boys and girls sat…divided up the centre by a narrow interval,” which is a physical representation of...