Wednesday, 12 October 2016

"Hard Times" for Louisa in Dickens' Short Masterpiece by Janet Cameron

What Price Individual Rights? "Hard Times" opposes the Utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham.
Copyright Janet Cameron

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was incensed by the new moral philosophical movement of Utilitarianism.  The movement's founding father, reformer, Jeremy Bentham, a Philosophical Radical, believed that human beings behave in a certain way in order to maximise pleasure and minimise pain, therefore society's responsibility was to promote "the greatest happiness in the greatest number of people."
While Charles Dickens agreed with many of Bentham's beliefs, for example, with regard to social reform, minimum wages and prison conditions, he objected to the general ethic of the movement, which he believed ignored the importance of individual rights. The central protagonist in his novel, Hard Times, set in the fictional town of Coketown, is the headmaster Thomas Gradgrind, bent on treating his small charges as "little pitchers" which he could fill with facts. Gradgrind's daughter, Louisa, was trained to repress the bright sparks of creativity within her and spent much of her time gazing into the fire, an activity symbolic of her inner turmoil and her desperate awareness of time passing.
Fact, not Fancy
Louisa's upbringing was based on fact, not fancy. Indoctrinated from early childhood to subdue any "bright sparks" and to see life as a set of calculations and statistics by her father, she was in a state of utter hopelessness. As she gazed into the fire, the bright red sparks represented her fierce but repressed longings; while the white ashes revealed them consumed by her father's Utilitarian principles, and by time itself. She thought of being grown up, and of the brevity of life, and likened the unchanging fires of Coketown to "Old Time... secret and noiseless."  The turmoil in her enquiring mind was evoked in the episode where Gradgrind caught his children peeping at the circus. Louisa responded to his admonitions with an air of "jaded sullenness" described by Dickens as "a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn."
The Deadly, Statistical Clock Beating Time
Gradgrind presented Louisa with the awful Bounderby's marriage proposal, by appointment, in his Observatory: "...a stern room with a deadly, statistical clock in it, which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid." Again, the sense of time is prevalent as Dickens makes use of short, stark phrases to evoke the atmosphere between the father and daughter. "Silence beween them. The deadly statistical clock very hollow. The distant smoke very black and heavy." This black, heavy smoke is a metaphor for the deep depression within Louisa at the inevitability of her fate.
Louisa responded to her father's facts and statistics, meant to provoke her agreement, by asking deep and important questions in a matter-of-fact manner, as she had been trained to do. She appealed to him by referring to the Coketown chimneys. "There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet, when the night comes, fire bursts out father!" This fire was her own pent-up longing to erupt.
Imprisoned Forces
Finally, she concluded: "What does it matter. I have never had a child's heart."  Gradgrind failed to see the irony in her words, only the facts, and Louisa was doomed to an emotional breakdown. As the ordeal of her life reached its culmination, and the bright sparks of her firegazing turned to ashes to "smoulder within her like an unwholesome fire" her stifled imagination turned inwards upon her, making her angry and bitter. "Where are the sentiments of my heart? ... its ashes alone would save me from the void in which my whole life sinks."
"All closely imprisoned forces rend and destroy," says Dickens. This was the basis of Louisa's conflict, explaining her habit of staring at the living force of the fire and its whitening, dying embers. 
  • Dickens, Charles, Hard Times, First published in Household Words,1854.
  • King, Steve, "Bentham, Dickens, Quadrupeds," Today in Literature,Accessed 31 December 2012.
  • Harwood, Jeremy, "Jeremy Bentham," Philosophy - 100 Great Thinkers, Quercus, 2010.

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