‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!’
Summary: Coketown is an industrial town, large smokestacks generously bequeathing their smoke and ash everywhere, all the buildings choking themselves with their interchangeable industrial sameness, the whole of its citizenry bent toward work or making others work, its eighteen churches that are none of them churches of the workmen but always busybodily acting 'for' the workmen, to make them more upstanding citizens, which is to say, more wholly suited to bending their backs to labor for others. Mr. Gradgrind is a school superintendent in Coketown, and few fit the town better than he, because he absolutely insists that in his schools nothing will be taught but facts and figures, and seeks to extirpate any trace of that supremely unfactual faculty, the fancy. He raises his children, Tom and Louisa and Adam Smith and Malthus and Jane (only the first two will play a significant role in the story), on the same principles. He has a close friend, Mr. Bounderby, one of the richest businessmen in the city, who is a "Bully of humility", constantly beating people down by telling them (in any and every possible circumstance) how he has worked his way from rags to riches. Mr. Bounderby will eventually propose to Louisa, and, lacking much background in anything but facts and figures, Louisa will marry him.
Coketown is contrasted with the circus, a place that is, of course, concerned very little with facts and figures and almost wholly with fancy, and which, for all its many oddities, sees its own people not as statistics but as family. Mr. Gradgrind decides that Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a circus performer, is unsuitable to the school, and visits the circus to tell her father, but discovers that her father has abandoned her in the hope that she will have a better life than he could give her. So Mr. Gradgrind offers Sissy a choice to continue her education if she will work for Mrs. Gradgrind and never visit the circus again. She accepts.
As a man sows, so shall he reap. Book I is called "Sowing" and Mr. Gradgrind has sown in a twofold way: first, he has sown by raising his children to be "model children" only concerned with facts and figures, and second, he has, despite himself, done one good deed, to the limited extent he knows how, in deciding to look after Sissy. Both shall bear fruit.
In Book II, "Reaping", Tom Gradgrind has become an employee at Mr. Bounderby's Bank. He has become cynical and surly, given to gambling and other wasteful activities. Louisa is weighed down by a marriage that offers her nothing. A well-dressed man, James Harthouse, comes into their lives. Mr. Harthouse is the perpetually bored man of the world, immaculate in his fashion, listless in his commitments, utterly amoral. Louisa's pretty face, however, breaks through his boredom, and he sets about seducing her by exploiting her one weakness, her affection for her brother, cultivating a friendship with Tom toward that end.
Stephen Blackpool, a "Hand" at one of the factories in town owned by Mr. Bounderby, finds himself in trouble when, to fulfill a promise to his friend Rachael, he refuses to join a union; as a result he is shunned by his fellow laborers. Mr. Bounderby, hearing of this, summons him to discuss matters, but when Stephen doggedly defends his fellow workers, Mr. Bounderby is infuriated and fires him. Shortly after this, the Bank is robbed, and as Stephen was seen in the vicinity of the Bank and then left town shortly after, he is the primary suspect.
Mr. Harthouse's seduction makes headway, and he professes love for her, arranging for them to run away together. Louisa by this point has begun to believe that her education had woefully failed to prepare her for the world and people like Mr. Harthouse; instead of going with Mr. Harthouse, she runs to her father, who is shaken by her story.
Book III is entitled, "Garnering", which literally means 'gathering into a granary', and is used in that sense here. Sissy tells Mr. Harthouse to leave and never come back, because Louisa will never run away with him, and she goes with Rachael to try to find where Stephen went; both are convinced that he is innocent, but his having vanished is a major part of the suspicion against him, and they can only defend him by discovering his own account. They do find Stephen, who has fallen into a chasm in old industrial ruins, called by the locals the "Old Hell Shaft". It becomes clear that the real culprit is Tom, who has also vanished. But Sissy knows where he is, and with the help of the circus she will help him escape. Louisa will live out the rest of her days encouraging fancy and imagination everywhere she can.
Hard Times is famously compressed, and given Dickens's standard way of making his characters and places symbolic of broader conditions and the fact that it occurs in an imaginary city, this gives the story very much the air and feel of an allegory. I suspect, in fact, that it is this that makes it one of the least popular Dickens novels; we have not lived in times with much of a taste for anything that suggests allegory. Perhaps people convince themselves that the 'facts and figures' of realism and Coketown-grittiness are more real than the 'fancy' of symbolism and allegory. But for all that Dickens can give the realistic, this is not a prejudice he shares. Perhaps, too, the compression works against some of Dickens's usual strengths as a novelist. Stephen Blackpool is an engaging character, but I am fairly sure that Dickens intended him to be much more engaging than he is, for instance. But I enjoyed the novel immensely. Dickens has always been an author whose technical ability I can admire much more than I can enjoy his storytelling, but that was not the case here.
‘So you would carpet your room—or your husband’s room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband—with representations of flowers, would you?’ said the gentleman. ‘Why would you?’
‘If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers,’ returned the girl.
‘And is that why you would put tables and chairs upon them, and have people walking over them with heavy boots?’
‘It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither, if you please, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy—’
‘Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,’ cried the gentleman, quite elated by coming so happily to his point. ‘That’s it! You are never to fancy.’
‘You are not, Cecilia Jupe,’ Thomas Gradgrind solemnly repeated, ‘to do anything of that kind.’
‘Fact, fact, fact!’ said the gentleman. And ‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind.
‘You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.’
Recommendation: Highly Recommended.