While we all sup sorrow with the poor

December 20, 2007

Hard Times (1854)
Charles Dickens (Duckworth, 2005)
276 p. First reading.

Though I’ve yet to test it by experience, I have a hunch that parenthood rescues one from certain philosophical falsehoods and spiritual perils. It is, I imagine, a great clarifier. For while it is one thing to toy, indulgently, with thoughts that harm the soul, it is quite another to teach them. I may, for instance, be tempted to regard my conscience with suspicion, lured by the promise of whatever is supposed to lie beyond good and evil, but if I bear responsibility for guiding a child down that same path, or not, the temptation vanishes. Teaching teaches the teacher.

That same sense of responsibility must burden those parents who, too late, discover that they tutored their children in a philosophy that dried up and killed their inner lives. Dickens puts his finger directly on that open sore in Hard Times. Mr. Gradgrind has instructed his children to sacrifice everything to Facts, and to resist the alluring attractions of fancy and feeling. He is one of those who pride themselves on being level-headed, clear-sighted, and “eminently practical”. Yet all the while the world, with its delights and seductive dangers, swirls around him and his children. When it finally does break in, they are overcome by its power.

In this novel I was very struck by the focus Dickens brings to the inner lives of his characters, and the sensitivity with which he unfolds them. The story is deeply rooted in the intricacies of personal actions and relationships. Occasionally an event of sudden clarity takes place, like a bank robbery, but even then its consequences are worked out in terms of the fears, desires, and dreams of the people affected. In this way, too, Dickens is reaffirming the value, in all its richness, of the inner life.

As always, the variety of Dickens’ characters is wonderful. Since I tend to forget the characters, permit me here to say a word or two about those central to the story. Mr. Gradgrind is, as I have already said, a father trapped by his own sad simplifications. His son Tom and daughter Louisa are the primary victims of his illiberal education. (A careful reader will notice that there are also several younger Gradgrind children, two bearing the ludicrous, but telling, names of Adam Smith and Malthus.) Mr. Bounderby is Coketown’s factory owner, a pompous blowhard who gets his comeuppance in the end. The villainous James Harthouse enters the story long enough to wreak havoc on Tom and Louisa. And of courthe there ith Mr. Thleary, who runth a thircuth and thpeakth, for thome thuthpithiouthly long thecthionth, in hith own thpethial wayth, the thame being fruthtrating to thee for thententhe after thententhe.

But the characters who really captured my heart were those poor who suffered most:  Cecilia Jupe, who retains her faith and hope in the face of the worst that life brings her; or Racheal, who leads an unassuming life of patience and thoughtfulness; and Stephen Blackpool, an honest man, the best man in the story, who suffers more than anyone. Perhaps more than any other book I know, Hard Times illuminates those paradoxical promises: “Blessed are the poor” and “Blessed are those who weep”, for they shall be comforted.

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