Improving Society Through Individuals Starting in the late seventeen hundreds and continuing into the nineteenth century, England underwent a period of industrialization and urbanization, referred to as the Industrial Revolution. During this time, life became more difficult for a large majority of the citizens and hardships began to pile one on top of another. In the book Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, the lives and relationships of a range of people from this time are illustrated in order to demonstrate the nature of this society. Dickens uses the fictitious characters in Hard Times as examples of the varying degrees of inequality and misfortune, as well as the personifications of different schools of thought during the nineteenth century in England. Dickens uses this novel as an opportunity to expose many injustices in British society with which he seems to disagree. He criticizes the social structure by manipulating the lives of the characters in a way that reveals their flaws as a class while also indirectly relating his opinions on certain aspects of society.
First of all, he uses Mr. Gradgrind’s model school as a way of mocking some elements of enlightened thought. He starts the book by describing Mr. Gradgrind as an “eminently practical father” who uses his own exceptional system of nothing but “Fact, fact, fact” to raise and educate the children of his school (Dickens, 16, 20).
The teacher’s name itself-Mr.
McChoakumchild-is a means to ridicule the strict focus on reason and logic as the solitary basis of thought and development. Initially, Mr. Gradgrind is very proud of the progress made by children such as Bitter, Louisa, and Tom, and he is likewise dissatisfied with Sissy’s performance. However, he is eventually humbled by the fact that his most prominent students essentially destroy him through their own faults.
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He is left to “mistrust [himself]” and the ideals which he so fervently advocated (Dickens, 221).
Another example is his allusion to the upper class being relatively apathetic. Mr. Harthouse exemplifies this assertion. He spends his life moving, never really committing his whole mind or heart to one pursuit. Whenever he gets bored or unhappy, he leaves or “[goes] in” for something else (Dickens, 129).
Mrs. Sparsit is another testimony to this assumption. It is merely for her being “a born lady” that she is treated with the respect with which she is treated (Dickens, 78).
She does practically no work and yet enjoys all of the luxuries that could possibly be bestowed upon her. Bounder by likewise enjoys the respect of the entire town because of his high position. They both fail to recognize, or rather do not care to recognize the struggles and hardships of others.
Dickens portrays his perception of the industrialization through the lives of the working class and much of the scenic descriptions in the book. Stephen Blackpool’s predicament involving his fellow “Hands” and the union, shows the way in which working class people have very little choice about their moral decisions if they should hope to keep their jobs and their friends (Dickens, 70).
The fact that they are called Hands is alone enough to make a valid argument about their unjust treatment. Stephen dies essentially because both the upper and lower classes shun him.
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Without joining Slack bridge and the union, he is unable to work. Dickens offers him as a martyr to the corruption and inequality that are inherent in his society. The smoke that blankets Coketown at all times also represents the grim and dreary lives of the working class. At one point, Mr.
Harthouse asks Mrs. Sparsit if it is “always this black [in Coketown]” when in truth it is “in general much blacker” (Dickens, 124).
This discussion of the smoky conditions serves to augment Dickens’ general feelings about the state of affairs brought on by the industrialization and urbanization of British cities. While the book tends to focus on the pessimistic features of the time, it does have several aspects that depict the positive attributes of individuals and how they can elicit change for the better. Sissy is the primary example, using her good-natured mannerisms and innocent expressiveness to inject emotions and love into lives otherwise consumed with reason and Fact. She epitomizes the balance of logic and feeling that Dickens sees as necessary in a healthy working society, as well as in individuals.
Too much reason leads to the apathy and unhappiness that seems to typify the upper classes whereas too much emotion would not allow for progress. Rachael and Stephen also represent a positive factor as hard working individuals who continue do their jobs because they understand what it is to have a responsibility, while remaining honest and humble throughout adversity and mistreatment. These characters are all able to change something or someone for the better with wholesome and heartfelt emotion, while the self-centered, detached members of the upper class have no way of improving their lives or the lives of others. Unfortunately, this is as close to a solution to the societal problems that Dickens provides. His inference is that if every individual in a society had an epiphany to change and be decent, moral citizens, all the wrongs would fix themselves. Obviously, such an occurrence is unlikely in reality and so we are left to wonder, as Mr.
Gradgrind ironically was, how to remedy a society that is so backward and discriminatory.
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