Great Books: Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

Charles Dickens’ only dystopia has been rather unheralded, but it is a tale for our fossil-fuel powered age.
hard times
An illustration of the Gin Palace in Charles' Dickens 'Hard Times'. Credit: Old Books Images / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Published in 1854, Hard Times stands as Charles Dickens’ critique of coal-powered industrial civilisation. As Dickens’ one dystopian work, his tenth novel is not his most enticing. There is no escape here into the abundant fertility of his imagination. But as the ecological and psychological burdens of the world fossil-fuel energy created mount, Hard Times stands as a prophetic warning of this civilisation’s mortality.

Dickens realises his purposes in Hard Times through the schematic creation of a place called Coketown in northern England, where everything that exists is permeated by coal and the steam engines the black rock powers. In Coketown, ‘nature [i]s strongly bricked out, as killing airs and gases [a]re bricked in’. It is not possible in this world to breathe and live as a divinely created human being. When Stephen Blackpool, a power-loom weaver and a ‘man of perfect integrity’, walks beyond Coketown for the first time, it is as if, ‘like a boy’, he is beginning life again. On his journey back to Coketown to clear his name, Stephen falls to his death in a disused pit called the ‘Old Hell Shaft’.  

Inside Coketown, the fundamental forces of creation are annihilated. The sun is ‘less kind to Coketown than hard frost’ and ‘rarely look[s] into any of its closer regions without engendering more death than life’. Although bells ring unfailingly to mark the progress of the daily whir of the steam engines, time stagnates since ‘every day [i]s the same as yesterday and tomorrow and every year the counterpart of the last and the next’. Thomas Gradgrind, the MP for Coketown who runs the local school, has a ‘deadly statistical clock’, which ‘knocks every second on the head as it was born’ and ‘buries it’. The clock ticks in a room that Dickens likens to an’ astronomical observatory … without any windows’. By contrast, in the fields beyond Coketown, ‘the great wheel of earth seem[s] to revolve without the shocks and noises of another time’.  

While each individual human being is marked for Dickens by ‘an unfathomable mystery’, the factory labourers have become a mutilated species of ‘Hands’, subject to the ambition of those who would prefer it if ‘Providence had seen fit to make them … like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs’. Since the realm of the ‘immaterial’ has been vanquished by the ‘triumph of fact’, the Hands ‘gaz[e] at all the church and chapel going, as at a thing with which they had no manner of concern’. The language of Christianity is fit only for Dickens’ satire: what can’t be ‘show[n] to be purchasable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not and never should be, world without end, Amen.’

Those who can calculate the horsepower of this new energy source and know ‘to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do’ damage even those who do not have to work those machines. ‘Impassive, proud, and cold’, the young Louisa Gradgrind treats life ‘as the state of conscious death’ because as a child she was not encouraged to see the immaterial in the literal and thus ‘associate a cow in the field’ with the ‘cow who swallowed Tom Thumb’. Burdened by her consciousness of the damage inflicted upon her heart and soul in the name of this coal-fuelled civilisation, Louisa ‘is so much given to watch the bright ashes at twilight as they fell into the grate, and became extinct’. She knows that the ‘garden that should have bloomed once’ within her ‘as the spring and summer of [her] belief’ would one day have turned to ashes too. But the garden’s metaphorical ashes, unlike the literal ashes of the coal, ‘would save [her] from the void in which [her] whole life sinks’.

Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of the coal burnt in Coketown must deny the steam and ashes that make their privileges possible. The factory waste-yards are ‘shrouded in a veil of mist and rain’. On marriage, the local mill owner, Josiah Bounderby, buys a large house that is 15 miles away from his factory. While in Coketown the shadows of the coal-fuelled machines on the wall substitute for the ‘shadows of rustling woods’, the ‘rustic landscape’ where Bounderby chooses to live is ‘snowy with hawthorn in the spring of the year, and tremulous with leaves and their shadows all the summer time’. As the ‘crashing, smashing, tearing’ machines of Coketown bring the ‘comforts’ and ‘elegancies of life’ that find ‘their way all over the world’, the ‘fine lady’ who consumes them ‘could scarcely bear to hear the place mentioned’.

Yet if industrial civilisation is a destructive juggernaut in Hard Times, Dickens has a striking faith that the world coal is degrading remains enchanted. In his own realm of the immaterial, his deadly creation does not defeat his imagination. Whatever the hard reality of the facts of coal-powered steam engines, Dickens sees in Coketown a place where ‘the lights in the great factories’ look like ‘fairy palaces’ and the pistons of the steam engines move ‘like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness’.

 Although Coketown may have turned London into ‘the national cinder-heap’, the England that existed before the Industrial Revolution also remains. Symbolically, the most important character in Hard Times is the proprietor of a traveling circus, Mr Sleary. ‘Sleary’s Horse-Riding’ circus is set up on land that is ‘neither town nor country’. Unlike the horsepower of coal, the horses’ horsepower, which coal mining utilised long into the twentieth century, is associated with vitality throughout the novel. In the continuum of space and time around the circus, material energy and the realm of the transcendent touch. ‘The wooden pavilion’ that hosts the circus is a ‘temple’, and Gradgrind’s children ‘peep in at the hidden glories of the place’. As the master of the horses, Sleary belongs to both the present and the past: Dickens first describes him as a ‘stout modern statute with a money box at its elbow, in an ecclesiastical niche of early Gothic architecture’. His circus troupe stay at the Pegasus Arms, where the sign-board is ‘inscribed in Roman letters’. Unlike the ‘dustmen’ at Westminster, Sleary’s name is ‘known all over England’, and Mr Gradgrind, who is one of those dustmen, ends up needing Sleary’s help so that his criminal son can escape abroad.

While Sleary represents a historical force that does not quite weaken as time passes, a sense of temporal contingency always looms over Coketown. The light of the moon ‘cast[s] Titanic shadows of the steam engines at rest’. Somewhere in a factory in a ‘secret place’, ‘Old Time’ works against Coketown. Above Coketown, the judgement of God waits, as it ‘cast[s] ashes … on its own head’, as did the cities of Tyre and Sidon in Luke’s gospel. The factory chimneys of industrial civilisation ‘rise[e] up into the air like competing Towers of Babel’, the original built, as narrated in Genesis, by ‘the children of men’ who make and burn brick to build a city reaching to heaven, before God, seeing ‘nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do’, scatters them. On the last page of Hard Times, Dickens invokes the ‘Writing on the Wall’, the meaning of which only the prophet Daniel can reveal to Belshazzar, who has ‘lifted up [him]self against the Lord of heaven’ and, consequently, will be the last king of the Second Babylonian Empire.

Ultimately, what is at stake in Coketown are ‘the laws of Creation’. Either they must be ‘repealed’ or, since they will not be – this being, for Dickens, God’s Earth – Coketown shall one day fall. For that future time, when the last ‘smoke serpents’ of burning coal have fallen over the land Coketown occupies, Dickens offers no prospect of the coming of a New Earth. Rather, he seems to believe that it is the imaginative idea there was once Sleary’s Horse-Riding circus, located in place and time between the worlds, that will still contain an entropy-defying lifeforce.

Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson is Professor of Political Economy at Cambridge University. She contributes a fortnightly column to the New Statesman and her most recent book Disorder: Hard Times in the 21st Century was published in February by Oxford University Press.

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