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Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Context


Industrial Revolution

The first wave of the Industrial Revolution in Britain took place between 1760 and 1830 as technologies emerged to increase production of goods and expanded trade increased demand. These changes in the early decades of the 19th century created a shift toward economies based on manufacturing and urban living that redefined society first in England, as well as the United States and the rest of Europe, throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. The cotton textile industry was one of the first to shift toward automation with the invention of machines such as the spinning jenny and the power loom in the late 1700s. Powered by steam, these devices could produce far more fabric in far less time than a single spinner or weaver could with a traditional wheel and loom. Therefore, cloth production moved from homes or small workshops to factories, prompting workers to migrate from rural areas to cities where factories were located, which greatly changed English life at the time.

While scholars define the Industrial Revolution as taking place between 1760 and 1830, the decades that followed witnessed an ongoing proliferation of factories in urban centers. Outside London, especially in the north of England, small towns grew as large numbers of people moved there to find work. Housing was hastily, and often poorly, constructed to accommodate the new residents. Additional factories were also built to produce the machinery of manufacturing. Mines were expanded to provide coal to power steam engines, which produced tremendous amounts of smoke and coal dust. For example, London became famous for its thick "fog" in the 19th century, the result of industrial smoke mixing with natural moisture in the air. At the time, no environmental attention was paid to the conditions.

Hard Times addresses the social and political changes associated with industrialization through the portrayal of Coketown. (Its named in reference to coke, the residue left from burning coal.) The conditions of this fictional industrial city in England mirror those found in growing factory towns such as Manchester, Sheffield, and Liverpool. The substandard housing and the proliferation of smokestacks are presented in detailed descriptions Hard Times.

Factory Conditions

Charles Dickens knew firsthand the working conditions in the factories of industrial England from his time as a 12-year-old in Warren's boot-blacking factory in London. His account of this time describes the filthy floors, rotting staircases, constant dampness, and swarms of rats. Child labor in factories was common, as impoverished families needed all sources of income in the changed society, and some children worked because they had no families at all. Dickens's experience at Warren's was unpleasant but less hazardous than the experiences of young laborers who operated machines. Such conditions eventually prompted Parliament to enact regulations in 1833 to limit working hours and improve conditions for children in factories. Nevertheless, for both children and adults, hours remained long, pay low, food scarce, and, despite some regulation, conditions dirty and often unsafe. In Hard Times, Dickens combines his personal experiences with political understanding to criticize the conditions found in 19th-century factories throughout England and Europe.

Living Conditions

Life outside the factories was scarcely better than the conditions within the factories. Accounts abound of overcrowded and cramped living spaces, the result of low wages and population shift from rural to urban areas. With lack of sanitation a serious problem, outbreaks of disease were not unusual, especially in manufacturing centers in northern England—location of the fictional Coketown of Hard Times—because they were farther away from the regulatory eye of the government in London.

Philosopher Friedrich Engels, before writing The Communist Manifesto in 1848 with fellow philosopher Karl Marx, published an account of his observations of English factories in 1843. His description of the city of Manchester includes the "irregular cramming together of dwellings in ways which defy all rational plan." One such cluster of dwellings is described surrounding "a privy without a door, so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement." The rest of his description of Manchester contains similarly disturbing details of filth and stench combined with unsafe and inadequate accommodations. These conditions not only fed Engels's radical political ideas, but they also led eventually, in the middle of the century, to the formation of more moderate labor unions that aimed to improve wages and conditions for the working classes.

In Hard Times, Dickens provides less explicit descriptions of the subpar living conditions factory workers inhabit, but he does present characters such as poor factory worker Stephen Blackpool who offer insight about the human consequences of living in close proximity to such squalor and who make impassioned pleas for improved conditions for himself and his peers.


Utilitarianism at this time became a popular philosophical school of thought among the educated classes. Developed by political economist John Stuart Mill and social reformer Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism rested on the idea that self-interest drives all human behavior, and one must evaluate actions by their potential to create pleasure rather than pain to the individual. Understanding the facts, rather than the emotional implications or imagined outcomes, of a given situation is essential to such evaluation. On a larger moral scale, goodness also can be evaluated according to the consequences of actions and how much good or evil those consequences might bring to how many people. In this way one can analyze and quantify human behavior in ways that were very new compared with philosophies of the past.

In Hard Times, the utilitarian model led Dickens to satirize and exaggerate both Mr. Bounderby's and Mr. Gradgrind's strict reliance on fact and reason to assess situations and make decisions. Mr. Gradgrind, especially, must face the consequences of such extreme pedagogy when he sees emotional barrenness as its result—in Louisa's passivity and inability to deal with emotion, in Tom's detached sense of entitlement and rebellion against the lack of amusement, and in Bitzer's uncompromising rigidity and soullessness in acting only as he was trained to.

Divorce in 19th-Century England

Before 1857 divorce was possible in England only by an act of Parliament. As Mr. Bounderby tells Stephen Blackpool in Hard Times, divorce involved petitioning lower courts as part of the process of bringing the case before Parliament. Costs were prohibitively high, so divorce was reserved for only the wealthy. For the most part only men could seek a divorce and only on the grounds of adultery. Wives could seek a divorce only if they could prove adultery in addition to extreme cruelty, and if a woman left her husband, she could be legally compelled to return to him.

In 1857 Parliament passed the Matrimonial Causes Act, which moved divorce hearings from Parliament to a special court. This act may have marginally reduced the cost of divorce, but little else changed. Adultery remained the only grounds for divorce, but wives no longer had to prove life-threatening cruelty as additional grounds. This meant many people living in permanent conditions of unhappiness and estrangement had no recourse.


In an 1855 letter to his friend Charles Knight, publisher of London's Penny Magazine, Dickens focused on the satiric aspect of the recently published Hard Times, "My satire is against those who see figures and averages, and nothing else—the representatives of the wickedest and most enormous vice of this time." As satire Hard Times uses exaggeration and irony to illustrate and criticize serious social, political, and economic problems during the years after industrialization had taken a firm hold in society. Objects of Dickens's ridicule include Coketown and the myths that govern life there. He also pokes fun at Mr. Gradgrind's educational principles and their implementation as well as the exaggerated characterization of Josiah Bounderby—a man whose malice is cloaked by his ridiculous persona. The juxtapositions of downtrodden factory workers with joyful circus performers and oblivious upper classes also become targets of Dickens's ridicule. Scholars and critics also have recognized Hard Times as one of Dickens's most scathing social commentaries, in which he confronts the issues of working conditions associated with industrialization, income inequality, frustrations of the working classes, purposes and results of education, and environmental damage.

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