Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the motifs in Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times.

Hard Times | Motifs


City and Country

In many novels the countryside is presented as an idyllic contrast with the dangers and corruptions of city life. In Hard Times, the city itself does appear as a forbidding environment. Coketown is oppressive, dirty and at best nondescript. The factory buildings are indistinguishable from one another, as are the Hands that work inside them. Everything is obscured by soot and smoke. The non-factory buildings are likewise uniform. Coketown is described as a place of extreme utility—nothing in the city is not useful, and little is beautiful.

However, the countryside serves only as a place where the physical and emotional pollution of the city spills over and spreads its corruption too. The landscape is dotted with coal pits, both working and disused. The railway slashes through the hills and trees. One of the coal pits consumes Stephen Blackpool, an innocent and well-meaning factory worker, when he falls in by accident and dies of his injuries; the country is no safer than the city. In a similar fashion, Louisa Gradgrind's life crashes on the grounds of her husband's country estate when James Harthouse comes there to lure her into an affair. The concerns of the city—and James originates from the much larger city of London—intruding on Louisa's country life show how the dangers of urbanization and industry continually encroach and destroy.

Turtle Soup, Venison, and a Gold Spoon

Mr. Bounderby repeatedly refers to a specific string of three luxury items to represent his understanding of the workers' aspirations. He says, "When a man tells me anything about imaginative qualities, I always tell that man, whoever he is, that I know what he means. He means turtle-soup and venison, with a gold spoon, and that he wants to be set up with a coach and six." Turtle soup and venison are expensive and specialized food items, the gold spoon a far better utensil than the steel or wooden spoons workers likely use, and the coach and six horses are private transportation inaccessible to all but the wealthiest members of society. Even Mr. Bounderby, Louisa, and the Gradgrinds are typically seen eating much more common fare and traveling on foot or by train.

The turtle soup, venison, and gold spoon are Mr. Bounderby's metaphor for his ironically unrealistic beliefs about the sense of entitlement he sees in others. On one level the metaphor describes a physical representation that allows supposedly realistic Mr. Bounderby to explain the sense of entitlement he ascribes to his factory hands. While the workers may wish for better food and living conditions, as seen in the union meetings and in Stephen Blackpool's description of the "muddle" in which he lives, the workers do not have aspirations to the extent Mr. Bounderby claims. They want roomier, cleaner housing. They want shorter working hours, safer conditions, and better pay. Yet Mr. Bounderby uses this exaggerated metaphor as a means of denying his workers any improvements at all because he thinks they want too much. On a second level, then, the metaphor represents Mr. Bounderby's (and other factory owners') unrealistic assessment of workers' needs and desires.

However, Mr. Bounderby makes use of this metaphor when he perceives anyone's desire for more than he is willing to provide. When he confronts Mr. Gradgrind about Louisa's emotional breakdown and Mr. Gradgrind says his daughter needs more time to recover, Mr. Bounderby does not hesitate to invoke the image of turtle soup, venison, and the gold spoon in reference to her. Louisa is not one of his factory workers, but she is someone Mr. Bounderby sees as subservient to him. By applying the metaphor to his own wife, Mr. Bounderby reveals how he uses this metaphor not simply to respond to the entitlement he perceives in his workers; he uses this metaphor to respond to entitlement he perceives in the world in a general sense. His perception indicates a hypocritical lack of awareness, as he is unable to see how his expectation for others to do his bidding stems from a highly developed sense of entitlement on his own part.

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