Charles Dickens’ Hard Times:
Romantic Tragedy or Proletariat Propaganda?
In Hard Times, Charles Dickens gives us a close-up look into what appears to be the ivory tower of the bourgeoisie of his day, yet these middle-class characters are viewed from a singular perspective, the perspective of those at the bottom of the social and economic system. Though Dickens’ characters tend to be well developed and presented with a thoroughly human quality, the stereotypical figure of arrogant and demanding Bounderby fails to accurately capture the motivations and attitudes of the typical successful businessman of the day and is an indication of the author’s political motives. Hard Times, rather than presenting a historically accurate picture of the extraordinary changes brought about by the industrial revolution, is a one-sided attack on the utilitarian value system of the middle 19th century based upon emotional blue-collar appeals for labor sympathy that are not uncommon in today’s corporate environment.
Josiah Bounderby of Coketown represents the utilitarian attitude and, as such, is the villain of the story and clearly the target of Dickens’ political argument. Dickens characterizes Bounderby as a powerful individual, driven by greed and guided by a distorted view of human nature. He is the only wealthy industrialist introduced in Hard Times, although Mr. Sleary might arguably be considered the more virtuous businessman. Dickens clearly portrays Bounderby as a greedy and individualistic, self-serving capitalist; rather than an insightful, forward-looking crafter of a new industrial age. Dickens artfully weaves his political enemy into a pompous, arrogant image reinforced with traditional working-class themes that lead the reader to conclude that Bounderby, as a manifestation of Gradgrind’s and Choakumchild’s philosophy of “fact,” represents all that is wrong with industrial society.
Dickens apparently expects his readers to accept his portrayal of Bounderby as being typical of this new breed of industrialists, but the character reflects none of the beginnings of modern scientific principles of management date emerging in the first half of the 19th century. By building on the principles of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the works of Babbage, Jevons, Newman, Riccardo, Taylor, von Clauswitz, and others were not only helping shape the future of management philosophy, but were decisively impacting contemporary business thought throughout Dickens’ lifetime (George 67-78). No indication of these developments can be seen in the character of Bounderby. Author Archibald Coolidge writes that:
Dickens has a sort of preoccupation with money. But he calls businessmen villains and schemers. He almost never shows or describes them at work; when he does, the are show being crooked or at least harsh…It seems fairly clear that he did not analyze the problems of the businessman or those created by him—never analyzed the problems of creating, distributing, or getting wealth (140).
This unrealistic portrayal of businessmen is not uncommon for Dickens. Other works by Dickens are peppered with the characters of Ralph Nickleby, Hawk, Squeers, Gride, Quilp, Tigg, Pecksniff, Heep, Smallweed, Krook, Merdle, Flintwich, Casby, Fledgeby, Wegg, and Hexam. All reveal Dickens’ tendency to depict wealthy entrepreneurs as wicked and self-serving embodiments of oppression (Coolidge 189). Indeed, an evil capitalist is almost a stock character for Dickens.
A primary working class theme found throughout Hard Times is that managers, such as Bounderby, unjustly live in the lap of luxury at the expense of the workers. The picture presented is a common one; hard-working laborers, who toil long hours for little pay, resenting the boss, who appears to do little work and yet garners the full reward of their collective efforts. The reality is that many entrepreneurs and mangers are typically more personally involved in the business and have a larger stake in the commercial success of the company than other employees. They tend to have a much larger investment at risk, work longer hours, and secure a proportionately larger take of the company’s profit. Commenting on 19th century managerial functions and principles, J. Lawrence Laughlin wrote that:
He who controls a large capital actively engaged in production can never remain at a standstill; he must be full of new ideas; he must have power to initiate new schemes for the extension of his market; he must have judgment to adopt new inventions, and yet not be deceived as to their value and efficiency (223)
Bounderby is not described in these terms; however, any successful manager must ordinarily perform many critical functions not acknowledged by those at the bottom of the hierarchy. When a manager is perceived as incompetent or exploitative, whether justified or not, resentment of behalf of the workers is common. Modern-day images of the naïve, unprepared 2nd lieutenant “butter bar” or the undeserving “college boy” manager are reflections of the same sentiment. Today’s senior executive salaries in the millions of dollars are viewed with the same disdain, especially when these executives implement downsizing and lay-offs.
It is interesting that Dickens paints the aristocracy, through the character of Mrs. Sparsit, as a failed and outdated institution and yet, no comparison is made to traditional class distinctions or to the lifestyle previously enjoyed by peasants and serfs under feudal domination. The clear distinction drawn between the dirty, crowded worker dwellings and Bounderby’s luxurious country estate is reminiscent of the vast traditional differences between the lives of aristocrats and the lives of peasants. No doubt there were similar lifestyle differences between the middle-class bourgeoisie and the working poor; however, these differences pale in comparison to the class separation that had existed for centuries prior. In reality, the division of labor and the technological advances brought about by the Industrial Revolution resulted in an improved standard of living for most of the working poor. W.H. Hutt in his essay The Factory System of the Early Nineteenth Century, comments that “compared to factory workers, the agricultural laborers lived in abject poverty, and the work to which country children were put was far more exhausting than factory labor” (Qtd in Hayek 180). T.S. Ashton, citing actual data from the industrial town of Oldham in Standard of Life of the Workers in England, indicates that in 1831 the standard diet of the poor cost about the same as in 1791 (Qtd in Hayek 156-7). They worked and could afford more, certainly not an image conveyed by Dickens in Hard Times.
Another working-class theme masterfully entwined into the person of Bounderby is that of demanding and unappreciative bosses having no compassion for their employees. The “hands” are viewed as mere factors of production, not much different than the machines they operate. Bounderby himself views anyone that asks for more than they already have as wanting to dine “on turtle soup and venison with golden spoons” at his expense. To be fair, labor in the mid-19th century was “generally a plentiful commodity and treated as such” (George 182) and, according to business historian John Wilson, “the high levels of fixed investment in building and machinery evidently forced the industrialist to work assets as hard as possible in order to maximise returns” (32).
Bounderby’s seemingly uncaring attitude regarding the plight of the hands actually would not have been particularly unusual among mid-century industrialists. Agreement with Thomas Malthus’ statement that “the increasing wealth of the nation has had little or no tendency to better the conditions of the poor” (312-13) was common-place. This image of the futility of investing time or money in the poor is reinforced by the callous manner in which Bounderby dismisses the story’s martyr, Stephen Blackpool’s, sincere request for advice. The cold-hearted businessman simply views this request for help as an attempt to avoid his responsibilities and rightful obligations by seeking an easy way out his marriage. Bounderby knows all of the bricks in Coketown, but little about the concerns of individual people. He appears to live so isolated and segregated from the lives of common people that even he fails to notice the irony in his desire to terminate his own marriage. The conversations between Bounderby and Blackpool demonstrate Dickens’ tendency to emphasize middle-class efforts to avoid fraternization and social contact with the lower classes, while minimizing the reality of industrial paternalism in the 19th century.
Another contributor to the vilification of Bounderby is the fear most of the workers have of losing their job or of being marked as a troublemaker. Often for the greater good of the company, non-conforming or dissenting employees are singled out as an example to others. When these judgements are made in error, the individual harmed naturally feels unjustly injured and assigns the blame to the incompetence of management. Stephen Blackpool writes his troubles off as being “just a muddle.” Still, the implication is clear. If Bounderby had not jumped to a premature conclusion and unfairly condemned Blackpool without the benefit of due process, the tragedy of Blackpool’s death could have been averted. In Dickens’ day a disgruntled employee had little recourse; however, prejudice against and suspicion of the motives of the poor still exist. Someone who has consciously and consistently bettered his own life finds it difficult to understand why others merely complain about their situation instead of doing something about it.
Perhaps the dominant working-class theme expressed in the character of Bounderby is the moral sacrifice required for success in a capitalist world. Those who aspire to greater wealth and power appear to do so with selfish motives and must forfeit the ability to love or be compassionate in the bargain. Numerous biblical references identify love of money as the root of all evil and a choice between God and Mammon. Indeed, this idea has remained a core component of Christian society. Still, the message in Hard Times is more in line with the words of Karl Marx:
The ancients denounced money as subversive of the economic and moral order of things. Modern society, which soon after its birth, pulled Plutus by the hair of his head from the bowels of the earth, greets gold as it Holy Grail, as the glittering incarnation of the very principle of life (61).
As a result of these same inconsistancies, many contemporary managers face tough decisions when Machiavellian business practices conflict with Christian morals or social custom. By questioning Bounderby’s motive and method, Dickens is providing a direct attack on the profit motive as an incentive for individual entrepreneurship, a basic tenant of laissez-faire capitalism.
Dickens uses Bounderby’s propensity to exaggerate his own rise to power from humble origins as an indication of less than virtuous motives. Though the character traits, hard work, and circumstances behind Bounderby’s rise to power are not detailed in Hard Times, it was certainly more difficult for men to cross class boundaries in the 19th century than it is today. Dickens leads the reader to assume that Bounderby had attained his position by undesirable means, yet Bounderby must have possessed some qualities capable of propelling him to rise above his earlier station. Most of the newly rich were quite proud to have risen from the less privileged classes to a level of power and prestige known before only to the aristocracy, a trait easily visible among modern success stories. For someone in Bounderby’s position to exaggerate their tale over time seems understandable, though no less an untruth. Even after Mrs. Pegler’s revelation of Bounderby’s true background and his characterization as a fraud, he remains a “self-made man” and a wealthy businessman albeit alone and unhappy. Dickens also leaves the impression that it is worse to be stepped-on and used by one of your own kind than by an aristocrat, who does not know better.
The political changes brought about by the French Revolution, along with the introduction of steam power and the machinery of mass production, marked a profound change in European society in the 19th century. People could aspire to more than their birthright. Opportunities for greater wealth and self-actualization were better than ever. Still, the price in human terms was high and the result was a fundamental change in the structure and values of society. More than that, capitalism crystallized an altogether new value system, where individual worth and self-esteem are measured in monetary terms. Thorstein Veblen describes this change in The Leisure Class:
Gradually, as industrial activity further displaces predatory activity in the community’s everyday life and in men’s habits of thought, accumulated property more and more replaces trophies of predatory exploit as the conventional exponent of prepotence and success. With the growth of settled industry, therefore, the possession of wealth gains in relative importance and effectiveness as a customary basis of repute and esteem. (222).
It is significant that characters in Hard Times that demonstrate ambition or desire for a higher station are shown as poor role models and the prescribed path to success is disdained by all except Bitzer, the brown-noser. Even the selfish and irresponsible Tom Gradgrind appears more virtuous compared to Bitzer’s blind ambition. Both are contenders for a promising position with Bounderby. John F. Wilson suggests the likelihood of this type of arrangement:
Most managers still learnt their jobs through practical training, or were brought into the firm because of their family or religious connections, and this tradition became a distinguishing characteristic of British business for much of the nineteenth century (31).
Dickens fails to detail to specific opportunities associated with such a position. Additionally, he positions Gradgrind’s school as the only available training ground for management recruits, hardly a realistic representation of the pool of potential candidates available. In fact, many functional and operational managers were promoted from within the lower echelons of the company, a practice prevalent today (Wilson 31).
The Industrial Revolution can indeed be viewed as both the triumph and the shame of the bourgeoisie, yet for the first time non-aristocrats were successfully running the show. These men were pioneers, adapting to the cues and demands of a new age without a collective knowledge of how to run an industrial economy. Dickens points out the flaws and limitations of this new society in his eloquent and passionate plea on behalf of the working poor without thoroughly or accurately presenting the big picture. Compared to the attitudes and lifestyles of slaves and serfs in centuries past, Dickens’ time might even be looked on as “good times.” Dickens himself begins another novel with “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” Apparently Dickens is attempting to provide some balance to the dominant utilitarian philosophy of the greater good. Through Sissy Jupe’s simple and wise answers in the classroom, Dickens reminds us not to forget those left behind, who receive little of the trickle-down wealth generated by a vibrant and growing industrial society. Dicken’s has touched on a problem that is still with us today. Although capitalism and free markets dictate that there will always be winners and losers, a compassionate and truly human society should strive to benefit all classes of its citizens.