Fact and Fancy: Influencing the Bodies in Hard Times
As an English literature student I am slightly ashamed to admit this, but Hard Times is the first novel of Charles Dickens that I have ever read. That being said, I was drawn into the strange, almost mechanical world of Coketown. Coketown is described as “a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever,…it had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye” (Dickens 60). This description made me curious about Coketown, because Coketown is obsessed with “nothing but Facts” (Dickens 41) and the description of the town appears to be dark and dismal, just as a life without “Fancy” (Dickens 46) would be.
In contrast to “Fact”-ridden Coketown is a “Fancy”-filled circus run by Mr. Sleary. Throughout my reading of Hard Times, I kept wondering what the significance of the circus was in this novel. I was intrigued by the description of the circus as “the skeleton of Sleary’s Circus” (Dickens 297) and why Dickens chose to describe the circus as if it were a body. The description of the circus performers is much more positive than the description of the people of Coketown. The women are introduced as “handsome” (Dickens 72) and the group as a whole is noted to have “a remarkable gentleness and childishness” (Dickens 73). The circus performers’ youthful physical descriptions contrast with the people of Coketown.
It appears a life full of “Facts” has taken a toll on the people of Coketown. Mr. Bounderby looks much older than his actual age, as does Stephen Blackpool. As stated in Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, “to the body that is manipulated, shaped, trained, which obeys, responds, becomes skillful and increases its forces” (136). However, the bodies of the people who abide by the “Fact” ridden laws of Coketown are the exact opposite of “skillful and increasing [their] forces” (Foucault 136). Mr. Bounderby is an affluent member of Coketown but is still described as looking seven or eight years older than he actually is (Dickens 53). Unlike Mr. Bounderby, Stephen Blackpool is part of the working class in Coketown and similarly is described as being called “Old Stephen” (Dickens 99). Based off of their physical descriptions alone, it seems that living without “Fancy” has quickened the aging process of these two men. Likewise, Mrs. Gradgrind is introduced as “a little, thin, white,… of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily” (Dickens 54). Mrs. Gradgrind seems a strange choice for a wife, as it appears that she has no remarkable qualities, but it is later revealed that Mr. Gradgrind chose her specifically for her lack of fancy (Dickens 56). Living a life strictly dedicated to “Facts” has caused physical and, in some cases, mental stress on the people of Coketown.
There is one character that seems to be struggling between “Facts” and “Fancy” and her physical appearance reflects her struggle. Louisa is described as having a face “not with the brightness natural to cheerful youth” (Dickens 51) but yet “there was a light with nothing to rest upon” (Dickens 51). Louisa’s internal struggle to maintain a life of “Fact” causes her to look sullen, but her intrigue in fancy allows her light to shine. It is because of her ability to keep some interest in “Fancy” within her that her expression is brightened (Dickens 51) however slight that is.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Ed. Graham Law. Ontario: Broadview, 2013. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. 2nd Ed. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1995.