Student Response to Hard Times

Moral Speech

“Fact, Fact, Fact,” says Mr. M’Choakumchild, a character with possibly the best name of any fictional character I have ever encountered (47). I expected to be beaten over the head with this “fact” argument but Dickens artfully conveys the consequences of the line of thinking throughout the book and saves most of the bludgeoning for the first few chapters. I found the book, in general, to be a more enjoyable read than what other people have suggested to me. The exceptions to my experience, however, came in the form of accented characters. Stephen Blackpool and Mr. Sleary may as well have spoken like Chewbacca in which the audience is reliant on the other Star Wars characters’ reactions for meaning. They were not entirely unintelligible to me but enough to slow my reading considerably at certain points. I think it is the combination of broken speech funneled into long, and from what I gather, elegant speeches that confound me. Stephen utters “I ha’ fell into a pit that ha’ been wi’ th’ fire damp crueler than battle” (291). Without the aid of a footnote I might have confused the line for a biblical reference rather than explosive mine gas. Mr. Sleary drawls out “Do the withe thing and the kind thing too, and make the betht of uth; not the wurtht” (310). Both quotes are excruciating to even reproduce. The characters that have the most to say about Dickens’ moral seem to communicate it the worst.

Both characters need no moral education but clearly lack a formal one. This supports Dickens’ argument on the need for imagination in all things. The best people come from the worst circumstances. During Stephen’s rescue a man who was introduced as a drunk is described as “the best man of all” (288). I admire Dickens’ unyielding faith in humanity. Cold hard fact without fancy leaves one corrupt and empty. Tamara Ketabgian states “the machine represents the most repetitive and inhuman aspects of industrial rationalism,” in her article “‘Melancholy Mad Elephants’: Affect and the Animal Machine in Hard Times” (653). Stephen does not adhere to this rationalism so he maintains his moral compass but his life is ruled by others who do follow this industrial rationalism. Mr. Bounderby announces he will “have nothing to do with you,” to Stephen (182). Stephen merely explains the situation from a moral point of view that Bounderby cannot understand and is punished for it. Dickens uses Stephen to demonstrate how cold calculation can punish worthy people that do not fit into a predetermined world view.

As a bachelor of arts student I am at the mercy of unwanted opinions on the usefulness of my degree. I am not learning facts or at least the right ones. I should be getting a degree in business, working in the oil field, or really anything that is likely to make me large amounts of money. I worry about this philosophy of fact the way Dickens did in his time. The difference being that today everyone has a voice, at least in the western world. The powerful are just as loud as the ordinary and bad grammar is likely in either case.

“Sir, I canna,” Stephen says to Mr. Bounderby, doubting himself even when speaking out (181). He says what he means in the humblest and most degraded fashion. Stephen is the lowest of the working class and knows better than to expect to be understood by Bounderby. Dickens justifies the voice of characters who speak badly. Their manner of speaking is poor but the content of their words is valuable.

If I was in a Dickens book I would be dead inside or speak like I am always chewing something. Characters who do speak correctly must learn error of their ways. Louisa laments “where are the graces of my soul,” (241). She fully adheres to the cold logic of her father, Mr. Gradgrind until she realizes how unhappy she is. The well-spoken can be happy but not through education.

I find this distinction between literate and illiterate voices fascinating as Dickens writing is clearly well developed and he isn’t an evil factory owner. I understand that he had his own trials growing up and had to earn his literacy. I suppose he wanted to prove that everyone was worthy of a voice regardless of their manner of speaking.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Ed. Graham Law. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2013. Print.

2 thoughts on “Student Response to Hard Times

  1. Interesting to note that the characters with the hardest speech (to read anyway) did have the more honest and moral statements, contrasting with some of the immoral yet better spoken (easier also to read) characters. These characters seemed to have more to learn towards the end of the novel indicating that formal education of the time did not lend itself to moral knowledge. Contrasting with today’s education and moral standing it seems to me the uneducated speak louder while some of the educated attempt to quietly point out the flaws in their opponents arguments, only to be bowled over with repeated loud comments. The roles have reversed as mechanization has firmly rooted itself in society…is there a link?

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  2. Ken, I think there is definitely a link between mechanization and the reversed roles of educated and uneducated voices. It seems to be a matter of accessibility, both in who is allowed to speak and how they are understood. I cite Donald Trump as an unfortunately perfect example. There is no character, fictional or otherwise, that reminds me more of Mr. Bounderby than Donald Trump. He is loud, repetitive, judgemental, and perpetually looks like he is about to explode. I could be describing either character with that last sentence. My theory of Trump is that he is accessible. He is not smart or admirable but he is easily understood. The problem with many intelligent opinions is that they do resonate with the public. I am guilty of perusing the internet and only stopping for cat pictures, or otters. My point is people like bite sized bits of information, or no information. There is too much to read and the intelligent opinions are buried under the weight of too many voices.

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