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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Murdering the Innocents in Hard Times

The opening scene in Gradgrind's school demonstrates his education philosophy, teaching only facts and projecting a detached worldview.  According to David Craig's introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of the novel, the scene is eerily similar to an actual classroom scene in a Victorian school in which a student describes a ruminating animal.  The catechism approach encourages memorization of facts without acquiring true knowledge.  For this reason, Bitzer can provide a factually accurate definition of the physical attributes of a horse but cannot recognize that a horse has an emotional side.  Sissy Jupe, who has grown up around horses, is unable to define a horse because the basis of her definition would be personal experience, and in Gradgrind's system, personal experience is of no value.  Bitzer's formulaic response ("Quadruped. Graminivorus. Forty teeth...") shows the detached perspective that Gradgrind values.

Through descriptions of the characters, Dickens illustrates facets of their personality.  Mr. M'Choakumchild, whose name defines his metaphorical role in the novel, has a "wall of a forehead" and "two dark caves" for eyes.  The description portrays him as an unemotional, soulless man whose job as an educator is to "choke" the life out of children through education.  He tells Sissy Jupe, "You mustn't fancy," discouraging the imagination and essentially killing any creativity that does not reflect reality.  The prohibition of unrealistic scenes on wallpaper or carpets shows his intolerance of an idealistic vision that sees beyond human capability.  His proclamation of "Fact, fact, fact!" constricts the tendency in youths to envision the impossible.

Gradgrind shares M'Choakumchild's philosophical antipathy to the imagination.  Dickens introduces him in this way:

THOMAS GRADGRIND, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over. Thomas Gradgrind, sir - peremptorily Thomas - Thomas Gradgrind.

The description itself is matter of fact:  he is what he is and don't expect him to change.  His stolid disposition is personified in his abode Stone Lodge, which he himself built.  Everything about the house is symmetrical and planned, leaving no room for spontaneity or creativity.  He refuses to use the name "Sissy," preferring to call her by her birth name of Cecilia.  He objects to all terms of endearment that would expose an emotional side, at one point calling her "Girl number twenty," an almost robotic (excuse the ananchronism) address that implies the lack of individuality that he wished his students to display.  When Gradgrind happens upon his two children, the metallurgical Louisa and the mathematical Thomas, peeking at a nearby circus exhibition, he rebukes them for their inquisitive desires to view such a cavalcade of whimsy.

Bitzer is one of Gradgrind's model students who wholly embraces the acquisition of facts as knowledge.  Dickens points out his "cold eyes" to give the reader a sense of his frigid callousness.  His light eyes, hair, and complexion Dickens credits to his lack of exposure to the sun, thereby illustrating an absence of true enlightenment.

"The boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white."

The description above paints Bitzer as lacking basic human qualities, which have been choked out through the educational system in which he has been placed.  Additionally, he grasps facts easily but shows no compassion throughout the novel.

Bitzer's antithesis is Sissy Jupe, whose dark features portray an inborn liveliness that has not yet been extinguished.  Throughout the novel, Sissy inspires Louisa with her sympathetic nature and human compassion.  Her unyielding devotion to her father, despite his abandoning her, shows the strength of human attachment in the midst of a system that promotes pathetic estrangement.

Dickens' naming of the second chapter "Murdering the Innocents" limns children as victims of the system put in place by Gradgrind and others.  The system has no tolerance of fantastical imaginings or representations, turning children into machines, like those used in the factory that appears later in the novel.  Individuality has been sacrificed for a collective indoctrination that inhibits human progress.  The irony of the situation is that without imagination, those machines in the factories could never have been invented.  Nevertheless, Dickens gives the reader hope that while the imagination can be stunted, it can never been completely extinguished:

When from thy boiling store, thou shalt fill each jar brim full by-and-by, dost thou think that thou wilt always kill outright the robber Fancy lurking within - or sometimes only maim him and distort him!


  1. Dear Mr. Ballenger,

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    mek.network (at) gmail

  2. Victorian Literature and Culture encourages high quality original work concerned with all areas of Victorian literature and culture, including music and the fine ...

  3. I love everything about Victorian culture and life overall. The literature is excellent, of course. I'd live in this time period if I could.

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  5. Excellent post! Hard Times was the first Dickens novel I read. While many of the details are fuzzy, Gradgrind's efforts to stamp out imagination have stuck with me.



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