Depiction of Social Problems of the Victorian Era in Charles Dickens Novel Hard Times

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Hard Times by Charles Dickens, set in the mid-Victorian era, a time when The British Empire reigned over large parts of the world. Where as a result of such considerable wealth, resulted in significant social repercussions which presented grave concern for the great thinkers and novelist such as Dickens.

This is a realistic, socially satirical novel which has an undeniable resonance of Dickens disdain for the attitude and overall zeitgeist which defined the era. Furthermore, the novel highlights existing social problems, political, educational class, and economic systems which were prevalent at that time. It takes place in the fictional town of Coketown, by this time England had predominantly industrialized. Dickens put forward a compelling interpretation of the social implications which arose during the emergence of the new modern capitalist society, which would directly impact the aforementioned societal structures.

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Additionally, the presentation of the plot, characterization and language in the novel depict influences of the enlightenment and romantics and are made manifest through the portrayal of the dichotomy of the upper class versus the lower class of Coketown, which demonstrate respective dynamics between the characters perspective on their experiences of their respective positions in society in correlation to another’s.

An argument can be made that through this novel, Dickens intentionally explored ideas of feminism and financial disparities, etc which focus on the prevalent social issues. For instance, Dickens shows the significant disparity between men and women in the partisan and prejudiced divorce laws. Divorce was only made possible if one had the substantial financial means to do so. This was done as a measure to preserve the social integrity of the middle and upper class. This is exemplified in a discussion between Stephen Blackpool and Mr Bounderby “‘and it would cost you...I suppose from a thousand to fifteen hundred pound,' said Mr Bounderby... 'Why then, sir,' said Stephen... 'tis a muddle.’” (Dickens and Kaplan, 2016, p. 66).

This demonstrates that pursuing the process of divorce would be only be accessible to a person of better financial standing. This issue is outlined in the biography ‘English laws for women in the nineteenth century’ by Caroline Norton which describes the extent to which divorce was a “luxury fairly belonging…to the superior and wealthy classes” (p. 19). Norton contends that in putting forth various reasons for petitioning divorce one should not “petition for sympathy” they should rather, pursue justice and to blame the law for the biases in which the laws imposes whereas, Dickens pandered to the invocation of sympathy through the oppressive situations characters face, such as the aforementioned Stephen.

On the other hand, the biased laws against women as detailed Sir William Blackstone in ‘Commentary on the Laws of England’ (1765-1769) “the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during her marriage, or at least is incorporated or consolidated into that of her husband, under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything” (p. 443). This highlights what a woman forfeits i.e. her property, sense of self, however, Dickens does not advocate only the case of women but appeals for a love-based marriage and that even in its absence, the divorce laws should not discourage one from filing.

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