Social Issues During Industrialization In 'Hard Times'

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Through a distinctly Victorian lens, Charles Dickens wrote a didactic novel about social issues during industrialization. During the time of rapid economic growth, living and working conditions for workers were poor. The wealthy prospered on the greedy exploitation of these laborers. Utilitarianism was a primary viewpoint of the period due to its embrace of practicality. Through the Gradgrind family, Dickens demonstrates the dangers of extreme utilitarianism. The overall message expressed by Charles Dickens in 'Hard Times' is the danger of letting people become machine-like, void of compassion and imagination. By repeatedly emphasizing the idea of fact versus fancy, Dickens illustrates that a life would be unbearable without sentiments.

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By preventing the development of human emotions and imagination, industrialization threatens to turn humans into machines. Through Mr. Gradgrind's philosophy of rational self-interest, the mechanizing effect of industrialization is illustrated by his belief that human nature can be quantified and governed by systematic rules. In reference to facts, Mr. Gradgrind states that: 'nothing else will ever be of any service to them.' (Dickens 1), but this belief that humans should only operate through fact endangers the natural emotions of people. This division between nature and industry can also be illustrated by Coketown. The needs of factories dominate everything else, including people and the natural world. All the houses look alike, they are unsanitary, and no one has time to relax and enjoy themselves. The town in an unnatural place, awash with industrial pollution. Just like Coketown is an unnatural place, a world of just facts is likewise unnatural in the minds of humans.

Dickens demonstrates the importance of fancy through the stifling environment Mr. Gradgrind established for his children growing up. The Gradgrind children never even “learnt the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are!” (Dickens 16) All types of imagination were discouraged in the Gradgrind family, which naturally produced serious social dysfunctions for the children. For example, Tom had little regard for others, and Louisa was incapable of connecting with others. On the other hand, Sissy, who grew up in an environment full of imagination, was able to indulge in the fancy that was forbidden to Tom and Louisa. She knew a world of purely fancy that likewise failed without factual guidance. Without the teachings of Mr. Gradgrind and her fanciful upbringing, Sissy's future may have been precarious in the circus. Because the youngest Gradgrind daughter, Jane, was raised by both the Gradgrind's fact and Sissy's fancy, she represents a balance of both worlds. Only in a world carefully balanced would one truly prosper in both professional and personal lives.

During this era, traits such as compassion, moral purity, and emotional sensitivity were associated with women. Dickens suggested that they could counteract the mechanizing effects of industrialization because of these traits. For example, Rachael's gentle fortitude inspired Stephen to keep going through his depression. Stephen tells Rachael, 'Thou art an Angel' (Dickens 89) after she helped him because he brought light back into his life. Similarly, Sissy brought love and compassion into the Gradgrind household, which taught Louisa how to understand her emotions and finally confront her father about her dull childhood. Dickens suggests that it takes feminine compassion to restore social harmony.

The Gradgrinds were raised solely based on facts. Their upbringing can be blamed on the utilitarian idealisms set by industrialization. Mr. Gradgrind and many others of the time believed that an individual raised on the premise of facts would contribute to the rapidly growing economy than those raised with fancy and emotion. He stripped his children of all sentiments and attempted to create monotonous machines. He did not consider the consequences of an imbalance of fact and fancy. Charles Dickens used the Gradgrind's fact-based family to demonstrate the dangers of people becoming machine-like in 'Hard Times.' In an attempt to mechanize everyone, the industrial society suppressed their nature, human emotions. Mr. Gradgrind was a specific culprit of this idea by forcing his children into life without imagination which in the end caused them numerous problems as young adults. The only thing that prevented a crumbling society was women such as Sissy and Rachael bring compassion and love into otherwise cold households. Overall, Dickens demonstrates that a life without imagination and compassion would be unbearable, but a life with purely fancy would be precarious.

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