Hard Times

“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: Nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to the Facts, Sir”

So begins Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times”. And hard times indeed are what the characters in this riveting drama bear. From the source of the aforementioned words, Mr. Gradgrind, a man of Facts, to his daughter, Louisa, a tortured soul longing for more than Facts but curtailed to pursue such grand notions; from Stephen Blackpool, a commoner by birth but a noble by virtues to his beloved Rachael, a woman with the purest of hearts; from Signor Jupe, a clown whose career is anything but funny to his daughter, Sissy, whose wisdom surpasses the kind in scholarly materials; from Mr. Bounderby, a pompous, callous, wealthy man, Coketown’s industrialist, to his mother, Mrs. Pegler, an old naïve woman, blind to her son’s faults.  Yes, these are the characters that Dickens weaves through his novel, some endearing to the reader, some utterly repulsive and some eliciting no emotion except that of indifference. I shall speak of two who struck a chord in mine heart.

The first is Louisa, who together with her brother, Tom, grows up deficient of the fancies of children that is crucial for their mental development Mr. Gradgrind raises them on nothing but Facts. She is denied freedom to play and mingle, as children of her age ought to. Stories around the fireplace were unheard of in Mr. Gradgrind’s home. It was all about biology, physiology, etymology, zoology, geology…and all the other ologies. Hence, when Louisa’s biology comes of age, and Mr. Bounderby asks her father for her hand in marriage, it was only Fact- no mushy feelings of romance or anything that remotely resembles love-that was to be considered. Never mind the humongous age difference between Mr. Bounderby and the poor child Louisa. Facts, was all that mattered, and Louisa became Mrs. Bounderby until the entry of Mr. James Hartfield, a wandering vagabond, with a weakness for fine women. It was only a matter of time before his charm worked on the poor child-wife. Upon her discovery of this side of her nature that she never knew existed, she runs to her father, the sight of which melts even the coldest of hearts.

“This night, my husband being away, he has been with me, declaring himself my lover. This minute he expects me, for I could release myself of his presence by no other means. I do not know that I am sorry, I do not know that I am ashamed, I do not know that I am degraded in my own esteem. All that I know is your philosophy and your teaching will not save me. Now, father, you have brought me to this. Save me by some other means!”

He tightened his hold in time to prevent her sinking on the floor, but she cried out in a terrible voice, I shall die if you hold me! Let me fall upon the ground!” And he laid her down there, and saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feat.”

The second is Stephen Blackpool, a man falsely accused and on account of this accusation, is relieved from his duties at Mr. Bounderby’s factory. He is shunned by friends, a state in which Dickens paints as such.

“Thus, easily did Stephen Blackpool fall into the loneliest of lives, the life of solitude among a familiar crowd. The stranger in the land who looks into ten thousand faces for some answering look and never finds it, is in cheering society as compared with him who passes ten averted faces daily, that were once the countenances of friends”

To add salt to this fresh wound, he is later accused of stealing from Mr. Bounderby’s bank. Rachael writes to him to come back, as he had moved to another town, and defend himself. True to his noble character, he sets for Coketown of foot on to do exactly as Rachael requested. However, this was not to be. A fall into a black rugged chasm, nicknamed Old Hell Shaft, for its notoriety of gobbling men, women and children, cut his journey short. And therein he was found and precariously lifted out. Life slowly but certainly was ebbing out of him. Nonetheless, even then, his nobility remained unfazed.

“A low murmur of pity went round the throng, and the women wept aloud, as this form, almost without form was moved very slowly from its iron deliverance, and laid upon the bed of straw…at that time the pale, worn, patient face was seen looking up at the sky, with the broken right hand lying bare on the outside of the covering garments, as if waiting to be taken by another hand…though he lay quite motionless looking up at the sky, he smiled and said, “Rachael.”

She stooped down on the grass at his side, and bent over him until her eyes were between his and the sky, for he could not so much as turn them to look at her.

“Rachael, my dear”

She took his hand. He smiled again and said, “Don’t let go.”

…the bearers being now ready to carry him away, and the surgeon being anxious for his removal, those who had torches or lanterns, prepared to go in front of the litter. Before it was raised, and while they were arranging how to go, he said to Rachael, looking upward at the star:

“Often as I come to myself, and found it shining on me down there in my trouble, I thought it were the star as guided to Our Saviour’s home. I almost think it be the very same star!”

They lifted him up, and he as overjoyed to find that they were about to take him in the direction whither the star seemed to him to lead.

“Rachael, beloved lass! Don’t let go my hand. We may walk together tonight my dear!”

“I will hold thy hand, and keep beside thee, Stephen, all the way.”

 “Bless thee! Will somebody be pleased to cover my face?”

 They carried him very gently along the fields, and down the lanes, and over the wide landscape; Rachael always holding the hand in hers. Very few whispers broke the mournful silence. It was soon a funeral procession. The star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through his humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to His Redeemer’s rest.

I have barely scratched the surface of Dickens’ “Hard Times”. For what lies beneath, I encourage you to delve between its pages. It will be worth your while. I guarantee it.

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