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Charles Dickens’s "Hard Times": A Critique of Benthamite Utilitarianism

Hausarbeit 2012 12 Seiten

Anglistik - Literatur


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Philosophy of Facts

3. The Importance of Fancy

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Hard Times is arguably Dickens’s most controversially discussed work. It was published in 1854 as a serial in his weekly periodical Household Words. Critics such as F.R. Leavis reprehend his novel for having flat and stereotypical characters that seem to be crude caricatures of reality, whereas others applaud him for his socio-economic critique of 19th century England and his amiable characters. In this paper I will show that Dickens strongly criticizes the utilitarian ideas of Jeremy Bentham and his ideological followers through the characters and the plot as well as the stylistic device of repetition.

2. The Philosophy of Facts

One of Dickens’s gripe with Utilitarians such as Thomas Gradgrind is their quasi worshipping of fact. Gradgrind is so possessed by the idea of hard facts that his life as well as that of his pupils and children are completely encompassed by it, thereby completely neglecting the fancy in life which seems necessary for a human being to thrive. Richard Arneson writes in his article Benthamite Utilitarianism and Hard Times that the theme of fact versus fancy is “traceable in the novel's handling of education in the Gradgrind school, of the upbringing of the Gradgrind children, and of working-class life in industrial towns such as Coketown” (60). This utilitarian idea of basing absolutely everything on facts and nothing but facts, and the dire consequences of doing so, are thus spread throughout the novel, taking up an important part of it.

The focus of the novel on this philosophy of hard facts already becomes clear when we take a look at the lists of possible titles that Dickens gave to his friend John Foster:

According to Cocker, Prove It, Stubborn Things, Mr. Gradgrind’s Facts, The Grindstone, Hard Times, Two and Two are Four, Something Tangible, Our Hardheaded Friend, Rust and Dust, Simple Arithmetic, A Matter of Calculation, A Mere Question of Figures, The Gradgrind Philosophy Fact [sic], Hard-headed Gradgrind, Hard Heads and Soft Hearts, Heads and Tales, Black and White. (Samuels, 19)

Nearly all of these titles either focus on facts and figures: According to Cocker (which is supposedly William Cocker, 17th century author of Arithmetic which was still in use at schools at that time, also called “The celebrated Mr. Cocker” (Gross, 160) by Dickens), Prove It, Two and Two are Four, Something Tangible, Simple Arithmetic, A Matter of Calculation, A Mere Question of Figures or on Gradgrind and his methods: Stubborn Things, Mr. Gradgrind’s Facts, The Grindstone, Our Hardheaded Friend, The Gradgrind Philosophy Fact [sic], Hard-headed Gradgrind, Hard Heads and Soft Hearts. Since these were the only titles that Dickens considered at the end, I find it very probable that he wanted to make the critique of Gradgrind and his philosophy of facts the core of his novel.

It should then come as no surprise to us that the very first paragraph of Hard Times starts with a, to us at that point still unknown, speaker talking about the importance of facts in the upbringing of kids:

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 Facts, sir! (1.1.4)

The reader can only later guess from context that this is indeed Thomas Gradgrind spewing his utilitarian fact ideology in his school. The first thing we might notice about Gradgrind is his name. It sounds overall unpleasant, maybe even intimidating and seems to imply that he somehow grinds his students down. Allen Samuels supports the idea of the relevance of character names in Dickens’s novels: “On the matter of names of characters, always important in Dickens for their onomatopoeic effect, […] he seems to have hit upon Gradgrind first time” (19).

From the very beginning, Dickens makes Gradgrind’s standpoint absolutely clear: “fact, fact, fact” (1.2.9). He is so convinced of this principle of facts that he sees his pupils as nothing but “little vessels […] ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim” (1.1.4) and “pitchers […] who were to be filled so full of facts” (1.2.5). Characterizing his pupils as lifeless vessels shows us that Gradgrind does not want them to interact with the information and lessons he gives them, but instead he wants them to hold the distributed information without questions and doubts and regurgitate them at will. Dickens is furthermore criticizing the overwhelming amount of facts that are to be poured into these children by describing them as “imperial gallons” that should fill them to the brim.

One thing that is quite striking is the considerable amount of repetitions used by Dickens. This is especially notable in the dialogs of Gradgrind, and basically everybody that follows the utilitarian idea in the novel. The repetitions start in the very first paragraph where fact is repeated five times and continue throughout the second paragraph were Dickens describes Gradgrinds appearance with four consecutive sentences starting with “The emphasis was helped by” (1.1.4), thus the repetition is not only limited to the speech of Utilitarians but extends itself also to the descriptions in the novel. Alexander Welsh in his book Dickens Redressed: The Art of Bleak House and Hard Times offers the following solution as to why Dickens uses so much repetition: “Dickens seems determined to imitate, in the writing, the very repetitiousness that he finds so inane and stultifying in M’Choakumchild’s school or in the lives of Coketown’s ‘hands’” (153). I strongly agree with Welsh in this point, the extreme amount of repetitions throughout the novel seem like an obvious critique of the repetitive indoctrination that Gradgrind practices and with it a general critique of the utilitarian idea that is based on only weighing the facts. Welsh even goes as far as to call the repetition “repellent” (153). I would not use such a strong word to describe my feelings while reading these repetitions, but I do agree that they definitely make Gradgrind look quite repellent when he is constantly introducing himself over and over again in chapter two and insists on the importance of properly defining things and naming facts. We see a similar amount of repetition in the first description of Coketown:



ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Buch)
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Institution / Hochschule
Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz
Hard Times utilitarianism benthamite critique Dickens essay term paper thesis summary interpretation introduction Jeremy Bentham Hard Times analysis Charles Dickens Charles paper



Titel: Charles Dickens’s "Hard Times": A Critique of Benthamite Utilitarianism