Hard Times is a novel about the social condition of poverty, but very few of its major characters are actually poor and comparatively little time is spent with the poor characters. With that in mind, do you think the book does an effective job of shaping our view of poverty? Why or why not?
It may be that Dickens chose to center his novel on the wealthy -middle class rather than on the lower classes he sought to defend because he realized that most of his Victorian readers would come from the middle classes and that very few of his readers would come from the lower classes. By centering his book on characters with whom his readers could identify, he was better able to awaken their feelings for characters with whom they might otherwise be unable to identify—namely, the poor of Coketown and of England in general. In that sense, the book does its job. Of course, the contrary argument could also be made that the novel simply reinforces comfortable middle-class stereotypes about the noble poor, and it offers no real solution or possibility for change.
Mrs. Sparsit is a fairly minor character in Hard Times. What themes does she illustrate? Why is she important in terms of plot development?
Although Mrs. Sparsit is a relatively minor character, her pride drives much of the action in the second half of the novel. Originally from an aristocratic background, Mrs. Sparsit has fallen on hard times, and she must work as Bounderby’s housekeeper for a living. Because she wants to marry Bounderby so that she can share his wealth, Mrs. Sparsit secretly connives to destroy his marriage to Louisa. Yet even while she panders to Bounderby, Mrs. Sparsit considers him an upstart “Noodle,” and considers herself his superior because of her aristocratic blood. Although she is a proud aristocrat, Mrs. Sparsit shares the calculating self-interest of capitalists like Bounderby. Thus, Mrs. Sparsit illustrates the transition from a social hierarchy in which aristocrats hold the power to one in which the wealthy middle class holds the power. In her attempt to retain her power within a new social order, Mrs. Sparsit simply ends up looking ridiculous.
Think about the character of Bounderby. How might this character fit with Dickens’s social program to explode the myth of the self-made man?
One defense of the new economic conditions created by the Industrial Revolution was its expansion of individual opportunity. The wealthy could justify the condition of the poor by pointing out that if the poor worked industriously, they could work their way into a fortune. Dickens implicitly mocks that idea by presenting one such supposed self-made man as a blundering braggart. By exposing Bounderby as a fraud who did not actually start from nothing, as he so often claims, Dickens questions the validity of that entire justification for poverty. If the self-made man is a lie, then what can the poor hope to achieve? Moreover, Dickens raises the question of whether the self-made man owes anything to the rest of society. Are the wealthy under any obligation to help the poor? Or must the poor help themselves?
1. What is the significance of the book’s structure? What does each of its three parts represent? Why are the different sections given agricultural titles when the book is about industrial England?
2. Does Hard Times have a protagonist? Does it have a main character? What makes you think so, and who might the main character be?
3. Hard Times begins and ends with a meeting between Mr. Sleary and Mr. Gradgrind. How are the meetings different? What changes in Mr. Gradgrind’s character and values do we see between his first and last encounter with the circus folk?
4. Discuss the character of Stephen Blackpool. How does he represent the poor Hands in Hard Times? Do you think it is an accurate representation? Is it meant to be?
5. Hard Times is built around a few simple, contrasting thematic ideas. What are some of them, and how do they function in the book? How does Louisa fit among these ideas?
6. As a child, Bitzer is a model pupil at Gradgrind’s school. How does his conduct as a porter at Bounderby’s bank reflect his early education? Would you consider him a “success” according to Gradgrind’s criteria? Why or why not?
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