Hard Times

by: Charles Dickens

Motifs

Main ideas Motifs
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Bounderby’s Childhood

Bounderby frequently reminds us that he is “Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.” This emphatic phrase usually follows a description of his childhood poverty: he claims to have been born in a ditch and abandoned by his mother; raised by an alcoholic grandmother; and forced to support himself by his own labor. From these ignominious beginnings, he has become the wealthy owner of both a factory and a bank. Thus, Bounderby represents the possibility of social mobility, embodying the belief that any individual should be able overcome all obstacles to success—including poverty and lack of education—through hard work. Indeed, Bounderby often recites the story of his childhood in order to suggest that his Hands are impoverished because they lack his ambition and self-discipline. However, “Josiah Bounderby of Coketown” is ultimately a fraud. His mother, Mrs. Pegler, reveals that he was raised by parents who were loving, albeit poor, and who saved their money to make sure he received a good education. By exposing Bounderby’s real origins, Dickens calls into question the myth of social mobility. In other words, he suggests that perhaps the Hands cannot overcome poverty through sheer determination alone, but only through the charity and compassion of wealthier individuals.

Clocks and Time

Dickens contrasts mechanical or man-made time with natural time, or the passing of the seasons. In both Coketown and the Gradgrind household, time is mechanized—in other words, it is relentless, structured, regular, and monotonous. As the narrator explains, “Time went on in Coketown like its own machine.” The mechanization of time is also embodied in the “deadly statistical clock” in Mr. Gradgrind’s study, which measures the passing of each minute and hour. However, the novel itself is structured through natural time. For instance, the titles of its three books—“Sowing,” “Reaping,” and “Garnering”—allude to agricultural labor and to the processes of planting and harvesting in accordance with the changes of the seasons. Similarly, the narrator notes that the seasons change even in Coketown’s “wilderness of smoke and brick.” These seasonal changes constitute “the only stand that ever was made against its direful uniformity.” By contrasting mechanical time with natural time, Dickens illustrates the great extent to which industrialization has mechanized human existence. While the changing seasons provide variety in terms of scenery and agricultural labor, mechanized time marches forward with incessant regularity.

Mismatched Marriages

There are many unequal and unhappy marriages in Hard Times, including those of Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind, Stephen Blackpool and his unnamed drunken wife, and most pertinently, the Bounderbys. Louisa agrees to marry Mr. Bounderby because her father convinces her that doing so would be a rational decision. He even cites statistics to show that the great difference in their ages need not prevent their mutual happiness. However, Louisa’s consequent misery as Bounderby’s wife suggests that love, rather than either reason or convenience, must be the foundation of a happy marriage.