It was Dickens first novel, published in 1837. It can be in part considered autobiographical because there are some memories of the author’s life.
The plot tells about a orphan, Oliver, born in a workhouse and later sold to an undertaker. Since his master was cruel, he was forced to run away to London, where he met a gang of pickpockets that tried to transform him into a thief, but he is saved by a gentleman that takes Oliver with him. Later on, the gang kidnaps him and he is forced to take part to a robbery, during which he gets shot. He is then adopted by a middle-class family. After a while, it is discovered that Oliver is of noble origins and his half brother pays thieves in order to take his father’s property, but they get caught and arrested.
The setting is London, which is described on different social levels :
1) middle class (workhouses), indifferent to humans’ sufferings;
2) world of crime (pickpockets), because of their poverty they became criminals and use violence to achieve their goals and survive;
3) respectable people (gentleman, family), they have moral values and believe in human dignity.
It was published in 1845 and belongs to the second phase of his literary career. Here he denounces the increasing gap between rich and poor and criticizes industrialization, materialism and utilitarianism.
One of the most important characters is Mr. Gradgrind: he was a merchant that decided to open a school where he applies teaching methods based on utilitarian principles. This method gave importance to reason, facts and statistics, thus neglecting imagination and poetry, considered useless things. Students were treated as numbers more than humans and individuals.
Mr. Gradgrind adopts the same teaching method to grow up his children, Tom and Louis. He suggests his daughter to marry Bounderby, who is 30 years older than her, just because he is rich. Bounderby is another important character: he is a rich self-made man, a factory owner and a banker. He can be considered as the result of the laissez-faire policy, in fact he exploit his workers for his own profits and treats them as objects. Louis accepts the marriage in order to help her brother Tom in his career (lui viene assunto da Bounderby) but this marriage soon becomes unhappy. Meanwhile, a politician arrives in town and tries to seduce Louis. At first she accepts his courtship, but later she runs away to her father. Tom, who works at Bounderby’s bank, steals some money from it but he gets caught and he is forced to leave the country. At this point Mr. Gradgrind realizes that his educational methods are non sense and decides to use his money and power to help poor people.
The novel can be divided into 3 parts:
1) “The sowing”: it refers to the seeds that Mr. Gradgrind has planted ( = his children)
2) “The reaping”: it refers to the harvesting of the seeds ( = Louis’ unhappy marriage and Tom’s immoral behavior)
3) “The garnering”
Unlike other Dickens’ novels the setting is fictitious: Hard Times is set in a coketown (coke = a kind of coal used in industries), maybe modeled on Prenston. The town is described in a vivid, realistic way, using several linguistic devices such as metaphors, similes and repetition of words.
The novel was written in a period when education and relationship between money and work had reached his most intense moment in history: even culture seemed to be subordinated to money and the aim of the Victorian schools seems to be that of teaching the principles of utilitarianism.