A book-loving boy from a working-class London family, I studied Charles Dickens’s great moral novel Hard Times (1854) for my A Levels. My English teacher was heavily influenced by the Cambridge don and literary critic F. R. Leavis, especially his book The Great Tradition (1948). Leavis held Hard Times in high esteem, though none of Dickens’s other works earned a place in his English canon.

In The Great Tradition, Leavis suggested that there exists an identifiable tradition of English literary works that do not just entertain us, but also make us better people. Leavis’s view had an influence on me as a young student, and it still does today. As I return to Dickens’s novel nearly forty years later, is Hard Times still the masterpiece, the exquisite moral fable, that Leavis claimed it was?

Leavis pointed out that the novel has been consistently sidelined because it doesn’t fit the usual criteria for a “proper” piece of literature. It doesn’t have dynamic characters, for example, and it doesn’t create a coherent universe. Each aspect of the novel is instead bent towards making points that could have been handled in a manifesto. 

Hard Times begins with the words of the schoolmaster, Thomas Gradgrind: “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.”

As a teenager, I found the rigid character of Gradgrind—the man of facts, facts, facts—funny, and certainly not to be taken seriously. I also laughed at the preposterous self-made man Bounderby, Gradgrind’s friend and associate. At the time, the book did not trouble me much, and indeed seemed rather light. But now, as an adult, Dickens’s book seems like an impassioned assault on, a howl of outrage at, the society the author had chronicled. In his other novels, social critiques are generally grouses, while the comedy and pathos are front and center. But here, he offers a blast of moral indignation at those who see the world in terms of productivity and efficiency alone.

Dickens wrote the novel in such a rush—it was serialized in the weekly journal Household Words, which he was editing at the time—that he said he felt “three parts mad, and the fourth delirious” during the final part of its construction. Before finishing the novel, he took a trip up to Preston in Lancashire, a cotton town, to see for himself the effects of a painful strike that occurred there in 1853–54. This trip is believed to have impacted the writing of Hard Times—the character Slackbridge, for instance, was probably based on the union leader Mortimer Grimshaw—and perhaps triggered unpleasant memories of his time working in a shoe factory as a boy.

What is it that Dickens’s moral fable aims to torpedo? Surely the commodification of labor and the reduction of human beings to mere “hands” in industrial Britain. But there’s also another bigger target: the Utilitarian mindset that sees the world in terms of numbers and facts. (We might see a parallel today in the algorithms that secretly rule so much of our lives.) As Arthur Conan Doyle said out through the lips of Sherlock Holmes, “individuals vary, but percentages remain constant.” What is most interesting in Hard Times isn’t so much the description of the effects of the dehumanization of workers, but the odd (some might say weak) antidote that Dickens proposes.

At the very start, Dickens draws the battlelines. The brittle Gradgrind declares his obsession with facts. It is facts that can describe the world and create order, somehow taking out the risk inherent in being alive. In this welter of logic, the enemy is imagination. The schoolchildren must be purged of it; it must be “stormed away.”

In due course, Gradgrind falls apart. His family is a wreck, and his worldview is revealed to be hollow. But maybe it is the cure that explains why the book still has legs, even in these cynical times. Dickens puts up an unlikely countercultural antidote: the loving family of a circus performer, whose daughter attends Gradgrind’s school. What matters to them is the triumph of fancy, wonderment, and kindness. Love thy neighbor as thyself is at the heart of this alternative view of reality that Dickens proposes. It was radical when first voiced two thousand years ago by a certain Jewish carpenter, and it was in a country in the grip of industrialization, and it is still radical today.

Ten years after the publication of Leavis’s The Great Tradition, the Cambridge don and Marxist Raymond Williams took aim at Leavis in his book Culture and Society (1958). He argued, and who can blame him, that the circus is a flimsy bulwark against the terrors of the ruling classes. He points to a certain sentimentality, even muddle, in Dickens’s choice of targets, as well as what he suggests as a cure. The Benthamites, after all, were behind many social goods. I agree with Williams that Dickens’s portrayal of the self-made and ghastly industrialist Bounderby is patronizing and shallow, but he’s a very easy target.

Hard Times didn’t touch me as a student, precisely because it didn’t have those aforementioned elements of “proper” English literature. I still look for characters that live on outside the pages of a book. I want worlds that feel real and create that sense of escape—just as nighttime dreams transport us to other worlds. Some of my best friends I have met in the pages of novels.

But on one point Dickens’s fable doesn’t creak. Hard Times reveals our need for deep and abiding wonder, ignited, for instance, by the costumes and acrobatic feats of the circus performers. Wonder isn’t just an escape, it is also a way of seeing the world that can sustain us through hard times. Dickens places that sense of wonder at the heart of human love and family. He is right on this. We could not measure out life on a slide-rule—even if they still existed.

Dickens gives us a short mad blast of indignation at the sidelining of imagination, yes, but there is something else too. Without fancy and wonder, without the heart as well as the head, we are all but hollow men and women unable to grasp the essential “deep magic,” as C. S. Lewis called it, of life. It is something we still need to hear.

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