The characters created by Charles Dickens in Hard Times are a collection of victims and victimizers, some pitiable, others damnable. Dickens juxtaposes the errors of rationalism against the established values that individuals hold within a circus group. Through the characterisation of Thomas Gradgrind and his children Tom and Louisa, Dickens examines the impoverishment of life through the metaphor of the circus and its people, and the mistakes of a man whose love for his children comes to serve as a commentary on his problematic values. Paul Schlicke argues ‘Gradgrind is a crusading theorist, whose ill-conceived idealism blinds him to the essential humanity of those around him, with calamitous results.’
Louisa is the central female figure in Hard Times, who serves as a powerful critique of the Industrial Revolution. Her de-humanization, a result of her father’s ‘unbending, utilitarian, matter-of-fact choice of parenting, has led her to a life of suppressed passions and curiosities. Indoctrinated since childhood with her father’s principles of ‘Facts and calculations… and nothing over…, she struggles to please him beneath his guidance of a life led by Fact. She acquiesces into a loveless marriage, a result of her father’s rationalism, a rationalism that made no allowance for noble human qualities; and finds in Sissy’s presence the human values missing from her life. Similarly, Tom, under the same influence, becomes a degenerate gambler and criminal, soon finding his affairs too much to manage when he robs a bank. The cold, fact-based exterior their father represents repeatedly reminds the reader that there is no room for idle fantasizing or wonder and entices Louisa to realise from a young age that something is missing from her life.
This is evident early in the novel when Gradgrind finds his children Tom and Louisa peeping into the loophole of a circus. The circus represents an escape from the hardships and cares of daily life. For Louisa, it represents possibilities of fulfilment missing under her father’s system. Gradgrind is astonished by this act of disobedience because it challenges his principles. Tom’s de-humanization is established in his mechanized, monotone attitude when he ‘gave himself up to be taken home as a machine, but Louisa who ‘looked at her father with more boldness than Thomas’ foreshadows the transformation her character will go through. Paul Click says, ‘The scene involves three of the principal actors of the story, and points forward not only to the central crisis of Hard Times, in which the repressed longings of Tom and Louisa at last burst out, but also the resolution of the book, in which shattered lives and hopes are salvaged by the active agency of the circus proprietor, Mr. Leary, and the clown’s daughter, Sissy Jupe.’
The reader is presented with a messy, chaotic description of the circus. ‘He had reached the neutral ground upon the outskirts of the town, which was neither town nor country, and yet was either spoiled, when his ears were invaded by the sound of music. The clashing and banging band attached to the horse-riding establishment… was in full bray… a piece of stunted grass and dry rubbish.’
Dickens uses the circus to counter the orderly, efficient world that Thomas Gradgrind represents. It is used as a commentary on Gradgrind’s compulsion for ‘Facts and calculations’. Robert Higbie says Dickens ‘probably makes this scene ugly partly because this is how the circus appears to Gradgrind, the observer here. It is he, presumably, who feels the music is an invasion of his world and therefore ugly. His attitude represents society’s attitude toward the circus, reflecting societies attitude toward the imagination.’
Gradgrind cannot mathematically calculate the value of the circus people. Those who ‘dance upon rolling caskets, stand upon bottles, catch knives and balls, twirl hand-basins, ride upon anything, jump over everything, and stick at nothing. He, therefore, sees them and their disposition in society as valueless because their behavior fails to cohere into any sort of intelligible pattern. For Gradgrind, the circus produces nothing useful and so he assumes it does not work within industrial society.
Dickens specifically rejects Gradgrind’s negative view of ‘wonder, idleness, and folly’ and makes use of the compassion of the circus people to consistently drive the plot forward. The omniscient narrator states they have ‘a remarkable gentleness and childishness’ about them, traits clearly missing from characters such as Gradgrind and Bounderby. They are described as ‘deserving, often of as much respect, always of as much generous construction, as the everyday virtues of any class of people in the world’.’
Dickens believes they have ‘an untiring readiness to help and pity one another’ despite having a lifestyle that is not the established model of a good life. Dickens is aware the circus will not survive the industrial revolution, and he presents this through the fading of the circus in the plot and through the deterioration of Mr Sleary’s health. Salary is described as having a voice that is fading, ‘one fixed eye and one loose eye, a voice (if it can be called so) like the efforts of a broken old pair of bellows, a flabby surface, and a muddled head that was never sober and never drunk. He is never quite all there, always on the edge of fading away. Dickens also presents the harsh nature of the circus through Mr Sleary’s words to his daughter Sissy who leaves the circus for a life with Gradgrind. ‘You’ll make your fortune, I hope, and none of our poor forth will ever trouble you, I’ll pound it.’ This emphasizes the goodness within the circus people. Mr Sleary would send his own daughter away if it meant for her to live a better life.
The traditional values of the circus are once again constructed within the narrative toward the end of the novel. The character of Bounderby and his position as a successful capitalist owning a factory and a bank introduces the theme of industrial relations in the novel. It also provides an opportunity for the robbery Tom commits within the bank. The industrial world has little mercy for those who interfere with the law, and because Dickens clearly values the circus people, he brings them to the forefront of the plot to rescue Tom. It is ironic that a modern man such as Gradgrind, with the views he has, has no choice but to rely on the circus at the end of the novel to save his son.
Sissy is an allegory of the way in which values are transferred from one to the other. Sissy’s love and compassion for Louisa in the second half of the novel represent the ‘remarkable gentleness’ of the circus people. The gentle compassion Dickens transfers to the reader through the omniscient narrator represents his view that the traits of the circus should be carried over into the industrial world. He understands that the pre-industrial labour is not an ideal form of labour, but even so, believes it should be allowed to exist separately in the past, with values and qualities of the old labour transferred into the industrialized city. Barry Stiltner says ‘Sissy’s resistance to this draconian taxonomy is successful due to her refusal to forget her history in the circus and replace it with the codes of governmental “tabular statements” that classify people as if they were so many statistical figures to be processed and manipulated.’
The circus fading from the narrative is apparent once more in Dickens’s final description, as it disappears entirely from the lives of the central characters emphasising how there is no place for it in Dickens’s world.
Compassion, not ‘Fact’, in the form of Mr. Sleary, Sissy, and the circus people who represent the old community and labor force, was what was needed to emphasize Dickens’s social values within a narrative. Dickens relishes the role of being the omniscient narrator in order to establish his role as a social commentator. Dickens deals with the metaphor of the circus to establish his points. Dickens supports the industrial society, so long as it does not lose its humanity to errors of rationalism.