Hard Times – For These Times (more commonly now known as Hard Times) is the tenth novel by Charles Dickens, first published in 1854. The book appraises English society and is aimed at highlighting the social and economic pressures of the times. It was Charles Dickens’s only novel about the industrial working class.
Hard Times is set during the mid-nineteenth-century in Coketown, a fictitious industrial northern English mill-town, similar to the Lancashire cotton producing towns such as Manchester or Preston. Dickens visited Preston at the early stages of writing the novel during a period of industrial unrest in the town. The buildings of Coketown are utilitarian, reflecting the theme of utilitarianism that Dickens mocks in Hard Times, their dull uniform appearance built for the interests of the machines that run inside them rather than the people that live or work there. The factories of the town belch out pollution discolouring the bland red bricks that many are built of. There is no regard to the health of the people that live in Coketown, the poorer people having to live in filthy slum-like areas beside the dirty factories, whilst the wealthy owners can afford to live further away.
Hard Times revolves around the character of Thomas Gradgrind , a wealthy former merchant in Coketown. A strict utilitarian, Gradgrind has blighted the upbringing of his five children, particularly Louisa and Tom, with his repressive approach to facts over imagination. Retired, Gradgrind is now a school board Superintendent and monitors the teaching of M’Choakumchild in a school that includes the pupils Cecilia (Sissy) Jupe and Bitzer. Gradgrind’s business associate is the heartless Josiah Bounderby, a callous, self-centred factory owner. One of Bounderby’s employee’s is the impoverished Stephen Blackpool, estranged from a drunken wife he forms a close bond with co-worker Rachael.
The Utilitarians were one of the targets of Dickens’ satire in Hard Times. Utilitarianism was a prevalent school of thought during this period, its founders being Jeremy Bentham and James Mill, father to political theorist John Stuart Mill. Bentham’s former secretary, Edwin Chadwick, helped design the Poor Law of 1834, which deliberately made workhouse life as uncomfortable as possible, and which Dickens was critical of (and used his novel Oliver Twist to attack). Dickens saw utilitarianism as a selfish philosophy. The beginning of Hard Times is set in a school where a utilitarian approach to education is creating young adults whose imaginations are been neglected due to an over-emphasis on facts at the expense of more imaginative pursuits. He contasts this approach by introducing a circus into the story, a haven for fun to the monotony of the residents of Coketown.
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The novel was published as a serial in Dickens’s weekly publication, Household Words. The novel was serialised, in twenty weekly parts, between 1 April and 12 August 1854. It sold well, and a complete volume was published in August, and divided into three parts, titled “Sowing“, “Reaping” and “Garnering“. Another related novel, North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, began serialisation in Household Words in the same year.
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The Condition of England.
Hard Times belongs to a genre of literature from the mid-19th-century referred to by academics as the Condition-of-England novels. This group of fictions were concerned with the condition of the working classes in the new industrial age. The works were published in Victorian England during and after the period of a deacde known as the Hungry Forties. The gritty realism of the stories was a huge departure from the Romanticism that dominated literature from the end of the 18th century and into the early part of the 19th-century. The Condition-of-England novels offer the reader an insight into the social ills in a developing industrial society although critics have argued that they tended to be exaggerated.
Condition-of-England novels include Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847), Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and North and South (1854–1855), Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley (1849), Charles Kingsley’s Yeast: A Problem (1848) and Alton Locke (1850) and George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), written on the eve of the second Reform Act and considered the last novel in the genre. Other works by Charles Dickens considered to be Condition-of-England novels are Dombey and Son (1848) and Bleak House (1853).
North and South.
Hard Times appeared in the same year as the novel North and South, by the English writer Elizabeth Gaskell. Both novels had shared themes of poverty and industrial strife set in a northern industrial town. Four years earlier Gaskell had achieved success with her first novel, Mary Barton, which prompted Dickens to ask her to write for his weekly journal Household Words. In early 1854, when Gaskell discovered Dickens was writing Hard Times she sought assurances that part of her story wouldn’t be replicated. However she did not get them and when it came to publishing North and South, Dickens tried to amend the work, including cutting out parts of the story to make it shorter. It led to a cooling of relations between Dickens and Gaskell. North and South began serialisation in Household Words on 2 September 1854, three weeks after the final chapters of Hard Times had appeared.