Women and Education in Hard Times Book Review

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens makes the commentary that young people need more than just facts in order to be considered educated. The narrow-minded headmaster who opens the book by insisting on facts and nothing but facts (Dickens 1) serves as the symbol of a narrow-minded modern world devoid of soul. For Dickens, women often represent the beauty and grace of a soul filled with life and creativity. Yet it is this life and creativity that is driven out of the soul by the arrival of Industrialization and its brutal textile mills where women and child were forced to work by the hard times of the ages social and economic conditions. Dickens himself characterized these mills as dark and satanic (Tuttle). In Victorian England, Charles Dickens was showing his readers that young people needed more than facts and mills: they needed to have their hearts and minds educated and their characters formed.


Women play a significant role in the formation of the heart and mind in many of Dickens works. In Hard Times, the soul is represented by Louisa, who is stifled by the insufferable education under her father Gradgrind, and Sissy, who resists this same education and sets out for the circus to find her father. Louisa listlessly consents to a marriage to an old mill proprietor. Her emotions and affection, nearly killed by her soul-crushing education, leave her in a faint at her fathers feet, a symbol of how his own actions have been working to kill the soul of London and how the actions of his friend, Louisas old husband, have been doing essentially the same thing.


Gradgrind is converted and abandons his utilitarian philosophy of education and Louisa and Sissy go on to have meaningful lives, with Sissy becoming a mother (a creative act), whose children love Louisa for her kindness (love of soul), and Louisa encouraging and promoting creativity and imagination as her lifes work. Thus, Dickens shows that the only happy ending that Victorian London can have for itself is if it returns to the soul, appreciates creativity, beauty and imagination, and gives up its foolish pursuit of facts as though human beings were mere machines that could be programmed. The characters in Hard Times prove that human beings are not machines, but have hearts and minds that feel, sacrifice, help, hurt, and give.


As Sam Stack writes, with Hard Times, Dickens presents a critique of industrialization, utilitarianism, reason, pedagogy and the educational system of his day (7). What Dickens has to say about the act of education itself is that teaching may be an artistic endeavor and that there is much more to learning than the simple acquisition of information (Stack 8). Information is useless if the heart and mind are not formed appropriately. Information without heart is represented by old mill proprietor Bounderby, whose lack of soul is represented by his absent mother, who is kept away from him. Without the presence of a real, genuine, loving woman in his life, Bounderby grows up to be a humbug. He cares only about his mills and making money off the back-breaking labor of the poor. As Elizabeth Pleck shows, it was the Bounderby type of Industrialist who turned child labor into the terrible thing it was in Victorian England: prior to Industrialization, labor was less intensive, less inhumane, less destructive to the mind and soul (Pleck).


Louisa and Sissy have heart, however. The wayward Tom is even forgiven and saved by them (and the converted Gradgrind), and sent off to America, where he becomes sorry for his sins. Facts and information and a utilitarian education are no substitute for heart and soul and a well-formed character. Tom would be lost without the heart and care of those who love him unconditionally. Gradgrind would be lost without the soulful dedication of his daughter to the creative impulse. Sissy would be lost had she remained in Gradgrinds school instead of following her better impulse to pursue her father in the circus.


All of this indicates that Dickens despises the utilitarian school because it teaches a false concept of humanity. Dickens does not believe that facts and information are all it takes to form a human being. Bounderby is not an ideal representative of human nature. He is a humbuga man devoid of soul. Louisa and Sissy on the other hand are held up as models of human love and compassioni.e., as that which makes the world go round. Gradgrind realizes this and is saved. He renounces his utilitarian beliefs and is scorned by the rest of high society in Londonbut, of course, we already know what Dickens thinks of that society. It is humbug and can keep its scorn.


In conclusion, in Hard Times, Dickens shows that, like the children of Sissy, young people need an education of the heart and mind that is rooted in love and imagination. Louisa helps to provide that education and serves as a beacon of light for the future in an otherwise cold and calculating world that is too much taken with the likes of the teachings of Adam Smith and Thomas Malthus (namesakes, ironically, of the other children of Gradgrind). Dickens shows that education is important, but it must be the right kind of educationan education that uplifts and provides soul food. For Dickens soul food is based in kindness, the creative spirit, and a willingness to have heart. The heart and mind must be disciplined and focused, as Louisa and Sissy show throughout their struggles, and they must be willing to put others first. But then that is the essence of a true character education.


Works Cited


Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. England: Bradbury and Evans, 1854.


Pleck, Elizabeth. Two Worlds in One: Work and Family. Journal of Social History,10, 2 (Winter, 1976), 178-195.


Stack, Sam. Charles Dickens and John Dewey: Nurturing the Imagination. Journal of Thought, 37, 3 (Fall 2002), 7-23.


Tuttle, Carloyn. Child Labor during the British Industrial Revolution. EH, 2001. www.eh.net/?s=child+labor+in+the+industrial+revolution



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