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The Problem of Power and Powerlessness in “Hard Times” by Charles Dickens


The problems of public life and power are central in any culture, and their poignancy is expressed throughout the history of literature: literary forms are often seen as a safe place for ideas to dwell. The desire to achieve a lawful legal order and a moral and ethical climate in society has been discussed by authors of numerous styles and found reflection in their works. Charles Dickens was one of those writers who were critical of the political and economical environment of their times and expressed his dissatisfaction with Victorian Britain in Hard Times. Therefore, one of the most predominant themes in the novel is power, especially regarding its imbalance between the working class and industrialists, and the ridiculousness of the bourgeois ideology of the latter.

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In Hard Times, Dickens, most fully and with particular acuteness, reveals his attitude towards Victorian society. The novel, written in 1854, is a proclamation of economic inequality and powerlessness of the working class and one of the essential writings containing social criticism and examining power as one of its most noticeable themes (Sharma 22). Hard Times may be regarded as a resistance manifestation in opposition to the exploitation of the poor and their general dehumanization. As Borunda notices, “the shift to utilitarianism and the boom of industry provided a causal factor responsible for a rise in factual thinking and a decline in compassion and the arts” (2). In this way, the novel may be regarded as an attempt to expose the vices of Victorian society and its general critique.

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Dickens started criticizing the utilitarian aspect of Victorian society in his earlier works, for instance, in Oliver Twist, where he also advocated for the poor and oppressed – this characteristic is only further developed in the novel in question. Dickens continues to affirm his belief in the English working class and the honesty of ordinary workers in Hard Times. Dickens investigates in the novel the ability to climb the social ladder without someone else’s help and the limit to which an individual can push themselves to rise above the crowd.

Hard Times conveys an acute feeling of social interconnection between all the characters, showing a deep understanding of the fate of each individual about the future of a whole class. Dickens explores the structure of Victorian society by dissembling it into smaller pieces and looking at each case one by one. Personal secrets, hidden wills, committed atrocities are not only milestones that mark private destinies, but they are also a derivative of public processes. The secrets also have their patterns, revealing themselves, they expose the hidden mechanisms of social structures.

The plot of Hard Times revolves around two friends: one is a wealthy banker engaged in counting and making money, and the second one is a deputy in the parliament. Thomas Gradgrind, a deputy, is a man utterly devoid of feelings and relying only on facts and figures. He has five children whom he brings up all in a loveless manner. Throughout the story, the effect that such upbringing has on the characters of the deputy’s children is revealed: Gradgrind’s educational methods have led to lamentable results. For instance, his daughter, who is entirely disappointed in life, marries her father’s friend, a banker who is 30 years older than her, as she becomes indifferent to the events of her life. Gradgrind’s son, Tom, partially forces his sister into this marriage, since he learned the father’s lesson – money, numbers, personal benefits are the most crucial aspects of a person’s existence; feelings and compassion are unfamiliar to him. In this way, Gradgrind does not only waste his own life in the pursuit of prestige and power but also the lives of his children.

Thomas Gradgrind is the most vivid and satirical representation of a power-hungry Victorian bourgeois in Hard Times. The self-proclaimed man of reality, of facts and figures, is utterly indifferent to the fate of working-class people, unable and unwilling to go beyond statistics. Sharma states that “Gradgrind’s philosophy of facts is a perfect example of the heartless and cruel aspect of materialistic Victorian society where Gradgrind and Bounderby are the chief exponents of this ideology” (19). Moreover, Dickens uses Bounderby’s appearance to accentuate his icy and lifeless character: he wears a rectangular frock coat, has square legs and shoulders, and even his tie holds him by the throat in a vicious grip. The character is an example of an industrialist occupying a privileged position and wanting to exercise authority over his workers.

The story reaches its climax when Gradgrind’s son, Tom, is robbing a bank owned by his sister’s husband. Besides, the young man jeopardizes an entirely innocent man – a poor tailor who ultimately dies because of the scorn of the crowd, accused of a crime that he did not commit. Gradgrind’s son, not able to take responsibility for his actions, first hides in a circus, and then altogether flees to another town. At the end of Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind admits that how he raised his children is not only far from ideal but completely untenable.

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On the other hand, Mrs. Gradgrind has almost no presence in the novel, and it is suggested that she did not participate actively in the lives of her children. One of the reasons Gradgrind married her was her weakness that gave him many opportunities to manipulate their children. Even though Mrs. Gradgrind was unable to influence her children’s destinies, she recognizes the fallaciousness of their upbringing. On her death bed, Mrs. Gradgring says to her daughter, “you learned a great deal, Louisa, and so did your brother… But there is something – not an ology at all – that your father has missed, or forgotten, Louisa” (Dickens 150). Unfortunately, Mrs. Gradgrind’s revelations come too late, when the lives of Louisa and Tom are corrupted by the education they received.

The desire to gain power is further embodied in the character of Josiah Bounderby, Gradgrind’s friend, and an industrialist, who allegedly moved up in society only through his efforts. The background of childhood misery and poverty does not render Bounderby a sympathetic character. Nevertheless, he is a character who deserves empathy despite his inflated ego. Bounderby’s story portraying him as a self-made man contradicts his mother’s words and is revealed to be a hoax: effectively, young Josiah receives a decent education, has loving parents, and grows up in a comparatively comfortable economic situation. The character lives in the times of social change spurred by industrialization and the rapid development of capitalism – this environment forms Bounderby’s worldview and gives more chances to sate his power-hunger (Borunda 9). In the times where bloodline cedes its importance to pushfulness and cunningness, wealth starts to measure a person’s power. Bounderby thrives on this social upheaval: seemingly, he is in his prime condition, when Mrs. Sparsit becomes his housekeeper.

The issues of power and powerlessness are deeply imprinted in Mrs. Sparsit’s character, who used to possess a fortune as an aristocrat, but with the change of social hierarchy is forced to work for an industrialist. Balkaya emphasizes that “changes in the landscape, industrial cities, and population growth due to industrialization somehow pushed Dickens to become the voice of the voiceless and oppressed groups, namely: women, orphans, and workers” (44). In this way, Mrs. Sparsit incarnates the rapid change of the roles and desire to regain power back, which she plans to do by marrying Bounderby and thus obtaining her previous social status. Although Mrs. Sparsit used to belong to a privileged group, the change in the production system pushed her down the social ladder.

The use of power plays a crucial role in the understanding of the novel: Bounderby, for instance, uses his authority recklessly, with disregard to the effects it causes. Although the character managed to rise in the society to a capitalist from a more or less humble background, he prolongs the vicious circle of the corrupted relationships between the rich and the poor. Dickens, in his usual manner, continues to propagate humanitarian values; still, a certain amount of bitterness and despair is woven into the fabric of the text (Sharma 2). Dreary intonations blend with the sarcastic tone of the writing, which detaches readers from the characters and the events, creating a transparent wall between them. This peculiarity of Dickens’s style manifests itself in the omniscient narrator’s tone, relating to the readers the inner world of each character. The choice to disengage the anonymous narrator from the story allows Hard Times to be mocking and sharp in tone. Seemingly, Dickens prefers to use third‑person narrators in the novels, where the tone is supposed to be somber and mocking.

The mythical Coketown, where the events of the novel unfold, is a representation of a typical industrialized town of the Victorian era with its fabrics, poverty, smoke, and constant grayness. Coketown is a place where a church may be mistaken for a factory since manufacturing obtains ubiquity in humans’ lives of the time? Dickens’s novels are frequently based on a series of realistic paintings in combination with satirical and grotesque imagery – Coketown is an incarnation of grotesque (Borunda 2). The narrator subjects characters, such as Bounderby and Gradgrind, to the relentless satirical disclosure, magnifying their vices and painting them as almost cartoonish. Using grotesque and exaggeration helps Dickens expand the symbolic meaning of various images; for instance, by portraying the exterior ugliness, the author accentuates interior corruptness. Dickens’s descriptions of Coketown allow readers to take a look at the alarming reality of the powerless industrial working class of the era, where the individual pursuit of happiness is crushed under the boot of utilitarianism.


The novel’s elements (characters, setting, and plot) are directly involved in demonstrating and exploring the theme of power, adding up to reveal the meaning. Dickens’ Hard times show England divided into two worlds: powerful industrialists who managed to capitalize on the societal changes of the era and powerless working class that has to adapt to the dehumanization. These two antagonistic camps are presented in a state of struggle with each other. One of the leading meanings of the novel that stems from this struggle is the ridiculousness of the inhuman bourgeois ideology that reduces a person and their work to a sum of numbers and statistics. The town of factories and coal in the north of England, bearing the symbolic name “Coketown,” is the personification of the cruelty and soullessness of the industrialization of Victorian-era that left a whole class vulnerable to exploitation.

Works Cited

Balkaya, Mehmet Akif. The Industrial Novels: Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley, Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.

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Borunda, Andrea. “Mechanical Metaphor and the Emotive in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times”. The Victorian, vol. 3, no. 2, 2015, pp. 1-10.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.

Sharma, Sandeep Kumar. “Charles Dickens’s Hard Times: a Social Document”. Epitome: International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, vol. 3, no. 12, 2017, pp. 19-24.

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