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Hard Times

Charles Dickens

About Hard Times

Hard Times, a social protest novel of nineteenth-century England, is aptly titled. Not only does the working class, known as the "Hands," have a "hard time" in this novel; so do the other classes as well. Dickens divided the novel into three separate books, two of which, "Sowing" and "Reaping," exemplify the biblical concept of "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians 6:7).

The third book, entitled "Garnering," Dickens paraphrased from the book of Ruth, in which Ruth garnered grain in the fields of Boaz. Each of his major characters sows, each reaps, and each garners what is left.

Since Charles Dickens wrote of the conditions and the people of his time, it is worthwhile to understand the period in which he lived and worked.

No British sovereign since Queen Elizabeth I has exerted such a profound influence on an age as did Queen Victoria (1837-1901). She presided over the period rather than shaped it. The nineteenth century was an age of continual change and unparalleled expansion in almost every field of activity. Not only was it an era of reform, industrialization, achievement in science, government, literature, and world expansion but also a time when people struggled to assert their independence. Man, represented en masse as the laboring class, rose in power and prosperity and gave his voice to government.

There were great intellectual and spiritual disturbances both in society and within the individual. The literature of the period reflects the conflict between the advocates of the triumphant material prosperity of the country and those who felt it had been achieved by the exploitation of human beings at the expense of spiritual and esthetic values. In theory, people of the period committed themselves on the whole to a hard-headed utilitarianism, yet most of the literature is idealistic and romantic.

The prophets of the time deplored the inroads of science upon religious faith, but the Church of England was revivified by the Oxford Movement; evangelical Protestantism was never stronger and more active; and the Roman Catholic Church was becoming an increasingly powerful religious force in England.

Not even in politics were the issues clear-cut. The Whigs prepared the way for the great economic reform of the age, the repeal of the Corn Laws; but it was a Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel, who finally brought that repeal through Parliament.

This century, marked by the Industrial Revolution, was also a century of political and economic unrest in the world: America was torn by the strife of the Civil War; France was faced with the problem of recovery from the wars of Napoleon; and Germany was emerging as a great power.

The Industrial Revolution, though productive of much good, created deplorable living conditions in England. Overcrowding in the cities as a consequence of the population shift from rural to urban areas and the increase in the numbers of immigrants from poverty-stricken Ireland resulted in disease and hunger for thousands of the laboring class. But with the fall of Napoleon, the returning soldiers added not only to the growing numbers of workers but also to the hunger and misery. With the advent of the power loom came unemployment. A surplus labor supply caused wages to drop. Whole families, from the youngest to the oldest, had to enter the factories, the woolen mills, the coal mines, or the cotton mills in order to survive. Children were exploited by employers; for a pittance a day a nine-year-old worked twelve and fourteen hours in the mills, tied to the machines, or in the coal mines pulling carts to take the coal from the shafts. Their fingers were smaller and quicker than those of adults; thus, for picking out the briars and burrs from both cotton and wool, employers preferred to hire children.

Studies of the working and living conditions in England between 1800 and 1834 showed that 82 percent of the workers in the mills were between the ages of eleven and eighteen. Many of these studies proved that 62 percent of the workers in the fabric mills had tuberculosis. The factories were open, barnlike structures, not equipped with any system of heat and ventilation.

These studies, presented to Parliament, resulted in some attempt to bring about reforms in working conditions and to alleviate some of the dire poverty in England. In 1802, the Health Act was passed to provide two hours of instruction for all apprentices. In 1819, a child labor law was enacted which limited to eleven hours a day the working hours of children five to eleven years of age; however, this law was not enforced.

The first great "Victorian" reform antedated Queen Victoria by five years. Until 1832 the old Tudor list of boroughs was still in use. As a result, large towns of recent growth had no representation in Parliament, while some unpopulated localities retained theirs. In essence, the lords who controlled these boroughs (known as rotten boroughs in history) sold seats to the highest bidders. This political pattern was broken when the Reform Bill of 1832 abolished all boroughs with fewer than two thousand inhabitants and decreased by 50 percent the number of representatives admitted from towns with a population between two thousand and four thousand. Only after rioting and a threat of civil war did the House of Lords approve the Reform Bill. With this bill came a new type of Parliament — one with representatives from the rising middle class-and several other important reforms.

In 1833, the Emancipation Bill ended slavery in British colonies, with heavy compensation to the owners. Even though chattel slavery was abolished, industrial slavery continued. Also in 1833 came the first important Factory Law, one which prohibited the employment of children under the age of nine. Under this law, children between the ages of nine and thirteen could not work for more than nine hours a day. Night work was prohibited for persons under twenty-one years of age and for all women. By 1849, subsequent legislation provided half day or alternate days of schooling for the factory children, thus cutting down the working hours of children fourteen or under.

The Poor Law of 1834 provided for workhouses; indigent persons, accustomed to living where they pleased, bitterly resented this law, which compelled them to live with their families in workhouses In fact, the living conditions were so bad that these workhouses were named the "Bastilles of the Poor." Here the poor people, dependent upon the government dole, were subjected to the inhuman treatment of cruel supervisors; an example is Mr. Bumble in Dickens' Oliver Twist. If the people rejected this rule of body and soul, they had two alternatives as the machines took more jobs and the wages dropped — either steal or starve. Conditions in prisons were even more deplorable than in the workhouses. Debtors' prison, as revealed in Dickens' David Copperfield, was a penalty worse than death.

The undemocratic character of the Reform Bill of 1832, the unpopularity of the Poor Law, and the unhappy conditions of the laborers led to the Chartist Movement of the 1840s. The demands of the Chartist Movement were the abolition of property qualifications for members of Parliament, salaries for members of Parliament, annual election of Parliament, equal electoral districts, equal manhood suffrage, and voting by secret ballot. Chartism, the most formidable working-class movement England had ever seen, failed. The Chartists had no way to identify their cause with the interests of any influential class. Ultimately, though, most of the ends they sought were achieved through free discussion and legislative action.

In 1846, the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, led the repeal of the Corn Laws of 1815. With the repeal of these laws, which were nothing more than protective tariffs in the interest of the landlords and farmers to prevent the importation of cheap foreign grain, came a period of free trade and a rapid increase in manufacture and commerce which gave the working class an opportunity to exist outside the workhouses.

As the country awoke to the degradation of the working classes, industrial reform proceeded gradually but inevitably, in spite of the advocates of laissez-faire and industrial freedom. The political life of the nineteenth century was tied up with its economic theories. The doctrine of laissez-faire (let alone), first projected by Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, was later elaborated upon by Jeremy Bentham and T. R. Malthus, whose doctrine of Utility was the principle of "the greatest happiness for the greatest number." In other words, this principle meant that the government should allow the economic situation to adjust itself naturally through the laws of supply and demand. With this system, a person at one extreme be-comes a millionaire and at the other, a beggar. Thomas Carlyle called this system of economy "the dismal science." Dickens, influenced by Carlyle, castigated it again and again. The Utilitarians, however, helped bring about the repeal of the Corn Laws and to abolish cruel punishment. When Victoria became queen, there were four hundred and thirty-eight offenses punishable by death. During her reign, the death penalty was limited to two offenses — murder and treason. With the softening of the penalties and the stressing of prevention and correction came a decrease in crime.

Even though writers of the period protested human degradation under modern industrialism, the main factor in improvement of conditions for labor was not outside sympathy but the initiative taken by the workers themselves. They learned that organized trade unions were more constructive to their welfare than riots and the destruction of machines, which had occurred during the Chartist Movement. Gradually the laboring classes won the right to help themselves. Trade unions were legalized in 1864; two workingmen candidates were elected to Parliament in 1874.

Karl Marx founded the first International Workingmen's Association in London in 1864; three years later he published Das Kapital, a book of modern communism. In 1884, the Fabian Society appeared, headed by Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and other upper middle-class intellectuals. The Fabians believed that socialism would come about gradually without violence.

Once the rights of the workers were recognized, education became of interest to Parliament. In 1870, the Elementary Education Bill provided education for all; in 1891, free common education for all became compulsory. Poet George Meredith and economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill worked for "female emancipation." From this period of change came such women as Florence Nightingale and Frances Powers.

Politics and economics do not make up the whole of a nation's life. In the nineteenth century, both religion and science affected the thought and the literature of the period. In 1833, after the Reform Bill of 1832, a group of Oxford men, dissatisfied with the conditions of the Church of England, began the Oxford Movement with the purpose of bringing about in the Church a reformation which would increase spiritual power and emphasize and restore the Catholic doctrine and ritual. Begun by John Keble, the movement carried on its reforms primarily through a series of papers called Tracts for the Times. Chief among the reformers was John Henry Newman, a vicar of St. Mary's.

The second half of Queen Victoria's reign was one of prosperity and advancement in science. Inventions such as the steam engine, the telephone, telegraph, and the wireless made communication easier and simpler. Man became curious about and interested in the unknown. New scientific and philosophic research in the fields of geology and biology influenced the religious mind of England. A series of discoveries with respect to Man's origin challenged accepted opinions regarding the universe and our place in it. Sir Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology (1830-33) established a continuous history of life on this planet; Sir Frances Galton did pioneer work in the field of heredity; Charles Darwin's Origin of Species gave the world the theory of evolution. The Origin of Species maintained that all living creatures had developed through infinite differentiations from a single source. This one work had the most profound influence of all secular writings on the thinking of the period. Following its publication, there were three schools of thought concerning Man's origin: first, Darwin's evidence did not justify his conclusions; therefore, nothing had changed in religious beliefs regarding origin and creation. Second, Darwin's evidence had left no room for God in the universe; therefore, everything had changed and thinking must change. Third, Darwin's theories simply reaffirmed the Biblical concepts; therefore, "evolution is just God's way of doing things."

The conflict between the theologians and the scientists raged not only throughout the remainder of the century but was inevitably reflected in the literature of the period. Poets of the era can be classified through their attitudes toward religion and science. Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning stand as poets of faith, whereas Matthew Arnold and Arthur Hugh Clough represent the skeptics and the doubters. Later Victorian verse showed less of the conflict than the earlier.

Historians have called Charles Dickens the greatest of the Victorian novelists. His creative genius was surpassed only by that of Shakespeare. Many later novelists were to feel the influence of this writer, whose voice became the trumpet of protest against economic conditions of the age. George Bernard Shaw once said that Little Dorrit was as seditious a book as Das Kapital. Thus, according to critics, Dickens' Hard Times is a relentless indictment of the callous greed of the Victorian industrial society and its misapplied utilitarian philosophy.