Hard Times is not one of the greatest novels in the language like Dickens’s Great Expectations. It is far too taut to showcase Dickens’s strength, that luxurious attention to character and prose style. This is perhaps because it was written as a weekly serial instead of the usual monthly serial. In any event, it is a novel built more on ideas than on vivid, complex characters, and hence not on the best foundation for Dickens’s peculiar kind of literary edifice.
Hard Times, however, has several advantages in the undergraduate classroom. (Great Expectations might more interesting than Hard Times at the upper or English majors only levels, with its surface plot resting on layers and layers of symbolic strata.) For the general survey, Hard Times brings the political and thematic climate of Victorian England into focus more quickly and more sharply than the other novels: Captains of Industry (Adam Smith/Bounderby) vs. Marxists (Slackbridge) vs. Bourgeois Liberals (Gradgrind, ultimately). Other players like Sissy and Harthouse and Sleary are worthy of book-length analyses in their own right, but that basic tripartite political backdrop is a great introduction to the historical forces of the century. And Hard Times is more than adequate to introduce stylistic markers of Victorian realism (partly reflected in and partly invented by Dickens), although they may come to fuller flower in Dickens’s other novels. Hard Times is certainly better than the oft-taught Oliver Twist as an introduction to the stylistic and historical markers of the dominant genre of the time, and is probably better in terms of its sharper focus for undergraduates than the more luxurious Great Expectations or Tale of Two Cities.
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