Teaching Dickens: Hard Times

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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BookCoverImage     year-bfly-cover          mgg cov clipped 2019-11-23

9 thoughts on “Teaching Dickens: Hard Times

  1. And there’s one other advantage that I suppose you alluded to in words like “taut” — it’s a whole lot shorter than most other Dickens novels! I suspect that’s one of the main reasons it is taught so often, even in conservative college settings that wouldn’t necessarily appreciate the sharp political focus.
    When I started reading, I thought that you were about to discuss teaching Dickens in hard times (as in, the time of the coronavirus)!
    Thanks for reminding me that there is a whole world out there beyond my current preoccupations, a world of literature (so reassuring) and a world where the struggle is as hard as it was in Dickens’ time.
    J

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Josna. Yes, vulgar as it sounds, length is a factor. With two weeks to teach a classic novel to undergraduate non-majors, justice can be done to Hard Times but not to Great Expectations — and largely because of length. I may be pilloried for saying this, but I think (hope) that when the dust settles in a few months, our struggle with coronavirus, though significant, will fall short of the struggles of the working class in Victorian Manchester. Gary

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      • Thanks for replying, Gary. I don’t think its vulgar to acknowledge that pragmatism has to play a part in our teaching. I haven’t been able to make some of my favorite novels staples in my teaching for this very reason. Sometimes it’s better to be able to lay out the themes and conflicts clearly and take the time to make sure one’s students really get it.
        I sincerely hope you’re right that, in retrospect, this coronavirus turn out to be a relatively minor episode in our modern history. I certainly didn’t mean to equate privileged people’s toilet paper shortages with the child labor and exploitation of the Victorian era! Only, when I read “Hard Times” in your title my mind went to our current hard times — which will hit the poorest and most vulnerable pretty hard if the world’s governments only bail out the big corporations.
        And I meant it when I said that it was good to be reminded that literature offers us perspective, other times than our own to reflect on.

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        • A lesson in pragmatism. I remember thinking my freshman class might like some 18th-century humor and assigned Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (again, because much shorter than Tom Jones and less dependent on topical allusion). They came in after the first assignment of 50 pages, and half of them did not realize it was a comedy. “Gee,” I thought. “Great book. Wrong class.” Thanks for chiming in, Josna. I’m enjoying your blog.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Argh. Great story (though you might not have thought so at the time). We live and learn. I have assigned novels that the students have dutifully read, but have come up empty and confounded, like, “Whaaa”?
            I’ve enjoyed this exchange too; look forward to reading more of your blog, and thanks for visiting mine.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, this book is built more on ideas as you put it. It is unlike Dicken’s usual landscape. I studied Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities in school but wish it could have been Hard Times. And, with your comparison of Hard Times with Oliver Twist, I am intrigued to read that at the earliest. I really liked reading this post!

    Liked by 1 person

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