Monday, February 1, 2016

Michael5000 v. Dickens: Hard Times

2012 Assessment: I'm pretty sure I have not read it. [I was right!]

Current Reading: Eye-read in a Penguin Classics that's been around the house for a decade or three.

Hard Times is, like most of Charles Dickens’ work, driven by a profoundly humane impulse. Here as ever, Dickens wants to tell stories that are emotionally and intellectually involving, but also to demonstrate that decency can prevail over apathy and villainy. He wants to show his middle-class Victorian readers something of the conditions of the working classes, to cast light on the intricate social, political, educational, medical, geographical, legal, and architectural systems by which the cards were thoroughly stacked against the urban poor, and against himself in his own tough childhood. He is one of the founders of the modern social conscience, bless his heart.

The broadest target in Hard Times is an educational system based solely on the rote learning of facts. Early on we meet Mr. Gradgrind, who demands that his students, including his own children, commit a random treasury of technical esoterica to memory. He strives to save them from the distractions of emotion, self-expression, and entertainment, and comes off as a Victorian Mr. Spock without the madcap sense of whimsy. The second broadest target is the Victorian industrialist; our real villain will prove to be Mr. Bounderby, a gasbag who prides himself on his humble origins and holds his labor force in contempt for not having pulled themselves up to be factory owners like himself. To be exploited to the hilt, he might bluster, is no more than they deserve for their lack of initiative.

Now to a modern eye, the caricatures that Dickens offers seem pretty darn broad, but as the editor of my 1969 edition (a charmingly Marxist professor of the old school) is at pains to point out, the satire is not nearly as over-the-top as it seems in retrospect. Mid-Victorian regimentation of factory labor and education did such a fine job of parodying itself that the social critic had to strain to take things one step further. (The editor is disappointed only that Dickens does not call for the reader to rise up and cast off the chains of capitalism, but reasonably concedes that for him to do so would have really cut into his sales.)

But it is not the setting and situation that makes Hard Times a bad novel; it is the paper-thin characters that inhabit its mechanical contrivance of a plot. Most people know the principle of fiction writing that an author should “show, not tell.” In Hard Times, Dickens gets it backwards. He tells and does not show.

Let me show you what I mean. (See what I did there?) Here are three examples on facing pages 60 and 61, where I opened the book at random:
“Then I became a young vagabond; and instead of one old woman knocking me about and starving me, everybody of all ages knocked me about and starved me. They were right; they had no business to do anything else. I was a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest. I know that very well.”

His pride in having at any time of his life achieved such a great social distinction as to be a nuisance, an incumbrance, and a pest, was only to be satisfied by three sonorous repetitions of the boast.

In the first paragraph, we hear Mr. Bounderby blustering about his childhood. This is fine and good. In the second paragraph, Dickens essentially inserts a footnote explaining what the dialog was meant to convey about his character. This is tedious, and just a little insulting.
Mr. Gradgrind did not seem favourably impressed by these cogent remarks. He frowned impatiently.

Here, Dickens somewhat pompously tells us about how his character reacted, or “seemed” to react, before grudgingly giving us three words that show us what actually happened. The sad thing is that those three words, if left to their work, could have carried the weight of the passage very effectively on their own. They needed no introduction.
‘Go and be somethingological directly,’ [said Mrs. Gradgrind]. Mrs. Gradgrind was not a scientific character, and usually dismissed her children to their studies with this general injunction to choose their pursuit.

Here we go again: Mrs. Gradgrind makes an amusing malapropism that shows she isn’t well-educated. This is good character writing – and it is immediately ruined by a long, dull sentence that explains, and therefore ruins, the joke.

This constant barrage of explanation is, I assure you, not limited to pages 60 and 61. Throughout Hard Times, Dickens relentlessly explains his own jokes, heckles his own villains, and swoons over the virtues of his own heroes. The effect, as you would expect, is painfully tedious – “like having the intended message(s) hammered into you by a journeyman carpenter” as Maddy, who was book-clubbing the reading with me, put it.

When you are required to read a bad book, even if only by your own stubbornness, there is an unfortunate kind of literary relativity in which – because it is so untempting to pick up and so easy to put back down – the time required to plow through it can stretch out for weeks. Hard Times is actually one of Dickens’ shortest novels, but it took me an age to read. Well, 16 days. But it felt like an age.

In reviewing Barnaby Rudge, I said that “in reviewing Martin Chuzzlewit, I said that ‘Second-rank Dickens is better than the first rank of most authors.’ I'll stand by that. Third-rank Dickens might however be given a miss.”

In Hard Times, we have arrived at Fourth-rank Dickens.

Current Dickens Score: I have now read 10/14.5 of the non-Christmassy Dickens novels. Still on deck: Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, Little Dorrit, David Copperfield, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.

Second Opinion: It's Michael Faber's favorite!  He talked all about it in a Guardian article that seems to have disappeared from the internet.

1 comment:

Maddy said...

All true, all true.