Here's a little secret: endings are really, really hard to write. Think about it. Books are supposed to be about real life, and real life doesn't ever come to a convenient conclusion all of sudden. That's why nowadays many authors just bag the whole ending altogether, and books just kind of stop. But back in Dickens's day, though, an ending was supposed to wrap things up, sort things out, and generally bring the hammer down on anyone who deserved it. Did you do good things in the novel? Here is a happy ever after. Did you act all evil? OK, here's some death or prison, or maybe just general misery.
So endings were for judging and moralizing and pointing fingers – which is all well and good, so long as you have characters that are just purely good and purely bad. But what if the characters are complex? What if they, like all humans (gasp!), have some positive and some negative characteristics, and it's too hard to neatly divide them into just two piles? Well, then you get a lot of authors breaking the fourth wall. What does that mean? Well, it's kind of like when a character in a movie suddenly starts talking to the camera. Sometimes a character might pop out of the movie in a way and complain about the movie itself. Perhaps, they think the next part of the story is artificial. However, they know that the audience expects there to be a satisfying doling out of rewards and punishments, so…
Dickens does this kind of grumbling in some of his other novels, but Hard Times goes for a slightly different angle. Sure, he doles out some candy ["happy Sissy's happy children loving her; all children loving her" (3.9.33)] and some coal ["five years to come, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown was to die of a fit in the Coketown street" (3.9.27)]. But the ending's real kicker is this sudden, last paragraph appeal: "Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not" (3.9.34). Dickens turns away from his characters and turns outward, to tell his readers to go out there and fix the world. There are probably many reasons for this last-minute twist, but we'll throw two possibilities out there.
Idea 1: this novel is more into the idea of its characters than the characters themselves. In other words, who cares what happens to these made-up guys when there are so many real people like them in the world that we should be helping instead! You see, Hard Times is a condition-of-England novel. What the what, Shmoop? Well, it's just what it sounds like – one of a bunch of novels written at about the same time in the nineteenth century, each asking "Dude, what is up with our country?" These novels were written by authors who were worried about problems in society, problems in factories, problems with the way the rich were taking advantage of the poor, and how the whole system was just broken.
Idea 2: this novel is going for a Michael Moore sort-of-documentary feel – check out the "In a Nutshell" section to see how this novel was the must-see-TV of its day. Then come back. Go ahead, we'll wait for you. OK, ready? So, this ending is telling us, readers, to get out there and be an activist. Dickens wants change in the real world, and wrote the novel hoping to get people off their couches and out into the street. Well, not really couches. We think they may have been called divans back then.