Study Guide

Hard Times Morality and Ethics

By Charles Dickens

Morality and Ethics

[…] there was a native organisation in Coketown itself, whose members were to be heard of in the House of Commons every session, indignantly petitioning for acts of parliament that should make these people religious by main force. Then came the Teetotal Society, who complained that these same people would get drunk, and showed in tabular statements that they did get drunk, and proved at tea parties that no inducement, human or Divine (except a medal), would induce them to forego their custom of getting drunk. Then came the chemist and druggist, with other tabular statements, showing that when they didn't get drunk, they took opium. Then came the experienced chaplain of the jail, with more tabular statements, outdoing all the previous tabular statements, and showing that the same people would resort to low haunts, hidden from the public eye, where they heard low singing and saw low dancing, and mayhap joined in it; and where A. B., aged twenty-four next birthday, and committed for eighteen months' solitary, had himself said (not that he had ever shown himself particularly worthy of belief) his ruin began, as he was perfectly sure and confident that otherwise he would have been a tip-top moral specimen. (1.5.6)

It is striking how much those in power want to use that power to "better" the workers in Coketown. The language of coercion is unremitting: "make these people religious by main force" and "induce" them to stop drinking; is it ethical to force people to act better? How much force? Meanwhile, it is clear from the problems of alcohol, drug use, and nightlife that they describe that all these people are trying to do is find a little escape from their hard lives.

Old Stephen might have passed for a particularly intelligent man in his condition. Yet he was not […] Thousands of his compeers could talk much better than he, at any time. He was a good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity. What more he was, or what else he had in him, if anything, let him show for himself. (1.10.4)

Stephen's honesty and purity outweighs any other positive quality that anyone else might possess.

'Thou hast been that to me, Rachael, through so many year: thou hast done me so much good, and heartened of me in that cheering way, that thy word is a law to me. Ah, lass, and a bright good law! Better than some real ones.' 'Never fret about them, Stephen,' she answered quickly, and not without an anxious glance at his face. 'Let the laws be.' 'Yes,' he said, with a slow nod or two. 'Let 'em be. Let everything be. Let all sorts alone. 'Tis a muddle, and that's aw.' (1.10.23-25)

Here, the theme between divine and moral "laws" and the ones created by men and by Parliament is first introduced. Divine (Biblical) laws are consistently shown to make sense and be intuitive, while the man-made laws do nothing but prop up special interests and oppress the weak.

'he looks to me as if he gamed.' 'It's immoral to game,' said Mrs. Sparsit. 'It's ridiculous, ma'am,' said Bitzer, 'because the chances are against the players.' (2.1.106-107)

Two ideas here – Mrs. Sparsit rejects gaming on moral grounds (in theory because those who win take money from those who lose based not on skill but on luck). Bitzer, on the other hand, simply finds gambling an illogical way to try to gain financially.

I am going in for your respected father's opinions — really because I have no choice of opinions, and may as well back them as anything else […] I assure you I attach not the least importance to any opinions. The result of the varieties of boredom I have undergone is a conviction (unless conviction is too industrious a word for the lazy sentiment I entertain on the subject), that any set of ideas will do just as much good as any other set, and just as much harm as any other set.' (2.2.31-33)

In the novel, this cynical attitude is made out to be even worse than Gradgrind's convictions. To believe in nothing at all is worse than believing in the wrong thing. Why?

The whelp went home, and went to bed. If he had had any sense of what he had done that night, and had been less of a whelp and more of a brother, he might have turned short on the road, might have gone down to the ill-smelling river that was dyed black, might have gone to bed in it for good and all, and have curtained his head for ever with its filthy waters. (2.3.54)

Suicide is not a particularly good moral option, but the narrator seems super mad at Tom right now. The narrator isn't pleased at all about the fact that Tom has not only sold his sister, but has now told Harthouse about it.

The eagerness both of attention and intention, exhibited in all the countenances, made [the workers] a most impressive sight. There was no carelessness, no languor, no idle curiosity; none of the many shades of indifference to be seen in all other assemblies, visible for one moment there. That every man felt his condition to be, somehow or other, worse than it might be; that every man considered it incumbent on him to join the rest, towards the making of it better; that every man felt his only hope to be in his allying himself to the comrades by whom he was surrounded; and that in this belief, right or wrong (unhappily wrong then), the whole of that crowd were gravely, deeply, faithfully in earnest; must have been as plain to any one who chose to see what was there, as the bare beams of the roof and the whitened brick walls. Nor could any such spectator fail to know in his own breast, that these men, through their very delusions, showed great qualities, susceptible of being turned to the happiest and best account; and that to pretend (on the strength of sweeping axioms, howsoever cut and dried) that they went astray wholly without cause, and of their own irrational wills, was to pretend that there could be smoke without fire, death without birth, harvest without seed, anything or everything produced from nothing. (2.4.4)

It is hard to balance the idea that the workers should all be thought of as individuals with the way they are described frequently as acting with one voice.

'Speak up like a man, since you are a man, and tell us about yourself and this Combination.' 'Wi' yor pardon, sir,' said Stephen Blackpool, 'I ha' nowt to sen about it.' Mr. Bounderby, who was always more or less like a Wind, finding something in his way here, began to blow at it directly. 'Now, look here, Harthouse,' said he, 'here's a specimen of 'em. When this man was here once before, I warned this man against the mischievous strangers who are always about — and who ought to be hanged wherever they are found — and I told this man that he was going in the wrong direction. Now, would you believe it, that although they have put this mark upon him, he is such a slave to them still, that he's afraid to open his lips about them?' 'I sed as I had nowt to sen, sir; not as I was fearfo' o' openin' my lips.' (2.5.7-11)

Stephen does not rat out his colleagues, preserving as always the "perfect integrity" that he is described as having. Still, what would it matter if he were to tell Bounderby that yes, there is a union, and he did not want to join it?

And yet [Harthouse] had not, even now, any earnest wickedness of purpose in him. Publicly and privately, it were much better for the age in which he lived, that he and the legion of whom he was one were designedly bad, than indifferent and purposeless. It is the drifting icebergs setting with any current anywhere, that wreck the ships. When the Devil goeth about like a roaring lion, he goeth about in a shape by which few but savages and hunters are attracted. But, when he is trimmed, smoothed, and varnished, according to the mode: when he is aweary of vice, and aweary of virtue, used up as to brimstone, and used up as to bliss; then, whether he take to the serving out of red tape, or to the kindling of red fire, he is the very Devil. So, James Harthouse reclined in the window, indolently smoking, and reckoning up the steps he had taken on the road by which he happened to be traveling. The end to which it led was before him, pretty plainly; but he troubled himself with no calculations about it. What will be, will be. (2.8.3-5)

This is an idea that is not unique to Dickens – that the most tempting devil is the one who is good looking and offers things that sound and feel good, not the one who looks like a monster and smells of sulfur and ashes. Sort of a retread of the line that "the road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

Now, Mrs. Sparsit was not a poetical woman; but she took an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy, into her head. Much watching of Louisa, and much consequent observation of her impenetrable demeanour, which keenly whetted and sharpened Mrs. Sparsit's edge, must have given her as it were a lift, in the way of inspiration. She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming. It became the business of Mrs. Sparsit's life, to look up at her staircase, and to watch Louisa coming down. Sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly, sometimes several steps at one bout, sometimes stopping, never turning back. If she had once turned back, it might have been the death of Mrs. Sparsit in spleen and grief. (2.10.3-4)

It's interesting to compare Mrs. Sparsit's staircase of sin to structures from the Bible: Jacob's ladder to heaven, or the Tower of Babel, for instance. There are many images of this sort of incremental approach to either good or evil.

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