Study Guide

Hard Times Philosophical Viewpoints: Creativity and the Imagination

By Charles Dickens

Philosophical Viewpoints: Creativity and the Imagination

'You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don't walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don't find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,' said the gentleman, 'for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.' (1.2.44)

This is one of the few times when the novel ties logic and fact to aesthetics (which is the study of art and beauty and stuff). The effect is obviously very funny. Picture the world being described here as the new idea of beauty: a world where everything can only be painted yellow, red, or blue, and can only be decorated with squares, rectangles, or triangles.

No little Gradgrind had ever seen a face in the moon; it was up in the moon before it could speak distinctly. No little Gradgrind had ever learnt the silly jingle, Twinkle, twinkle, little star; how I wonder what you are! […] No little Gradgrind had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb: it had never heard of those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs. (1.3.4)

The absence of fun from the Gradgrind children's childhoods forces us to try to analyze the importance of nursery rhymes and play in the way children learn about the world. Why is being deprived of these things such a horrifying way to grow up?

'People mutht be amuthed, Thquire, thomehow,' continued Sleary, rendered more pursy than ever, by so much talking; 'they can't be alwayth a working, nor yet they can't be alwayth a learning.' (1.6.103)

Sleary here summarizes another key point of the novel – everyone needs an escape from everyday drudgery.

'And what,' asked Mr. Gradgrind, in a still lower voice, 'did you read to your father, Jupe?' 'About the Fairies, sir, and the Dwarf, and the Hunchback, and the Genies,' she sobbed out; 'and about — ' 'Hush!' said Mr. Gradgrind, 'that is enough. Never breathe a word of such destructive nonsense any more.' (1.7.48-50)

Dickens is very defensive of fiction – as well he should be, since it's what he produces for a living.

There was a library in Coketown, to which general access was easy. Mr. Gradgrind greatly tormented his mind about what the people read in this library: a point whereon little rivers of tabular statements periodically flowed into the howling ocean of tabular statements, which no diver ever got to any depth in and came up sane. It was a disheartening circumstance, but a melancholy fact, that even these readers persisted in wondering. They wondered about human nature, human passions, human hopes and fears, the struggles, triumphs and defeats, the cares and joys and sorrows, the lives and deaths of common men and women! They sometimes, after fifteen hours' work, sat down to read mere fables about men and women, more or less like themselves, and about children, more or less like their own. (1.8.5)

For the factory workers, reading about the lives of people similar to themselves is a way to develop and cultivate empathy – an important part of the imaginary process. It would be interesting if instead of simply counting the books they were reading, a distancing and detached action, Gradgrind actually cracked a few of them open.

'she's a regular girl. A girl can get on anywhere. She has settled down to the life, and she don't mind. It does just as well as another. Besides, though Loo is a girl, she's not a common sort of girl. She can shut herself up within herself, and think — as I have often known her sit and watch the fire — for an hour at a stretch.' (2.3.34)

Tom's inability to see the world through Louisa's eyes is an excellent example of his disconnection from his sister. For him, her life is to be envied. He doesn't understand that she is married to an ogre and is clearly going crazy as evidenced by all the fire-staring.

It was but a hurried parting in a common street, yet it was a sacred remembrance to these two common people. Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used up infidels, gabblers of many little dog's-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you. (2.6.95)

Here, the need for providing imaginative and creative outlets for the working class takes a somewhat shocking turn. The main reason they need distraction is so that they don't turn on their masters and agitate for a better kind of life? What about the misery of the way they are treated? Isn't the right to watch the circus kind of a useless band-aid?

Neither, as [Louisa] approached her old home now, did any of the best influences of old home descend upon her. The dreams of childhood — its airy fables; its graceful, beautiful, humane, impossible adornments of the world beyond […] what had she to do with these? Remembrances of how she had journeyed to the little that she knew, by the enchanted roads of what she and millions of innocent creatures had hoped and imagined; of how, first coming upon Reason through the tender light of Fancy, she had seen it a beneficent god, deferring to gods as great as itself; not a grim Idol, cruel and cold, with its victims bound hand to foot, and its big dumb shape set up with a sightless stare, never to be moved by anything but so many calculated tons of leverage — what had she to do with these?(2.9.32)

An alternate kind of educational principle here – the idea that if children are allowed to have their magical thinking, they will still eventually discover Facts and logic, and will be able to put them in the proper place in their overall education. As it is, however, Louisa is coming to the deathbed of her mother without a single warm memory or thought of home.

'I am a Coketown man. I am Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. I know the bricks of this town, and I know the works of this town, and I know the chimneys of this town, and I know the smoke of this town, and I know the Hands of this town. I know 'em all pretty well. They're real. When a man tells me anything about imaginative qualities, I always tell that man, whoever he is, that I know what he means. He means turtle-soup and venison, with a gold spoon, and that he wants to be set up with a coach and six. That's what your daughter wants.' (3.3.45)

Bounderby's speech is always marked by repetition (here, the phrase "I know") and firm statements of fact, which is ironic since so much of what he says is pure invention. Here, for instance, he does not in fact know anything about the "Hands," and the whole turtle soup thing is purely a figment of his imagination.

Although Mr. Bounderby carried it off in these terms, holding the door open for the company to depart, there was a blustering sheepishness upon him, at once extremely crestfallen and superlatively absurd. Detected as the Bully of humility, who had built his windy reputation upon lies, and in his boastfulness had put the honest truth as far away from him as if he had advanced the mean claim (there is no meaner) to tack himself on to a pedigree, he cut a most ridiculous figure. With the people filing off at the door he held, who he knew would carry what had passed to the whole town, to be given to the four winds, he could not have looked a Bully more shorn and forlorn, if he had had his ears cropped. Even that unlucky female, Mrs. Sparsit, fallen from her pinnacle of exultation into the Slough of Despond, was not in so bad a plight as that remarkable man and self-made Humbug, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. (3.5.57)

This is probably the best comeuppance in the novel. That the most loudmouthed braggart turns out to be a complete liar is really great poetic justice.

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