Language and Style in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times is written in late modern English. Late modern English is different from Renaissance or early modern English, which can be seen in the works of William Shakespeare. Late Modern English is characterised by proper use of grammar, similes and sarcastic tropes. Compared to early modern English, late modern English can be understood by contemporary readers. Consider the opening words of the novel spoken by Mr Gradgrind: ‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted for life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else’ (Hard Times, 3). In the extract, it is seen that the language is clear enough for contemporary readers. The quoted speech captures Mr Gradgrind’s faulty and regrettable assumption that the realistic philosophy rooted in experiential science is the only worldview to be adopted in life. Thus, the novel begins by setting up a discourse that will be dramatically deconstructed in due course based on the outcome of the lives of those who believe in only logic and reason (science) and those who believe in emotion, intuition and the use of creative imagination – all which are the vestiges of romanticism being challenged by scientific empiricism in the Victorian period. Hard Times can be discussed stylistically based on mean style, demotic style, hypotactic style, paratactic style, periodic sentence, symbols, motifs, suspense, foreshadowing and rhetorical tropes like simile and personification.  

Hard Times is written in the middle or mean style, which is the style suitable for narration and entertainment. The first sentence from the second paragraph of the novel is an instance of mean or middle style: ‘The scene was a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve’ (3). The repetition of the word ‘square’ in the description of Mr Gradgrind emphasises his rigid or inflexible philosophy of life which is rooted in scientific and mathematical principles.

Demotic Style refers to the everyday speech of ordinary people used in literary works. This speech is usually colloquial in nature. An instance of demotic style in Hard Times is noted in the lisping speech of Mr Sleary. Lisping or lisp is a speech impairment in which ‘s’ and ‘z’ are pronounced like ‘th’ depending on the phonetic environment that they appear. An instance of lisping in Hard Times is seen in the following words by Mr Sleary: ‘Thquire . . . Your thervant! Thith ith a bad piethe of bithnith, thith ith. You’ve heard of my Clown and hith dog being thupporthed to have morrithed?’ (29). In the above expression, ‘Thquire’ is ‘Squire’ while ‘thervant’ means ‘servant’.

Notice how Mr Gradgrind and Mr Bounderby make fun of the speech of Mr Childers and Kidderminster because of the difference in its imagery and diction. Dickens reports this thus: Nine oils, Merrylegs, missing tips, garters, banners, and ponging, eh!’ ejaculated Bounderby, with his laugh of laughs. ‘Queer sort of company, too, for a man who raised himself’ (25). In this scene, it is seen that the communicative codes deployed by Mr Childers and Kidderminster exclude Mr Bounderby and Mr Gradgrind. However, instead of requesting access to those codes, Mr Gradgrind and Mr Bounderby resort to mockery and scorn because they feel that they are socially above the commoners and cannot bring themselves to learning their linguistic codes. Thus, language is deployed to mark class and status divides in Hard Times. An instance can be observed in the conversation between Sissy Jupe and Mr Gradgrind in the school. When Mr Gradgrind dismisses Sissy’s in preference for Cecelia, Sissy explains that ‘It’s father as calls me Sissy, sir.’ (4).

Hypotactic Style is denoted by the use of subordinating conjunctions which results in subordinating clauses beginning an expression. An example in Hard Times is seen in the following expression: ‘Before Mr Bounderby could reply, a young man appeared at the door. . .’ (24). Another example is in the expression: ‘As this was his usual hour for having a little confidential chat with Mrs Sparsit, and as he had already caught her eye and seen that she was going to ask him something, he made a pretence of arranging the rulers, inkstands, and so forth, while that lady went on with her tea, glancing through the open window, down into the street.’ (90).

Paratactic Style refers to expressions (parataxis) that make use of coordinating conjunctions with less emphasis on cohesion of ideas and thoughts. Such expressions usually comprise mostly simple sentences conjoined by ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘yet’ and ‘but’. An example in Hard Times is seen in the expression: A deaf serving-woman and a light porter completed Mrs Sparsit’s empire (89).  Another example can be gleaned from the expressions: ‘Lo, Louisa coming out of the house! Hastily cloaked and muffled, and stealing away. She elopes! She falls from the lowermost stair, and is swallowed up in the gulf’. (166).

Periodic Sentences abound in Hard Times. A periodic sentence is one with intervening or intrusive expressions which help to suspend or delay the conclusion of the sentence. A good example is seen in the expression: ‘The unfortunate lady hereupon essaying to offer testimony, without any voice and with painful gestures expressive of an inflamed throat, became so aggravating and underwent so many facial contortions, that Mr Bounderby, unable to bear it, seized her by the arm and shook her. (186). Another example of a periodic sentence in the novel goes thus: ‘So Mr Bounderby threw on his hat – he always threw it on, as expressing a man who had been far too busily employed in making himself, to acquire any fashion of wearing his hat – and with his hands in his pockets, sauntered out into the hall’ (17).

Symbols in Hard Times: Among the symbols in Hard Times are Old Hell Shaft, the fog or smog hanging over Coketown, Mr Bounderby’s bank, the loom in Mr Bounderby’s factory, Sissy’s nine oils and the Sleary’s circus. Old Hell Shaft, where Stephen Blackpool meets his untimely demise, is a symbol of injustice which the labourers experience in Coketown. It also represents the harm done to man and the environment by the exploitative activities of the miners and other industrialists. It also speaks of the neglect that the common people suffer in the hands of their oppressive masters and government officials. The fog and smog that covers Coketown in the novel is a symbolic representation of the ideological darkness or ignorance that hangs over some of the important characters in the novel. It also speaks of the conscienceless actions of some of the characters, apart from reinforcing the theme of environmental pollution in the novel.

The presence of nine oils in the novel illustrates how Sissy cares for her father and the memories they shared before his disappearance. It is also symbolic of the sentimentalism that Sissy holds in opposition to Mr Gradgrind and Bounderby’s extreme realism. Mr Bounderby’s bank is a symbol of wealth, class and oppression. Mr Sleary’s circus symbolises the superiority of creative imagination over facts in the novel. Indeed, all the characters who embody imagination end up well in the novel, while those characters who only relied on facts are damaged or destroyed in the end. The lesson that the novel espouses is that facts-only based education harms the individual’s imagination, leading to a limited existence for the individual.

 The bank only welcomes the rich and powerful members of society. This explains why people like Stephen Blackpool have no place in it. He can only wait outside the bank on the instructions of young Tom Gradgrind, who uses Stephen to divert attention from himself after robbing the bank. The loom, an instrument in Mr Bounderby’s factory often used by Mr Stephen Blackpool and other workers, is a symbol of slavery in the form of endless work ordeal for the workers, who are not valued by their employers. Indeed, the workers are only seen as Hands, a demeaning synecdochic word, that reduces the humanity of the workers to just a part of their body that is relevant to their employer. As far as Mr Bounderby is concerned, the workers should be contented with their wages and should not make more demands for better conditions of service. He tags such demands as an attempt by the workers to leave their station of life and aspire to be masters, looking for ‘Turtle soup and venison with gold spoon’.

Hard Times has symbolic characters. Mr Gradgrind represents the extreme realism anchored on the scientific ethos of the Victorian period. His over-reliance on facts speaks of the emphasis that the Victorians placed on science. However, the juxtaposition of his character with that of Sissy aims to illustrate the existence of opposing and conflicting ideologies, namely Realism and Romanticism, in the Victorian period. Mr Bounderby’s characterisation is a symbolic representation of class and status in the Victorian period, especially in terms of the possibility of upward mobility for the individual. Unfortunately, Mrs Sparsit represents the flipside of this social possibility; she finds herself in a lower social condition, having to work for a non-nobility like Mr Bounderby, because she lost her financial status owing to her husband’s reckless lifestyle when he was alive.

Suspense is an important narrative technique in Hard Times. Dickens uses suspense to create and raise the reader’s curiosity and sustain interest in the novel till the end. Suspense operates in the narrator withholding information about Mrs Pegler who turns out to be Mr Bounderby’s mother, whom Mr Bounderby had forbidden ever to visit him so that he could hide his real background from the people of Coketown. Suspense is also seen in the chase that Mrs Sparsit gives to Louisa and James Harthouse in an attempt to obtain information about their romance so that she could report to Mr Bounderby. The reader is held in suspense when Stephen Blackpool fails to return to Coketown to clear his name in the theft allegation involving the robbing of Mr Bounderby’s bank. Unknown to the reader, he had fallen into Old Hell Shaft and been mortally injured. The attempt by young Tom Gradgrind to flee the country after the burden of robbing the bank falls on him is also suspenseful. He is apprehended by Bitzer at one of Mr Sleary’s circus locations, but manages to escape to Australia with the help of Mr Sleary, who sees his action as a favour to Mr Gradgrind for taking in Sissy.

Flashback is a narrative technique that helps in the recollection of events that took place in the past so as to present a clearer picture on contemporary events. An instance of flashback in Hard Times is when the narrator recalls a scene many years back when Mr Gradgrind found his children, Louisa and Tom Gradgrind, playing around the Sleary circus. He reprimands them and drags them home.

Escape, chase or running as a motif in Hard Times. In the novel, most of the characters are presented as running away from or hiding something. Mr Bounderby tries as hard as he can to distance himself from his real background. He would like everyone to believe that he is self-made; that his parents died when he was a child and that he was raised by a negligent grandmother. The truth, however, is that Bounderby was raised by his two parents. His father later died but his mother is still alive. She took care of him and raised him to who he is today. Unfortunately, Mr Bounderby, when he becomes wealthy, does not want to be identified with this background, especially as it risks being revealed that his mother used to steal in order to take care of him. Thus, he settles his mother handsomely in the countryside and forbids her ever from visiting him in the city. But Mrs Pegler cannot help visiting the city once a year to espy the progress that her son is making.

 The motif of escape is also seen in Stephen Blackpool’s attempt to end his marriage to an unnamed wicked woman who sabotages all his life’s efforts and makes his life hellish. He has found a kind and homely woman in Rachael whom he would like to marry, but he must first divorce the evil woman; an impossible act given the fact that he is poor and powerless. Stephen also runs away from leading the labour union even when all the workers look up to him because of his honesty, humility and integrity. Stephen’s reason for refusing to lead the workers is that he does not want trouble with his employer. When he is fired, no one seems to pity him. Mr Slackbridge, the new labour leader, taunts Stephen when he is falsely accused by Mr Bounderby of robbing the bank. By then Stephen had left Coketown and changed his identity so that he could find another job, as his employer had demonised him far and wide.

Louisa, the heroine and protagonist of the novel, keeps denying her emotion until it is too late. It is only when her marriage fails that she is able to confront her father about her faulty upbringing.   

Hard times as a motif in Hard Times: The title of the novel serves as a motif. This is reflected in the conflicts that are raised in the novel, as well as in the lives of the major characters. The Victorian period is dramatised in the novel as a deeply troubled temporality. It was a time of intense agitation when the common people rose to fight for their rights because of the many injustices they were put through by the rich and the rulers. A common paradox that was observed in the Victorian period was the existence side-by-side of extreme poverty and extreme wealth. This brought about the idea of the two nations: England of the rich and England of the poor, which in turn created a highly stratified society. What was, however, comforting is that there was room for upward mobility, so that an individual who worked hard could change his social and economic circumstances like Mr Bounderby. On the other hand, a highly-placed individual, who could not manage his estate through morality and a proper economic knowledge, could crash to the bottom of the social ladder like Mr and Mrs Sparsit; for in the Victorian period, birth was no longer destiny.

The agitation of the oppressed can be seen in the formation of a labour union by Mr Bounderby’s workers to press home their demand for better working conditions. The aversion (as well as fear) with which the Victorian employers of labour held towards labour unions is demonstrated in Mr Bounderby’s attitude towards his workers’ aspiration to form a union. When Stephen Blackpool goes to Mr Bounderby to complain about his hellish marriage, Mr Bounderby is afraid his visit might be labour-related. The deep class divide can be seen in the distribution of characters in the novel; most of the characters can be tabulated into upper class and lower class members of society. Lower class characters include Mr Sleary, Rachael, Stephen Blackpool, Sissy and Mrs Pegler; while upper class characters include Mr Gradgrind, Mr Bounderby, Louisa, James Harthouse and young Tom Gradgrind.

Each character in the novel has had their period of hard times; it could have been earlier or later in life. Stephen Blackpool’s hard times extend from birth to death; he is the most wronged character in the novel. He is poor and oppressed and cannot enjoy the fruit of his labour because he was unlucky to have married the wrong woman. His only moment of reprieve is when Rachael holds his hand as he is being led away to his last resting place. Thomas Gradgrind’s hard times occur when his children failed in life because of the wrong philosophies that they were exposed to. Mr Bounderby’s hard times come when his marriage to Louisa fails and when his lie of having been abandoned by his parents is exposed to the people of Coketown. His futurity, together with those of Mr Gradgrind, Louisa and Tom Gradgrind, is full of regrets and tragedies. Sissy’s hard times begin at the point when her father disappears from home because he is hurt and ashamed that he cannot take care of her.

Allusion, both historical and biblical, abounds in Hard Times. An instance of biblical allusion is seen in Stephen Blackpool’s last moments when a reference is made to a guiding star towards which direction his dying body is carried. This star references the one that guides the three wise men in the Bible to Jesus’ birthplace; only that in Stephen’s case, the star is guiding him home. An instance of historical allusion is noted when Mr Gradgrind desires that his fallen son be sent to North or South America, ‘or any distant part of the world’ (222). This alludes to the English expansionist programmes around the world which was at its peak in the 19th century. The novel also alludes to the practice of sending convicted criminals to start a new life in newly discovered colonies in the New World.

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One thought on “Language and Style in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times

  1. Everything is very open with a precise clarification of the challenges. It was really informative. Your website is useful. Thanks for sharing!

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