This may be Dickens' funniest book. Representing the transitional period between the lighthearted early works (Nicholas Nickleby, Martin Chuzzlewit) and the darker late works (Our Mutual Friend, Edwin Drood), Hard Times exhibits the incredible verbal word-play that led G.K. Chesterton (a brilliant wit himself) to extol Dickens' comic genius. But it's also (and this in keeping with the novel's plot and themes) one of his most heart-breaking and desperate, an indictment not only of social injustice but of the personal human sins from which it stems.
Hard Times is ultimately about moral ambiguity. It's full of mistakes, attempted wrong, changes of heart and guilt, themes hardly universal within Dickens' ouvre. Thomas Gradgrind is one of those rare characters who raises his children under abominable circumstances (without imagination, worshipping facts, being serious, making money) out of a desire to do right. When he learns his lesson, he aids in the obstruction of justice in an attempt to redeem himself and put things right. His son Tom is dissolute but eventually repents; his daughter Louisa finds redemption in the love of a man to whom she isn't married (the relationship is never consummated) and finds living as a widow preferable to returning to her self-absorbed husband.
Even the typical virtuous heroine is uncharacteristic. Sissy Jupe is the progeny of circus performers, a disreputable bunch if ever there was one, and filled with imagination and joie de vivre (a far cry from the stale, tawdry heroines of earlier novels who exist only as the object of the hero's desire). The virtous Stephen Blackpool is reminiscent of David Copperfield's Ham Peggotty, and is perhaps the most obvious throwback to Dickens' overtly sentimental fiction, but even this is undercut by Stephen's death before the end of the novel, and the moral ambiguity attached to the wrongful accusations of theft leveled against him. What is perhaps most shocking is that the theft in question is actually the work of Tom Gradgrind, and that Blackpool's death before clearing his name allows Tom the opportunity to escape the country before he can be found out.
By "most morally ambiguous" of course what we mean is "most human." Hard Times presents an all-too-familiar world of people who do bad in the name of good, and whose intentions are forever caught between honesty and selfish motives. If there is a criticism here it's that the end seems a little contrived and too good to be true after the chapters and chapters of sorrow and thwarted happiness. However, even the apparent happy ending is something of an illusion, as the obverse of each good is tragedy—Tom has a change of heart but dies in exile, Louisa learns compassion, but lives alone in the midst of filial unity.
Before you strike Hard Times off your list of "must-reads," understand that Dickens exhibits here his most human side, his most compassionate knowledge of human nature at its most real. While the open-ended plot and sub-plots won't satisfy readers who want every wrong redressed by the climax, it will illuminate for careful readers the true difficulty inherent in being a human being in a world gone crazy. Moral ambiguity isn't upheld as desirable; it is rather portrayed as a fact of existence, along with the efforts of some to overcome it with lives of honesty and kindness. In the end, Hard Times isn't a jeremiad about human depravity, it is a celebration of what goodness still remains among us.
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