#1 - 01 - Book 1, Chapter 01, The One Thing Needful
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The shortest novel by far of Charles Dickens', Hard Times is also one of his most idea based works. In it, he launches a scathing attack on the prevailing fashion of believing in Utilitarianism, a philosophy that proposed the goal of society should be “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Dickens felt that such a philosophy saw people as mere statistics and not as individuals.
The novel was published in serial form in his magazine Household Words. It is also the only novel where London is not featured. Set mainly in the fictional industrial town of Coketown, the book is divided into three sections “Sowing,” “Reaping” and “Garnering.”
It tells the story of a wealthy, retired industrialist, Thomas Gradgrind. His two children are brought up according to strict Utilitarian principles and their teaching is completely devoid of imagination and compassion. When the elder Gradgrind takes in an orphan called Sissy, events are set to take a turn. The Gradgrind children are completely under their father's control. As they grow, the son becomes a dissolute wastrel, while the daughter is compelled to marry a man thirty years her senior. How the Gradgrinds resolve these issues and how they begin to understand the true value of human life makes up the rest of the story.
Filled with memorable characters, as are all Dickens' novels, Hard Times is also the writer's attempt to reveal the dark side of the Industrial Revolution. Dickens was also trying to show that morality and wealth do not necessarily coexist. The overwhelming obsession with scientific temper, the worship of facts, the practical and materialistic ethos that was pervading the country in the Victorian era at the cost of all that was imaginative, humane and spiritual are other things that the writer was deeply concerned with.
Hard Times besides being Dickens' shortest work, is devoid of a preface and illustrations unlike all his other books. As a social protest novel, Hard Times also reflects the rapidly changing nature of society in Victorian England. The rise of a newly rich class, arrogant in their power to purchase anything and everything, completely devoid of social graces and the right pedigree was a phenomenon that bewildered many of the older generation. The world was also undergoing great periods of political unrest. Europe was changing and so was America which was then in the grip of the Civl War. Set against this background, Hard Times is a vivid portrayal of the era.
Tinged with dark humour and satire, this is indeed a great read for young and old readers!
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