Mechanistic imagery in Dickens’ ‘Hard Times ‘

In Hard Times, Dickens is forthright in opposing the fact-based state of education and dehumanizing industrialization of city life in Victorian England. He is convinced that the societal systems he sees in place are reductive to the complexity of human emotion and thought, and uses mechanistic imagery throughout the novel to imply that the harsh factory labor, urban industrialization, and policing of free thought in the educational system that pervades Coketown is responsible for the mechanical actions and thought processes of the characters. In his description of Coketown, his exposition on the passage of time, and his illustration of characters, Dickens delivers a negative perspective on industrialization that culminates to a dismal portrait of Victorian England and a call to readers to alter the bleak and destructive path humanity has taken to achieve modern progress.

In his rendering of Coketown, Dickens creates “a town of machinery” that is an “unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage” (60). Smoke is never “uncoiled” in the air above, and there is “rattling and trembling” where a steam-engine piston “work[s] monotonously up and down” (60).  Dickens’ view of Coketown is clearly defined in his description of it as a “wilderness of smoke and brick” with “direful uniformity”, as it is “shrouded in a haze of its own” (124,143). Dickens is harsh in his portrayal of a hellish scene– the coiling, the rattling, the up and down of the piston that creates the “wilderness” and the shroud. The town is inorganic, inhumane and rusted. It is a “savage” like an uncivilized animal. While its “wilderness” implies a sense of life, the town is covered, hidden from enlightenment, a hazy corpse wrapped in smog. And it is through his dire, smogged filled imagery that we are able to picture such a noxious environment.

He further exaggerates the mechanics of Coketown by describing the very passage of time in it to be like “its own machinery”. Time has horsepower, it brings the varying seasons, makes money, consumes fuel, wears out powers. It even affects the characters in definite ways. This machine-like time passes Thomas “on in the mill”, passes him “into Bounderby’s Bank”, exercises him “diligently in his calculations relative to number one”. The time Dickens describes is active and life altering. The machinery of time is described like clockwork, a force of change and transformation to the characters and the workers of Coketown, and the mechanistic imagery creates a sense that the passage of time is cold, procedural, and obstinate. (124).

This mechanism of change, time and machine alike, alters the life of the characters throughout. Even further, the mechanisms of numbered days and the harsh monotony of industrial work affects the very biologies of the characters and the way in which they are described.

Stephen Blackpool, a loom operator in Bounderby’s factory, is “old” and “stooping”, with “iron grey hair”, aged by his work in the factory. After a hard day at work, Dickens writes that Stephen was standing in the street “with the old sensation upon him which the stoppage of the machinery always produced– the sensation of its having worked and stopped in his own head” (100). His hair is “iron grey”, like the machines he uses, and his mind runs and stops just as a factory would. Stephen is subject to crushing labor, and the descriptions of his overworked body and internal mechanisms directly reflect the way industrialization is detrimental to a colorful and complex human experience.

Another example can be seen in how Mr. Gradgrind’s fact-based, no nonsense approach to education has made of him a man of “obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, [and] square shoulders”, with a “square wall of a forehead.” Every aspect of Gradgrind is more or less square (even Stone Lodge, his home). The square itself, a geometric invention made up of right angles, is a symbol of human intellect and rigid, calculating thinking. Gradgrind’s philosophy on life is directly related to his physical appearance; his “wide, thin, and hard set” mouth; a voice made “inflexible, dry, and dictatorial”; hair that covered a head with hardly any “warehouse-room for the hard facts stored inside.” (41) Both of these examples show a decision made by Dickens to illustrate the irrevocable and metamorphological effects of strict social structures, such as Gradgrind’s institution of ‘Facts’, and the reductive implication forced onto factory hands, such as Stephen Blackpool.

In each of these instances, Dickens’ view on the state of England is made clear; we are left to believe that Dickens’ England is a place of cold mechanics, rigid thinking, and monotony. Though, the scope of Hard Times may be broader than we anticipate. While he comments on the current state of affairs in his country, Dickens’ message is not only applicable to Victorian England. He is looking into the future much further than we think, and his anxiety concerning future generations is apparent. Tom and Louise Gradgrind represent the future of England, the privileged and the educated. In Dickens’ world, they are the ones to inherit the societal structures built by their parents, an interpretation that tells us a lot once we consider the fact that neither character ends up happy or well situated in life at the end of the novel.

Looking towards the future, Dickens ends his story by writing:

“Dear reader! It rests with you and me, where in, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not… We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn gray and cold.” (315)

Here is his call to readers. Once again using factory-related imagery, this time of furnaces extinguished and industry ceased, Dickens expresses his belief that industrialization is corrupting society and tells us his perceived solution.  He thinks that we, society in general, and future generations, are better off by unsubscribing from the strict, factual, and mechanistic tendencies brought upon us by industry and technology. Though as idealistic as it sounds, Dickens leaves us with a message of hope. That by allowing  imagination, creativity, leisure, and individuality back into what might otherwise be a mundane existence on earth, we might finally find happiness, fulfillment, and true human progress.



Work Cited:  Charles Dickens, Hard Times. Ed. Graham Law. Broadview, 1996

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