Hard Times, "Work," and the Influence of Thomas Carlyle

Emily G. Gill
Asheville High School
Asheville, NC
NEH Summer Seminar 2000
Historical Interpretations of the Industrial Revolution in Britain
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth at the University of Nottingham
The novel Hard Times and the mural painting "Work" depict a crosssection of English society during the British Industrial Revolution in the midnineteenth century. The novel, written by Dickens in 1854, and the painting,
painted by Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown from 1852-1865, portray two
new and distinct social orders in England: the rising middle class and the
working poor. Both of these classes are a result of industrialization and a
redistribution of land, goods, and services. Dickens and Brown offer the viewer
an artistic study of these emerging social classes during the Industrial
The former polarity of the two-class system of aristocracy and poor
agricultural laborer was quickly becoming a thing of the past. The wide-spread
use of the steam engine brought agricultural workers, seeking a better life, from
the farms to work in the large factories. Many cities like Manchester quickly
became overpopulated and the workers lived in substandard conditions and
filth. Meanwhile, factory owners, managers, and bank proprietors, like Dickens's
Bounderby, flourished during this time.
England was in the midst of both social and economic revolution. Thomas
Carlyle, a social philosopher and contemporary of Brown and Dickens, was
highly critical of the ills brought on by the surge of migration to the cities.
Carlyle's theories of social reform guided the work of both Dickens's in Hard
Times and Madox Brown in "Work". In fact, a portrait of a smirking Carlyle is
located in the lower right corner of the painting "Work", while Hard Times is
dedicated to Carlyle.
Thomas Carlyle was born in 1795 in the midst of the British Industrial
Revolution. People were on the move. The steam engine, the spinning jenny,
and the flying shuttle had speeded the production of cloth so drastically that
farmers, who made extra income in the evenings weaving at home, were priced
out of the market. As market prices for cloth and food fell, farmers were forced
to leave the countryside and seek work in the city mills. Separated from family,
friends, church, and community, they did not thrive. In his book Thomas Carlyle
, Walter Waring notes:
Although the plight of the new laboring class - for that was what they
were destined to become - was widely recognized, neither the local nor
the national government was any better able to deal with the problem
of mass movement than was the church. No precedent pointed the way
to the solution of public welfare in the new society (12).
This new poor class worked long days doing monotonous, dangerous
jobs. "Seemingly abandoned by the church and state, the laboring class had no
place in the existing social structure" (Waring 12). They lived in substandard,
unsanitary conditions and had poor food and ineffective medical facilities.
Further, they were seen as "outsiders" by city dwellers.
Unlike the cottage weavers, workers in the factories felt no connection to
what they were producing. The master of the factory paid the worker for a job
completed, and the relationship of the worker and master ended there. The
work was no longer rewarding, as on the family farm. There was no sense of
ownership or of responsibility toward the product. Thus, workers felt alienated
from the product they were producing. Further, factory owners were not
concerned about the lives of the people. The owner saw the worker as a
replaceable entity, and the workers knew it. Owners, in their denial, believed
they did workers a favor. The lure of the money to be made in the factory was
great. In Hard Times, Bounderby explains it best:
I'll state the fact of it to you. It's the pleasantest work there is, and it's
the lightest work there is, and its the best-paid work there is. More than
that, we couldn't improve the mills themselves, unless we laid
carpets on the floors. Which we're not a-going to do" (113).
In his essays, Carlyle responded to the conditions of factory workers in
emotional tones: "He so deplored the social changes that appeared with the
machine age that even the word machine held evil connotations for him" (Waring
18). He attacked the philosophy of Utilitarianism, since he saw it as the ruin of
the English people. Ruth Glancy, in The Student Companion to Charles Dickens,
explains the Theory of Utility in this way. The philosophy has two main points:
1) because the individual is not naturally inclined to do good works or make
choices for the good of the community, laws must be enacted that put the
community first; 2) the "pain and pleasure principle" measured the rightness or
wrongness of an action by determining the majority of people who would benefit
from a particular decision. Thus, many Victorians in the middle class justified
"self-interest as a justification for greed and self-indulgence" (92).
Carlyle's views on art were also in direct conflict with the current theory
of Utilitarianism. He believed that the church and the government had
abandoned their responsibility for these relocated workers. Poets, writers, and
philosophers, such as Wordsworth, better able to recognize the misery of the
workers, began to talk about nature and brotherhood as a way to escape the
loneliness and isolation of mill life (Waring 14). Glancy notes that in the view of
the Utilitarian, "painting and music were valuable only if they led to important
social ends. Followers of Utilitarianism in the Department of Practical Arts,
disapproved of flowers or their decorations on carpets that took away from the
carpet's flatness" (92). In Hard Times, Sissy innocently refutes this notion when
she explains why she likes flowers on carpets: "If you please, Sir, I am very fond
of flowers" (6).
Finally, the philosophy of Utilitarianism promotes the idea that a reliance
on statistics is the best way to improve human affairs. Statistics, as Dickens
proves, can be used to prove almost anything, no matter if the results are absurd.
Currently, this philosophy is reflected by politicians who rely on the often
absurd results of student testing as statistical proof that students are being
Dickens wrote the novel Hard Times in response to what he perceived as
the general degradation of society through the measurement of human emotion
and a refusal to acknowledge the imagination as a vital part of human
experience. Dickens explained his intention for Hard Times in a letter to a friend:
"My satire is against those who see figures and averages, and nothing else - the
representatives of the wickedest and most enormous vice of this time - the men
who, through long years to come, will do more to damage the real useful truths
of political economy, than I could do (if I tried) in my whole life" (Glancy 93).
In Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind, the school master, and his school represent
a system that values hard facts over imagination and compassion. Each of his
children is educated in his school of facts. Facts are the only worthy subject of
study in school. "Fact, fact, fact!" Gradgrind intones in the chapter aptly named
"Murdering the Innocents". The Gradgrind children are the model students of a
model school. They are given no toys, and they never read literature or stories.
They live in a world where the nursery is a laboratory, and "the specimens are all
arranged and labeled" (9) in their little cabinets.
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. . . .It had never heard of
those celebrities, and had only been introduced to a cow as a
graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs (8).
Louisa, Gradgrind's daughter, is a model student and a product of her
father's education. She has no understanding of or language to express her need
for love, play, or friendship. The result is that she spends much of her time
staring out of the window or into the fire. Lousia's life, while full of useful
information, is not illuminating. Thus, symbolically, she constantly stares into
the fire or out of the window into the burning fires of Coketown's factories.
Dickens describes her as lacking imagination, although the reader realizes she
yearns for it. Perhaps she detects the beauty of fire more than the fact of the fire,
the burning and licking of flames in asymetrical order. The reader gets the
impression that her imagination is starved when early in the novel she peeps into
the world of "fancy" in the circus tent. Her starving imagination is further
evidenced by her relationships with both Sissy Jupe (the circus girl) and James
Harthouse (rhymes with hothouse).
Tom Gradgrind, Louisa's brother, is evidence that an education in hard
fact does not address the moral side of existence or the human spirit. Thus, Tom
has not developed as a whole person. He does not have (or cannot understand)
the integrity it takes to withstand the temptation to steal from Bounderby, his
employer. Earlier, he selfishly encourages Louisa to marry Bounderby to enrich
his own position at the bank. It never occurs to Tom that Louisa's life will be
miserable with Bounderby, because misery is not measurable.
Josiah Bounderby, Louisa's husband, is the most contemptible character in
the novel. He embodies every characteristic of the unfeeling rising middle class.
He sees factory workers as the "wretches" who will advance his own personal
cause for financial gain and his movement into the upper classes. Although he
protests loudly and often that he is a self-made man who has no use for
upperclass pretensions, the reader detects that indeed he intends to elevate
himself in this way. He has acquired a housekeeper, a bank, two houses, and a
trophy wife half his age. He even projects his desire for the accoutrements of
aristocracy onto the workers when he states that the ultimate object of the
worker in Coketown is "to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon"
The reader understands that Bounderby is a fool. Because Bounderby
believes his own lie that he is a self-made man, he feels justified in being selfabsorbed and arrogant. He is made the fool further when he loses Louisa as a
result of his total lack of compassion. Stretching the limits of middle-class
values, Bounderby believes he can buy love with money. At the end of the
novel, he reflects in self-absorption on his own portrait, wondering if he will be
remembered for his house, his buildings, his chapel: "Probably not. Yet the
portrait was to see it all out" (266).
Dickens clearly shows that his sympathies lie with the working poor and
the circus performers in the novel. More specifically, Stephen Blackpool, Rachel,
and Sissy Jupe are characters who have goodness of heart and are humane and
humble. These characters, despite their obvious lack of resources, take care of
others, and their goodness of character contrasts sharply with those more
fortunate in the middle class. Although Sissy (short for sister) moves into the
Gradgrind house as an orphan, she improves Louisa's life considerably by giving
her a friend and, ironically, a sense of family. Sissy does not question the
validity of her education, nor does it ever manage to destroy her goodness or
imagination. These characters also make humane choices, as in the choice Rachel
makes to stop Stephen's crazed and alcoholic wife from killing herself, despite
what Rachel and Stephen have to gain by it.
Stephen Blackpool receives the brunt of the social inequality of the
capitalist system in Coketown. He is a hard-working and honest man, but
because he is poor, he is an easy scapegoat on which to blame the theft at the
bank. Facts alone are not enough for Bounderby to look past his own class
elitism to identify the real thief, Tom Gradgrind. Bounderby had mistreated
Stephen as an employee, and he is seen hanging around the bank the night
before the robbery. Stephen later returns to town to prove his innocence in the
robbery, but falls down a mine shaft and dies pointing the finger at Tom.
Symbolically, the setting of Coketown depicts the large industrial cities of
England, like Manchester, that Dickens detests. Coketown represents the worst
of English industrial towns in the nineteenth century in terms of what it did to its
people. The Gradgrind home is aptly named Stone Lodge, and the Gradgrind
school is a place of hard facts and straight rows. Bounderby's bank is at the
center of the town, and his ostentatious house, characterized the portrait over the
fireplace and over-eating in the dining room, is on a hill where it can be seen by
everyone in the town.
Perhaps Dickens's most vivid portrayal of life in a mill town is the mill
itself at the core of the city, its description alluding to poet William Blake's "dark,
satanic mill". Its prominent features include smoke stacks spumming "languid
and monotonous smoke" and fire that "bursts out". Stephen and Rachel walk in
darkness going to and coming from work. In the mill, they work in drudgery
like the spirits of Dante's inferno. There is no light in their lives. Even their
apartments are dark and cramped when they get home in the evening. There is
also the implication that since the building is made of brick, it was built quickly,
and another mill can quickly be built in another town.
Dickens and Carlyle were reacting to several notions which were
prevalent in Victorian thought during the height of the Industrial Revolution in
England, one of which was that the greatest good was accomplished for the
greatest number. Ford Madox Brown, a Pre-Raphaelite painter and
contemporary of Dickens and Carlyle, explored similar themes in a mural
painting called "Work". Brown examined a misguided view of self-reliance:
citizens, because their worth was attributed to their own means, had no
obligation to others in society. This enraged Dickens and Carlyle as well, as
those especially in need were "under the noses" of those of wealth and power.
"Work" is a conglomeration of every possible level of society that can be
squeezed into a single scene. According to Ford M. Hueffer in Ford Madox Brown:
A Record of His Life and Work, all that characters seem to share in common is the
street and the weather (189). Each person is reacting to the scene in a manner
appropriate to his or her station in life. Specifically, they are ladies and
gentlemen, laborers, homeless children, tradesmen, shop keepers, and sales
people. The objects in the painting also illustrate what all these people have in
common: vegetables, tools, buildings, signage, beer, and pets.
Brown wrote a sonnet to accompany the painting:
Work! which beads the brow and tans the flesh
Of lusty manhood, casting out its devils!
By whose weird art, transmuting poor men's evils
their bed seems down, the one dish ever fresh,
Ah me! For lack of it what ills in leash
Hold us. Its want the pale mechanic levels
To workhouse depths, while Master Spendthrift revels
For want to work, the fiends soon him immesh.
Ah! beauteous tripping dame with bell like skirts
Intent on they small scarlet-coated hound
Are ragged wayside babes not lovesome too?
Untrained their state reflects on they deserts
Or they grow noisome beggars to abound,
Or dreaded midnight robbers, breaking through.
"Work" is arguably the most complex of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings and
the most significant Victorian image of labor. Visually, the painting is organized
into social types or hierarchies. The focus of the painting is of several navvies
digging a trench for a water main and a central character, a strong, young man,
shoveling debris from the hole. A beer seller passes by yelling "Beer, Ho!"
(according to Brown's own narrative notes). On the other side, passing closely
on a temporary wooden walkway, is a bare-footed herb seller, peeking out
warily from underneath his torn hat brim. Behind him, a woman with a blue
parasol and a lady and her daughter pass by. The lady throws a temperance
tract at a navvy who is "chugging" a beer while he works. In other parts of the
painting, a gentleman and his daughter return from an afternoon ride and find
the street blocked, an orange seller is pushed down by a policeman as her
oranges tumble into the street, and some migrant farm workers feed a baby
under a shade tree. In the front of the painting, a young girl, a street urchin of
about ten, in a dress too large for her, carries a baby with one hand and reaches
out to pull the ear of her misbehaving brother with the other. In front of the
them, the lady's Italian greyhound growls at the mongrel mutt belonging to the
street children. Thomas Carlyle, featured in the lower right corner of the
painting, glances sardonically at the viewer as if to say, "There is perennial
nobleness, and even sacredness, in work" (Barringer 100).
Brown creates sharp contrasts throughout the painting, such as the
navvies digging the trench beside the middle-class ladies passing by who do no
work of note. Tim Barringer in Reading the Pre-Raphaelites notes that even the
dogs contribute to the class warfare.
Brown's social analysis. .[reveals] . .a pugnacious puppy in the
foreground, a working dog who kills rats for the navvies. . .
confrontingthe middle-class lady's lapdog, which has disturbed a pile of
sand. A shaggy mongrel belongs to the urchins in the foreground,
sharing their social status, while at the rear, a hunting dog can just be
discerned, in front of its aristocratic mistress's horse, gasping in the
Teresa Newman and Raymond Watkinson in Ford Madox Brown note that
Brown's object was to delineate types, not individuals "though the characters are
generally based on real people that he knew" (117). Brown also wrote a text in
which many of the characters are attributed with specific lines of dialogue and
conversations between each other. Signage is also important, as it reflects what
is important to people of differing social strata. He also questions the characters
in specific ways that he perhaps believes the viewer should: Did the lady with
the greyhound notice the needs of the ragged children? No. She was probably
most concerned about her dog getting dirty.
The novel Hard Times and the mural painting "Work" portray a crosssection of types of individuals in English society during the British Industrial
Revolution and offer current social commentary that is fueled by Carlyle's
criticisms of social ills. While Dickens and Brown offer the reader/viewer an
artistic study of these emerging social classes, their works generate a variety of
questions for the attentive reader and viewer. Most importantly, they ask their
audiences to decide whether society has any level of responsibility to the poor.
Certainly, the answer is yes. Although Dickens and Brown do not offer solutions
to the sufferings of the poor working classes, they may be credited with
illustrating the problems of the day which the upper and middle classes chose
not to recognize.
Works Cited
Barringer, Tim. Reading the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Yale University Press,
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1960.
Glancy, Ruth. The Student Companion to Charles Dickens. London:
Press, 1999.
Hueffer, Ford M. Ford Madox Brown: A Record of His Life and Work. London:
Longmans, Green Publications, 1896.
Newman, Teresa, and Raymond Watkinson. Ford Madox Brown and the PreRaphaelite Circle. London: Chatto & Windus, Inc., 1991.
Waring, Walter. Thomas Carlyle. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.
Additional Sources
Brown, Ivor. Dickens in His Time. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1963.
Brown, Ivor. Dickens and His World. New York: Henry Z. Walck, Inc., 1970.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: A Signet Classic, New American
Library, 1961.