Himmelfarb on Hard Times

Himmelfarb on Hard Times January 15, 2007

Gertrude Himmelfarb has an excellent discussion of Hard Times in her book on poverty in the Victorian era. Below are some highlights.

As Himmelfarb sees things, the problem in Coketown is not the factory but the way the factory spreads throughout, and shapes, the town. Himmelfarb: “Everything [in Coketown] is ‘severely workfull.’ The chapel resembles the warehouse, the jail looks like the infirmary, the town hall and the school are indistinguishable from the rest. The factory itself as it appears here is more a monument to fact than to industry, less a means of production than a mode of behavior and attitude of mind, a routinized, rationalized, factualised institution, the incarnation of the spirit of the town.”

Dickens has been criticized for the extraneous issues he introduces into the book – “utilitarianism, education, marriage, divorce.” But these were not extraneous for Dickens: “For him the problem of industrialism was not that of an oppressed or exploited class, of inadequate wages or intolerable working and living conditions. What was at issue was the way people felt and thought about themselves and each other, their ability to understand, sympathize, suffer, enjoy, love, work. If the factory was oppressive, it was because it was destructive of these natural human emotions and experiences.” The factory was merely an economic embodiment of “the crabbed spirit generated by a system of education designed to transform children into reasoning machines, by marriages held together by unjust laws and calculations of interest, and by a philosophy that decreed pleasure to be sinful and love illicit.”

Labor unions are not a solution, but a perpetuation of the problem: “Trade unionism is condemned on the same grounds as utilitarianism and laissez-faireism, because each of them threatens to undermine the already precarious personal relations which are the only basis for a decent society.” Slackbridge as much as Bounderby and Gradgrind considers humanity in the mass, not individually. It’s not an accident that Bounderby uses Stephen’s dismissal from the union as a pretext for firing him: “Both think in terms of classes and masses instead of individuals and human beings. Both see the problem in mathematical and mechanical terms and seek solutions that are quantitative and mechanistic. Both talk the language of supply and demand, pounds and pence, force and power.”

For Dickens, the unions fixed a chasm between capital and labor that made the problems of industrial society worse rather than better. Asked if he favored capital or labor, he rejected the labels: Relations between employers and workers must have “something of feeling and sentiment; something of mutual explanation, forbearance, and consideration; something which is not to be found in Mr. McCulloch’s dictionary, and is not exactly stateable in figures; otherwise those relations are wrong and rotten at the core and will never bear sound fruit.” In a speech delivered near the time he began to write Hard Times , he notes, “It is in the fusion of different classes, without confusion; in the bringing together of employers and employed; in the creating of a better common understanding among those who interests are identical, who depend upon each other, and who can never be in unnatural antagonism without deplorable results, that one of the chief principles of a Mechanics’ Institution should consist.”

She points to the importance of the circus in the book. The circus is not a polar opposite of the factory and school. It is an urban institution, but it is an urban institution that shares something with the country (animals) and that operates by a different time rhythm than the city. It is a place of fancy and imagination, and thus represents the “other thing needful” that must be added to the world of fact if the world is to be humane.

Himmelfarb responds to Orwell’s criticisms of the book quite well. Orwell commended Dickens for realizing that one cannot “cure pimples by cutting them off. In every page of his work one can see a consciousness that society is wrong somewhere at the root.” Yet, Orwell continued, because Dickens sees the root as exclusively moral, he has no reforms to propose. He would leave the whole system intact, and ask everyone to be nicer: “There is not a line in the book [Hard Times] that can properly be called Socialistic; indeed, its tendency if anything is pro-capitalist, because its whole moral is that capitalists ought to be kind, not that workers ought to be rebellion . . . .Bounderby is a bullying windbag and Gradgrind has been morally blinded, but if they were better men, the system would work well enough – that, all through, is the implication . . . . His whole ‘message’ is one that at first glance looks like an enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent.”

There is, I think, something to that, but as Himmelfarb points out, what Orwell completely misses is the role of ideas in the book. Bounderby’s and Gradgrind’s deficiencies are rooted in a “system of ideas,” and they cannot become better men precisely because those ideas prevent it. Yet, “Gradgrind did become better and Bounderby did not, precisely because the one was converted and the other remained an unreconstructed utilitarian.” As Himmelfarb says, Orwell’s “socialism” is really the mirror image of what he thinks is the orthodox political economy; both diminish the importance of ideas and the moral dimension of human life.

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