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I first read this in high school - for some reason, our English teacher chose this rather than one of Dickens's better-known novels. I liked it well enough at the time but was not a huge Dickens fan, but some parts of it stuck with me all these years, and in many ways this is the most quintessential Dickens novel.
With such wonderfully Dickensian names as Thomas Gradgrind and Mr. M'Choakumchild, Hard Times begins by introducing us to Mr. Gradgrind's pedagogical philosophy:
“You are to be in all things regulated and governed,’ said the gentleman, ‘by fact. We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who will force the people to be a people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word Fancy altogether. You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don’t walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls. You must use,’ said the gentleman, ‘for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.”
Hard Times may also be Dickens' most karmic novel. Gradgrind, the extinguisher of fancy, imagination, and joy, raises two dour children on his regimen of facts and mathematical figures, and sees the results in a way that finally teaches him the error of his thinking, after his daughter has been unhappily married to a much older man and his son has become a dissolute wastrel forced into exile.
Hard Times refers, by its title, to issues that dominate Dickens's usual social commentary, here being the conflict between the haves (represented by Bounderby) and the have-nots. The main plot revolves around Stephen Blackpool, a decent uncomplaining man who falls afoul of his master, Bounderby, and then gets set up by Thomas Gradgrind junior as the fall guy for his embezzlement scheme.
Eventually, of course, everything is sorted out, good men are acquitted, nosy old spinsters and pretentious bankers get their come-uppances, pure-hearted Victorian maidens get their (eventual) happy endings, there are Dickens's usual tear-jerker deaths, and lots of wondrous Dickensian prose. Hard Times is one of the author's more obscure novels, but I think it ranks as one of my favorites, maybe just behind David Copperfield and Great Expectations.