Utilitarianism is the assumption that human beings act in a way that highlights their own self-interest. It is based on factuality and leaves little room for imagination. Dickens provides three vivid examples of this utilitarian logic in Hard Times. The first; Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, one of the main characters in the book, was the principal of a school in Coketown.
He was a firm believer in utilitarianism and instilled this philosophy into the students at the school from a very young age, as well as his own children. Mr. Josiah Bounderby was also a practitioner of utilitarianism but was more interested in the profit that stemmed from it. At the other end of the perspective, a group of circus members, who are the total opposite of utilitarians, are added by Dickens to provide a sharp contrast from the ideas of Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind.
Thomas Gradgrind Sr., a father of five children, has lived his life by the book and never strayed from his philosophy that life is nothing more than facts and statistics. He has successfully incorporated this belief into the school system of Coketown and has tried his best to do so with his own children.
The educators see children as easy targets just waiting to be filled with information. They did not consider, however, the children’s need for fiction, poetry, and other fine arts that are used to expand children’s minds, all of which are essential today in order to produce well-rounded human beings through the educational process.
One has to wonder how different the story would be if Gradgrind did not run the school. How can you give a utilitarian man such as Gradgrind such power over a town? I do like how Dickens structures the book to make one ask obvious questions such as these.
Dickens does not tell us much about the success of the other students of the school besides Bitzer, who is fairly successful on paper but does not have the capacity as a person to deal with life’s everyday struggles. Gradgrinds two oldest children, Tom and Louisa, are examples of how this utilitarian method failed miserably.
These children were never given the opportunity to think for themselves, experience fun things in life, or even use their imaginations. True, they are smart people in the factual sense but do not have the street smarts to survive. Tom is a young man who, so fed up with his father’s strictness and repetition, revolts against him and leaves home to work in Mr. Bounderby’s bank.
Tom, now out from under his father’s wing, begins to drink and gamble heavily. Eventually, to get out of a deep gambling debt, he robs a bank and is forced to flee the area. When Bitzer realizes that Tom has robbed the bank and catches him, Mr. Gradgrind begs him to let Tom go, reminding him of all of the hard work that was put on him while at the school.
Ironically Bitzer, using the tools of factuality that he had learned in Gradgrinds school, replies that the school was paid for, but it is now over and he owes nothing more. I think this is extremely funny how, at a time of need, Gradgrind’s educational theory has backfired in his face. I think Dickens put this irony in as a comical device but also to show how ineffective the utilitarian method of teaching is.
Louisa, unlike Tom, does get along with her father. She even agrees to marry Mr. Bounderby, even though she does not love him, in order to please her father. She stays in the marriage with Bounderby and goes about life normally and factually until she is faced with a dilemma and panics. Mr. James Harthouse, a young, good-looking guy, is attracted to Louisa and deceivingly draws her attraction to him.
She does not know what to do since she has never had feelings of her own before. Her father never gave her the opportunity to think for herself, or even love someone. This is why Louisa goes frantic and ends up crying in her father’s lap.
She has always been told what to do and what is ‘right’, and now even her father is stumped. For the first time in the whole novel, Mr. Gradgrind strays from the utilitarian philosophy and shows compassion for his daughter and her feelings. One must think that he is beginning to doubt his philosophy after seeing it backfire in his face more than once.
Josiah Bounderby is another prime example of utilitarianism. He is one of the wealthiest people in Coketown; owning a bank and a factory, but is not really a likable person. His utilitarian philosophy is similar to Gradgrinds in the sense that factuality is the single most important virtue that one could possess.
Mr. Bounderby maintained throughout the story his utilitarian views, which basically stated that nothing else is important besides profit. Being the owner of both a factory and a bank, Bounderby employs many workers, yet seems to offer them no respect at all. He refers to the factory workers as “Hands,” because that is all they are to him. Bounderby often states that workers are all looking for “venison, turtle soup, and a golden spoon,” while all they really want is decent working conditions and fair wages for their work.
He is not concerned about his employees as human beings, but how much their hands can produce during the workday, resulting in money in his pocket. When one of his workers, Stephen Blackpool came to Bounderby’s house asking for advice about his bad marriage, he was treated as inferior just because of his social status. Dickens portrayed the scene as one in which Blackpool was on a level five steps below Bounderby and his associates because he was a lowly worker who was obviously much less educated than them.
It almost seemed like they would not even take him seriously because he was such. Blackpool was told that he could not divorce his wife because it would be against the laws of England. Later in the book, Bounderby divorces his wife. This shows that wealth played a large role in determining the social classes that people were in and the privileges they had.
This was definitely unfair but the social classes were structured in a way that allowed those who had money to look down upon those who were less fortunate. Generally, those who were not well-educated did not have any money, while the well-educated ones such as Bounderby and Gradgrind were wealthy. The people who knew the factual information, (utilitarians) were successful, while those who did not were reduced to working in the factories of the utilitarians.
Dickens paints a vivid picture of this inequality between social classes and shows he does not care much for it. It is fairly easy to see that Dickens holds contempt for Bounderby and the utilitarian philosophy he carries. The book details the philosophy, then shows how miserably it failed. How much different would their lives be if the town was not run by utilitarians?
Dickens cleverly added circus people as a contrast to the utilitarian approach to life. The circus people could be called the total opposite of utilitarianism. If one element of the book stands out in my mind, it would be this one.
The circus people are simple, open-minded human beings whose goal in life is to make people laugh. Dickens portrays them as a step up from the “Hands” but still close to the bottom in the social structure. These people are hated by Gradgrind, Bounderby and other utilitarians because they represent everything that is shunned in utilitarianism such as love, imagination, and humor.
Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a circus man, was taken in by the Gradgrinds to live in their home. She is representative of the circus people with her innocence and free-will, qualities that are lacking in the lives of the people around her. Just by her presence, her goodness rubs off on the people around her, although it is too late for most of them.
Even after numerous attempts to force utilitarianism into her by Mr. Gradgrind and his school, she is still the fun-loving girl that she always was because she grew up living with “normal” people who thought for themselves and loved each other. She influenced these qualities on the youngest Gradgrind daughter Jane, who led a much more enjoyable and fulfilling life than her older sister Louisa because of those influences.
Jane is not spoken of much until the end of the book but I like the way Dickens showed the effects of the utilitarian lifestyle as opposed to the non-utilitarian lifestyle. The utilitarians ultimately ended with a great downfall because their narrow-minds could not endure the pressures that life can impose on oneself.
The people that did not fall victim to the utilitarian trap were able to live their lives happily and freely, able to love, laugh, and use their imagination; which is the way life ought to be lived. Dickens obviously had a definitive opinion of the way life should be lived and did an excellent job of depicting it.
His method was somewhat indirect in the sense that he worked backward to get his point across but turned out to be very effective as the story progressed. Most of the story revolved around utilitarianism and the study of cold hard facts, but when the character flaws began to surface as a result of this philosophy, Dickens is quick to emphasize them.
One actually sees the main character of the book and firm supporter of utilitarianism, Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, experience the faults of his practice and begin to stray from it. Now, after watching his life fall apart, maybe he wishes he were in the circus.
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