Book Review: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

 

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

“I entertain a weak idea that the English people are as hard-worked as any people upon whom the sun shines.  I acknowledge to this ridiculous idiosyncrasy, as a reason why I would give them a little more play.”

In celebration of the great man’s 200th birthday on 7th February 2012, a diverse range of literary and other tributes are planned or have already taken place: Claire Tomalin’s new biography Charles Dickens: A Life has been well-received amidst much publicity; the BBC screened a lavish three-part adaptation of Great Expectations over Christmas; and many locations associated with Dickens, such as Rochester, have arranged commemorative festivities.  Oh, and my book group decided to read Hard Times, although unfortunately we’re not able to meet on the date itself.

Hard Times isn’t the first book which comes to mind when I think of Dickens, but it is considered to be one of his best judging by recent collections of his major works.  I actually found Hard Times a lot more accessible than some of his other more famous tomes, not just because it’s his shortest work at a mere 280-odd pages (depending on your edition).  I loved Great Expectations, but struggled through Nicholas Nickleby and A Tale Of Two Cities.  I found it hard to wade through the description-heavy writing and focus on the action.  On the other hand, Oliver Twist didn’t leave a lasting impression on me, despite being an easier read, as Oliver’s character was a little too bland for my liking (I was much more taken with Nancy and was hooked by the chapters describing Bill’s downfall).

This book was written later in his life, when his outpourings started to become a lot more cynical and cried out for radical social change.  The novel hones in on the exploitation of poor workers by the fact-driven rich, who cannot see the heart-rending, poverty-stricken reality all around them.  This social commentary is, of course, what Dickens does best and what made him popular.

The plot of Hard Times is not the most difficult to grasp, perhaps by necessity because of the novel’s relative brevity.  But why should it have to be complicated to be clever?  You still get those great plot twists – seamlessly inserted – which you’d expect from a Dickens novel, and every new calamitous event provokes fresh admiration for his writing.  At times you’re presented with a wonderful build-up which precludes the next revelation or disaster; you, the reader, can often see exactly what is coming next but you’re powerless to warn anyone; I felt as though I was on a steam train hurtling towards Coketown (the novel’s setting) and unable to shout at people to get out of the way.

The main characters are expertly drawn and came vividly to life.  I felt great sympathy for the down-trodden Stephen and Rachael, the Hands who work at the factory, who find consolation in each other though they are unable to marry.  Stephen is subjected to many trials but finds his peace in Rachael’s company, and he strives to come to an acceptance of his troubled fate.

The villains of the piece are also suitably nasty, yet retain enough humanity to be convincing, particularly when they unintentionally provoke ridicule and even, sometimes, pity.  Mrs Sparsit, with her Coriolanian eyebrows and hooked nose, perfectly embodies her exasperatingly prying nature, while Mr Bounderby’s bluster is masterfully depicted by likening him to the wind.

This is the first book, incidentally, that I’ve read on my Kindle.  I’ll post separately about my adventure into e-territory, but suffice it to say that I was dubious before I started about reading a classic novel on such a new-fangled device.  Once I’d got used to it, however, it didn’t take anything away from the experience.  Seeing as I’ve never read Hard Times in any other format, it’s difficult to judge whether reading it as an eBook was what made it more accessible, but I suspect not.  It might have helped a little by breaking the novel down into smaller page chunks and allowing me to easily access the notes at the end of the book, but I don’t believe I would have disliked the novel had I read it in the traditional way.  Anyway, I’ll leave the full breakdown for another time.

If you’re already a fan of Dickens, you probably don’t need much persuading to read Hard Times; you’ll certainly find the same great writing and sharp social criticism which appear in his most popular books.  If you’re completely new to Dickens, or have perhaps read one or two of his more famous novels, I don’t think you can go wrong with this very accessible and engaging read.  I’d also suggest Oliver Twist as a good introduction to his work, even if it’s not my favourite.

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: eBooks: Friend Or Foe? « TheBrontëSister
  2. Nishita
    Jul 26, 2012 @ 11:36:36

    I am reading this book now right now and am really enjoying it now that I have got over the rather slow start. Thanks for the review and for not letting out any spoilers. I can’t wait to see what happens to Tom, and Louisa, and Cissy.

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      Jul 26, 2012 @ 13:27:42

      I’m glad you’ve now got into it and persevered! I don’t like spoilers so I do try really hard to avoid them – although sometimes it’s difficult to review without revealing something about the plot that you KNOW readers would love and would make them go and buy the book! Hope you enjoy the rest of the book.

      Reply

  3. Nishita
    Jul 26, 2012 @ 11:37:09

    Btw, I am reading this in e-book form as well, and I find it totally readable. No issues at all.

    Reply

    • TheBrontëSister
      Jul 26, 2012 @ 13:29:17

      That’s good to hear – sometimes the particular edition you buy affects your read, which for me takes something away from the whole experience. I’m still getting used to my Kindle!

      Reply

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