1. According to H. Philip Bolton in Dickens Dramatized (1987), Hard Times has only been infrequently adapted for the stage (he has twenty-two entries). Although the 1975 film entitled Hard Times, starring Charles Bronson, has no connection whatsoever with Dickens's novel, it was adapted for silent films in 1915, with noted Dickensian actor Bransby Williams starring as Thomas Gradgrind, and televised in 1977 by Granada. This t. v. adaptation, scripted by Arthur Hopcraft, has been televised on several later occasions. The casting is good: Patrick Allen is grimly convincing as Gradgrind; Timothy West is up to the role of the blowhard Bounderby; Jacqueline Tong compelling as Louisa; Edward Fox, though a little old for Harthouse, carries off the part with suitable, aristocratic indolence.
If you have the opportunity to see this film, consider writing a 2000-word review, indicating the production's strengths and weaknesses. In what respects has it realized Dickens's novel well? What has it added that is not in the novel? What has been cut?
2. Nemesis or Poetic Justice has been the guiding principle behind literature since the Greek New Comedy, and was the device for socially acceptable closure in many Victorian novels: virtuous characters are rewarded (with money, with elevated social status or increased social acceptance, and with good marriages and flourishing families) while scurrilous characters are appropriately punished (by death, prison, exile abroad, bankruptcy, or loss of friends and social status).
How may one apply this pattern of "retributive justice" to most of the principal characters in Hard Times? Which characters do not conform to this pattern? Speculate as to why.
3. The influence of the female characters on the moral life of Coketown society is generally beneficial, especially in terms of the effect of Rachel and Sissy on the principal characters. However, certain female characters--Mrs. Blackpool and Mrs. Sparsit, in particular--have a decidedly negative influence on the action of the story.
What social and economic roles do women play in Hard Times? What does Dickens see as "appropriate" and "inappropriate" roles for women? Why are certain women in the story punished and others rewarded? Why, for example, does Sissy have children but Louisa doesn't?
4. Both "Frauds on the Fairies" (text) and Hard Times defend imagination and fancy (which, for Dickens, seems to include popular entertainments such as dancing, plays, circuses and fairytales, as well as pictures, literature, and music) against abuse by Utilitarians and propagandists. Discuss the forces and characters mentioned in the novel and in the Household Words editorial that Dickens contends are opposed to "fancy," and describe the various methods that Dickens uses to defend "fancy."
5. Hard Times has been termed "a fairytale for the Industrial Age." How does Dickens utilize fairytale patterns and allusions to support theme and characterization in the novel?
6. Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (1843) and Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) are initially cantankerous, socially alienated figures absorbed by some strange obsession. Gradually over the course of these stories they change their attitudes and reform their views. How do both initially exemplify Jeremy Bentham's concept of Utilitarianism ("The greatest happiness [i. e., material benefit] for the greatest number")? What factors are responsible for changing their outlooks on life? How are they similar at the ends of these novels?
7. "Hard" (as in "firm and unyielding") occurs in such expression as "hard-hearted" ("unfeeling or harsh"), and in the sense of indigent in "hard up." We talk of "hard facts" to meaning "data unadorned or unembroidered with subjectivity" and a "hard nut to crack" for an especially difficult problem, riddle, enigma, or conundrum. Somebody who is "hard of hearing" is nearly deaf. Somebody who insists upon a "hard line" is severe and judgmental; a "hard winter" is unpleasantly or unseasonably cold; a "hard bargain" implies no concession to sentimental or personal considerations. "Hard" times are necessarily "trying times," especially in terms of availability of employment.
To what extent may the title of the novel, Hard Times For These Times, be applied to three of the novel's principal characters? Consider the social, educational, monetary, and personal implications of the phrase "hard times."
8. A number of contemporary critics regarded Dickens's Hard Times For These Times as socialist propaganda rather than literature. Explain which description is better suited to the novel.
9. Although marriage is not central to this novel's theme, Dickens offers no less than three examples of "failed" or "failing" marriages: the Gradgrinds', the Bounderbys', and the Blackpools'. Compare the dysfunctional nature of these relationships, identifying the causes of marital breakdown in each case. What, implies Dickens, is the "formula" or secret to a happy marriage? Which character in the book best knows this "secret"? Explain.
10. The cast of Dickens's Hard Times For These Times is largely working- and middle-class--the notable exceptions being the aristocrats James Harthouse and Mrs. Sparsit. Compare these two characters, and how Dickens uses them in the novel. What aspects of the British aristocracy in the nineteenth century do they exemplify? What have they in common? In what ways do they differ significantly? How, apparently, does Dickens use them to attack the aristocracy?
11. One of the more obvious patterns in the book is the effect of parents upon their children, a pattern that involves Tom, Louisa, Sissy, Thomas Gradgrind, Mrs. Gradgrind, Mrs. Peggler, and Josiah Bounderby. What theme about child-rearing emerges from a study of these relationships? Which relationships may we regard as "successful," and why?
12. Coketown, named after the coking coal used in the blast furnaces of its steel mills, is not a mere backdrop to the action of the novel, but an abiding presence, a pervasive atmosphere, and a controlling context. With reference to several specific passages that describe the town's physical makeup and atmosphere, discuss the uses to which Dickens puts Coketown in Hard Times For These Times (1854).
13. The names of the characters in the story are often suggestive of their natures, the most obvious example being "Gradgrind." But why is he a "Thomas," for example? Select the names of three of four characters, then identify the significance of their surnames and Christian names in terms of characterization, plot, and theme.
14. Surveillance and control are pervasive patterns in the book: characters are observing and reporting on other characters as a means of social control. Which characters serve as watchers, and how do they differ in their intentions? Which characters are observed and reported on, and why?
15. What about its effects makes Dickens hostile to industrial capitalism in Hard Times? How does he reveal his indignation? In what ways does Bounderby, for example, exemplify the worst aspects of the factory-owning class? What cure does Dickens propose for the ills of industrial society as depicted in the novel?
16. George Bernard Shaw argues that Dickens deliberately wrote Hard Times to make his middle class readers feel "uncomfortable." Locate the sources of this discomfort, and explain how it serves Dickens's thematic intentions in the novel.
Last modified 24 January 2004