Competition and Co-operation in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’

Today I stumbled across a few of my old essays from university and thought I’d share one. The essay in question felt pertinent in the current climate given its focus on competition and co-operation. It explores the contrasting value systems in Charles Dickens’ great satirical novel, Hard Times

Discuss Competition and Co-operation in Hard Times

Much of the narrative tension in Hard Times revolves around the ‘opposition of two value systems’. The circus, espousing co-operation and empathy, is a site where counter-cultural ideas are expressed and practiced. In contrast, the prevailing ideology is one that permits conflict, promoting self-interest at the expense of others. Mr Bounderby and Bitzer come to embody this hegemonic world-view, and Sissy Jupe the former. Competition is ubiquitous throughout Coketown, and is embedded into institutions like the school; it is the circus-folk’s marginalised existence that shields them from this destructive force. Dickens mistrusted the ‘reductive but compelling account of laissez-faire capitalism’ offered by political economy. His depiction of a hyper-competitive environment, where social relations are warped and ethical development is shackled, speculates on the potential damage to a society built on the mantra of self-interest.

Centred around the fundamental value of Fancy, the circus purports an ethical code in opposition to the prevailing ideology of the novel. Analysing the meaning of Fancy in Hard Times, Sonstroem concludes that one aspect relates to ‘fellow feeling: compassion, sentiment’. The human ‘pyramid’ that the circus men enact highlights these ideals in practice; based on mutual experience and interdependence, the pyramid requires each man to respect and trust his fellow showman. The circus folk’s commitment to forming co-operative relations is apparent throughout, particularly in their treatment of Sissy Jupe following her father’s disappearance. Indeed, Sleary proposes the formation of a surrogate family, promising the girl that ‘Emma Gordon… would be a mother to you, and Joth’phine would be a thither’ (p. 41). In attempting to alleviate the burden on Sissy and replace the familial ties she has lost, Sleary demonstrates an instinctive desire to provide for the girl, altruistic behaviour that is commonplace in the troupe. Further, the narrator implies that it is Mr Childers’ manners and craft that prompt Gradgrind’s compassionate proposal: ‘he had sought to conciliate that gentleman, for the sake of the deserted girl’ (p. 37). Childers, in part, secures Sissy the right to an education, allowing her the opportunity to fulfil her father’s will. 

If the circus is the main site of co-operation in the novel, then Sissy is its agent. Her presence ensures that the doctrine of compassion reverberates around the narrative despite Dickens’ limited engagement with the circus. In the wake of Louisa’s emotional breakdown, Sissy offers her companionship: ‘‘‘I would be something to you, if I might”’ (p. 209). Laid bare is Sissy’s genuine desire to form intimate relations. Although shunned by Louisa following Bounderby’s proposal, she retains no ill-feeling, and her honesty and warmth suffuse through Stone Lodge. Jane’s ‘beaming face’ (p. 204) is attributed to the humanising influence of her adopted sister, and contrasts with the ‘doubtful flashes’ (p. 17) evident in a young Louisa, schooled instead in Gradgrind’s repressive theories on human nature. The major triumph of Sissy – and indeed the values she symbolises – is her confrontation with the James Harthouse, who antithetically epitomises rugged individualism. Spurred by the ‘commission of.. [her].. love’ (p. 215), Sissy pressures Harthouse into leaving Coketown, temporarily renouncing his self-interest in a complete subversion of character. The use of the noun ‘commission’ implies that she cannot but submit to a deep-rooted impulse to protect those around her. Harthouse’s departure is, then, a victory for solicitousness over egocentrism. 

Antithetical to the circus is the school, a space in which co-operation is limited. The Coketown school is under the influence of the caricatured utilitarian dogmatist, Mr Gradgrind, and his Philosophy of Fact. Singled out in front of the class, Sissy is noted to have ‘blushed’ (p. 8, 10, 11) multiple times in the chapter ‘Murdering the Innocents’, a telling indicator of her shame. As the chapter title suggests, the school is a hostile environment in which relations are governed by fear and students are ridiculed into conformity. If, as Humphrey contends, the novel bemoans the lack of  ‘moral virtues.. in personal relations but also the work-place and government’, it looks towards educational institutions also. As later in Hard Times, Sissy represents an incongruous force; quizzed on the basic tenet of political economy, she replies to Mr M’Choakumchild ‘To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me’ (p. 57). Paraphrasing Matthew’s ‘Golden Rule’, Sissy’s answer reads as a satirical riposte to the cold-hearted self-interest at the basis of Gradgrind’s philosophy. Her misplaced allusion to Christian ethics is Dickens’ affirmation of a world-view that promotes mutual respect and and affection. 

Stephen Blackpool’s rescue in ‘The Starlight’ is one example of co-operation that is not spearheaded by Sleary or his company. Inter-class synergy is vital to the effort, as representative members of the middle-class like the ‘surgeon’ (p. 248) unite forces with working-class men counting a ‘pitman’ (p. 250), to achieve a shared goal. There is an organic quality to Dickens’ description of the community: ‘Every one waited with his grasp set, … ready to reverse and wind in’. (p. 250). Uniformity of action turns the individual members of the rescue party into a collective force for good. When Stephen is raised from the Old Hell Shaft ‘A low murmur of pity went round the throng, and the women wept aloud’ (p. 251). The capacity for empathy amongst the community is highlighted, closely mimicking the allusions to crying noted earlier in the novel when Stephen is ostracised for refusing to join the Union. In the absence of Slackbridge’s divisive discourse, the people rally together, a nod to the potential inherent in society for co-operation.

Returning again to Sleary’s troupe, the ending demonstrates their ability to co-operate with wider society – namely the Gradgrinds – despite apparent ideological differences. Their willingness to help those outside of their peripheral existence is not reflected by Coketown’s inhabitants, who largely perceive the circus-folk as ‘useless vagabonds at best, and at worst as evil seducers of the ignorant and unwary’. The narrow-minded, prejudicial attitude is epitomised by Gradgrind, who initially comes to tell Sissy that ‘her connexions made her not an object for the school’ (38). Bigotry is thus an integral part of the hegemonic culture. Sleary, however, challenges this notion by preventing Bitzer from incarcerating Tom and risking Bounderby’s wrath. He tells Sissy ‘The Thquire stood by you, Thethilia, and I’ll thtand by the Thquire’ (266), invoking the spirit of solidarity synonymous with the circus. In allying with Gradgrind, Sleary looks beyond their philosophical differences and rewards empathy with empathy. The closing scene functions as a reverse of the second chapter, with Gradgrind becoming student, not teacher. Here a new philosophy is preached, built around ‘a love in the world, not all Thelf-intheretht after all’ (p. 269); it is a message of inclusivity and acceptance that serves to complete Gradgrind’s metamorphosis. 

Having analysed ‘co-operation’ in some detail, the remainder of this essay considers ‘competition’ in Hard Times. As Hilary Schor asserts, Dickens sought to ‘represent the systems of thought that both produced and sustain[ed]’ the miseries of industrialism. The ideology of laissez-faire capitalism, one such thought, is epitomised by Mr Bounderby, the self-centred and cold-hearted industrialist. Recalling those who exploited him in his mythologized childhood, Bounderby claims ‘‘They were right; they had no business to do anything else’ (p. 21). Exposed is a world-view that naturalises competition and equates ruthless individualism with what is morally sound. Bounderby’s belief that struggle is a fundamental part of society distorts his perception of industrial relations. He identifies a chasm between man and master, policing his workers, whose sole aim is ‘to be fed on turtle-soup and venison, with a gold spoon’ (p. 120). This anxiety centres around a fantasy that Coketown’s employees are seeking to profit at his expense. The implication that the workers are somehow work-shy and hedonistic is grossly misinformed, but the discourse of antagonism at the core of Bounderby’s attitude skewers his view of reality. He is, on a symbolic level, the product of a socio-economic system that validates conflict in the name of individual gain. 

It is also Bounderby who Dickens employs to critique the organic vision of society at the heart of political economy. Hard Times is particularly conscious that ‘industrialising, commercial society featured economic losers as well as winners, have-nots as well as haves’. This reality is apparent in the Stephen-Bounderby dynamic. For, it is Bounderby’s fear of insubordination amongst his workers (‘chaps who have always got a grievance’ (p. 143)) that prompts him to cruelly dismiss Stephen Blackpool, whose subsequent fall into an old mining shaft completes a metaphorical descent into hell. The presence of ‘economic losers’ like Stephen and fundamental power imbalances in the novel problematises the view that free competition might create ‘a rational, mutually beneficial and dynamic way of connecting people’. More broadly, the hardship of the workers is a reminder that in such a system for one to prosper many must suffer. The Hands live in a ‘labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts’ (p. 64) where the macabre motif of the ‘black-ladder’ (p. 67) is a stark reminder that death looms ever present. This claustrophobic, hellish evocation of Coketown contrasts patently with Bounderby’s arcadian country grounds: ‘a rustic landscape, golden with heath’ (p. 157). 

The fractious nature of Coketown is further attributed to a flawed educational system. Bitzer, the austere bourgeois aspirant, is shown to be a product of his schooling. Likened to a vampire, Bitzer’s ‘cold eyes’ and skin ‘so unwholesomely deficient in… natural tinge’ (p. 9) hint at both his future parasitic behaviour, and also his emotional detachment: common traits within an ideological apparatus that ‘consciously institutes division’. During the scene in the school Gradgrind sets up a paradigm of competition that the impressionable Bitzer will follow throughout the novel. In an act of public shaming, Gradgrind shouts “Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!”’ (p. 9), humiliating Sissy for placing imagination above fact. A repeat incident occurs some two chapters laters, whereby Bitzer imitates his pedagogue, asking Sissy ‘‘if she would know how to define a horse to-morrow’ (p. 29). Evidently Bitzer’s propensity to expose those who are vulnerable or unconventional is formed in Coketown’s educational academy; a failure to properly cultivate his youthful ‘imagination leads to egocentrism and a lack of understanding for others’ as the narrative continues. 

Bitzer, then, develops into a competitive and exploitative individual in the mould of Bounderby. He comes to hold the ironically ‘respectable office of general spy and informer’ (p. 109) in the bank, claiming a small bonus at christmas. Espionage is an apt service for the light porter, who is willing to sever relations in the name of material gain. Bitzer believes rational behaviour is that which benefits the self, and is consequently troubled because the Hands do not betray their Union, relinquishing the opportunity to ‘earn a trifle now and then, … and improve their livelihood’ (p. 112). In his view betrayal is a means to an end – and the underlying motive, social elevation, always justifies the means. Burdened by his stunted moral development, Bitzer retains a calculated and removed outlook that is sub-human in nature. Despite the tension in penultimate chapter, he calmly foresees his future prosperity: ‘I have no doubt that Mr Bounderby will then promote me to young Mr Tom’s situation’ (p. 264). The dialogue is bereft of emotion, and Dickens details no hint of hesitation on the part of Bitzer, even though Tom is sure to be imprisoned as a result. He has become robotic in his ways: an example of the danger to one’s humanity posed by Gradgrind’s marrying of utilitarian ethics and political economy. 

If Hard Times can, and should, be read as a critique of rampant individualism and conflict in society, the ending somewhat problematises this interpretation. In ‘Final’ the omniscient narrator relays the future prospects of the characters; Bounderby, who will soon ‘die of a fit in the Coketown street’ (p. 272-73), is clearly punished for his belligerence. Nevertheless, it is Bitzer who escapes repercussions, described as ‘the rising young man… who had won young Tom’s place’ (p. 272). He has ascended from relative poverty into the aspiring middle-class, usurping Tom at the Bank. Immoral behaviour notwithstanding, this ranks as a success for the philosophy of self-interest. Dickens is not however endorsing Bitzer’s actions, instead, his victory functions as a caution that the ‘self-interested, materialist emphasis of political economy.. [could].. dominate and thus diminish humanity’s potential’. The narrator’s final comment: ‘Dear reader! It rests with you and me’ (p. 274) stresses the reader and writer as agents alike in countering the ethical rot that Dickens had delineated in the novel.

Although Hard Times is sceptical about the systems of thought informing conceptions of social relations, there is a sense of optimism in the organic model offered by the circus. Incidents like the removal of Stephen Blackpool from the Old Hell Shaft also signal co-operative and sympathetic behaviour in practice. As aforementioned, this is offset by the desire to compete that is so ingrained into the psyche of many characters, and has disastrous implications for, amongst other things, industrial relations and human potential. A social apparatus founded on a belief in individual self-interest is thus shown to inevitably lead to conflict. Most worrying is the notion that in striving for success one must invariably trample upon others: Bitzer and Bounderby even equate this notion with what is rational, or morally sound. Considering that Hard Times celebrates moments of co-operative behaviour, for additional research it would be apt to consider Dickens’ negative portrayal of the Union, as this has not been considered in this essay.

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