Dickens’ Divine Extremity

posted in: Review, The Arts | 0

For sheer outrageous characterization, Charles Dickens has no match. It helps that his England was rife with class divisions (probably still is). Whereas  US  novelists play around with outlaws, hoodwinking innocents with snake oil and motley, Dickens almost always draws a firm line between haves and have-nots, between the benign and the criminal, and then dares one or the other to step across and challenge the other. It’s a fight within a tight arena, and the players remain vividly recognizable, until the mean crumble under their own weight.

Hard Times, one of the master’s most extreme satires, gives us two extraordinarily bad (often ridiculous) men: Mr. Josiah Bounderby, and Mr. Grandgrind. Coke Town where these two preside is filthy with fumes and poverty. And though we soon meet one of the mill hands, a mild-mannered sort named Stephen Blackpool, most of the action centers around these two giant malefactors sounding off in various locations, including a circus.

Usually I wait at least six months before listening to a book on disk again because I have to forget the story  as well as the reader’s voice. But for Hard Times, I’ll probably have to wait twice that long. Not that I can quote much verbatim, but I can still hear the reader Patrick Tull announcing, “I am Josiah Bounderby of Coke Town,” as if Bounderby were Moses reciting the Ten Commandments. Tull has a deep, incredibly variable voice, and to portray  Bounderby he puffs up with swaggering self-importance, which includes a ready reminder that “I, Josiah Bounderby have come from nothing,” an orphan who fed on offal, raised by a snarling she-wolf of a grandmother.  

His sidekick, Mr. Grandgrind, is not much better, though he is capable of affection for his children, Dickens tells us. Strange how he shows it, drilling them with “facts” until he drills all sentiment, frivolity, imagination, sympathy, desire, enjoyment out of them, leaving his eldest daughter Louisa to sit for long hours in silent contemplation of the fire. He’s ground down her surface with “facts,” but she has kept an inner life burning. We suspect intelligence is her fuel.

His son Tom, Louisa’s childhood playmate and her fondest friend, hasn’t been ground down enough, it turns out, but I won’t give the plot away, for it is a splendid plot, involving Mrs. Sparsit, a “lady of the highest gentility,” who places herself under Bounderby’s thumb. With her “Coriolanian eyebrows” and sharp nose, she has powers of discernment far beyond the pliant female she pretends to be. Eventually this discernment and indefatigable industry do Bounderby harm. By then, we’re rubbing our hands with glee. We couldn’t be more delighted to see class snobbery unseat self-made snobbery.  

But Dickens has a huge heart, and the suffering and desires of those mill hands, ground down by facts and greed and  snobbery, deprived of joy and hope, even food and drink rouse us to ire. We applaud the storm that drenches Mrs. Sparsit. We cheer Sissy, the daughter of a circus performer, brought up by Gradgrind’s facts, who yet can detect the true nature of crime and goodness, and helps set things right in the end.

Hard Times is not fall-down funny, but it is full of wicked self-revelation, where we join league with the author to cheer his nasty fictions to self-immolation. We also weep at the pain they cause to the well-meaning and innocent, and are entirely happy to have Tom Gradgrind forced into the circus for disguise, his face blacked, with his job something to do with a horse. This, prefatory to his being shipped off to the colonies. I do wonder what horrors await him in Canada or in a Kansas prairie snowstorm.

I don’t know of any other author who enjoys criminals so hugely and who paints their false denominations with such fervor. The fervor of a convert who himself suffered in working poverty until he gave himself over to practice the literary faith.  

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