Charles Dickens - Hard Times

2021-11-18 @Literature

Here’s a fun Dickens novel published in 1854 that I easily recommend if reading in the original English. Hard Times concerns such themes as industry exploitation, utility, socialist vs capitalist dichotomy, factual vs emotional reasoning, compassion, sacrifice, redemption.

On the surface, it might even appear a precursor to the Dystopian novel genre, repression a notable influence across the fictional ‘Coketown’ (a funny name for an imaginary town, I know). Beyond the façade, however, the town and the inhabitants acquire far greater dimension, hardly yielding to the depressing influx I might expect from 20th century dystopian works.

Of greatest concern I consider the poetry. A remarkably poetic sort of prose you’ll find within. And that’s fairly common of Dickens across the board, though this novel being his shortest, I felt the effect at its densest yet.

It’s poetry, poetry, and more poetry from the introductory paragraph to the finale. It’s poetry of hyper-long sentences, refrains, repetitions, and much embellishing form of expression. The first and last paragraphs of the chapters also tend to particularly strike the cymbals.

One of Dickens' strongest points I’ve always found in the imagery: the decadent, repressed, polluted, Coketown; the characterless architecture; the omnipresent factory; the travelling circus whose office counteracts much else; the contrasting countryside; and so on.

Interestingly, I’ve admired the dark imagery of the dreadful Coketown as much as the bleakness of Bleak House, or the murky London undertones characteristic of so many other novels. The steam, the chimneys, the soot, the ‘smoke serpents’, the pollution, the paleness, none of it necessarily evoked the same gloomy impact in me as probably intended. I’ve largely enjoyed the respective environments.

The metaphors are abundant. So are the kennings - those compact metaphors designed to allude to recurring characters by funny, often derogatory means.

Hyperbolic techniques, symbols and allusions you’ll also find aplenty. The prose definitely characterizes the Victorian style of narrative typical of the period.

For the above reasons, the plot and the underlying themes were of secondary nature to me. I hardly cared what the narrative would come to, or whether the character development would live up to some expectation. I mainly enjoyed the slow reading and the rereading of sentences.

If constrained to a translation, on the other hand, you’ll invariably lose much of the poetry, and certainly that 19th-century periodic essence. You’ll place greater weight on the work as a whole.

Speaking of which, it sometimes felt rushed. Dickens is said to have written the short novel in view of the struggling sales of another literary publication.

And it’s a quality work, by all means. However, I distinctly felt the character story lines deserved more real estate to develop and spawn intertwining branches, typical of his other novels often four times the length.

In fact, the author often summarizes action and major development in the way of a play, whereas the Aristotelian dramatic tradition especially discourages direct involvement of action: either in the form of a compact summary of a paragraph or two (where a longer novel might otherwise spawn entire chapters), or through second-hand character dialogue.

It might even annoy some readers to encounter passages where major conflict and resolution comprise sections as compact as a few paragraphs. That’s the sacrifice the author seems to have consciously made in light of the publication constraints.

Yet I don’t feel the overall quality to have overly suffered: especially if you read in English and appreciate the poetry.


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