Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Re-Education of a Book Lover: Part One - Hard Times by Charles Dickens

I have loved to read for as long as I can remember. Recently, however, it has come to my attention that there are some G A P I N G holes in my literary education. For example: I have read every Austen and Bronte you can get your hands on, but somehow have never managed to read a Charles Dickens novel in its entirety. So, with a little help from my mom, the English Teacher, and a couple of good friend, the English Majors, I am setting a course to re-educate myself by filling in some of those gaps.

First up - Hard Times by Charles Dickens (suggested by an English Major)

originally published in 1854


Classic 1845 novel offers a powerful indictment of the dehumanizing effects of mid-19th-century industrialization. Thomas Gradgrind raises his children, Tom and Louisa, in a sterile atmosphere of strict practicality. With no guiding principles, the young Gradgrinds sink into lives of desperation and despair, played out against the grim backdrop of Coketown, a wretched industrial community.

First Impression - 5/26/12

I think I'm most surprised about how much I'm actually enjoying the writing. I know Dickens wrote serialized novels, and was paid by how long he could make them, so I always expected his work to be a bit of a slog - page after page of nothing much. I knew he wrote a good story, but thought the reading of it would be more difficult. Pleasant suprise!

I'm reading a Kindle edition, and it tells me I'm about 23% finished. Mostly so far we've just been introducing characters, and (predictably, based on the title) most of them seem to be miserable. This first section is entitled "Sowing", and spends much time explaining Gradgrind's idea that children should be raised with only facts - no imagination. His kids chafe, but can't break free. Free-spirited Sissy Jupe is introduced into the mix, and is so far the only breath of fresh air in the bunch.

Second Thoughts - 6/1/12

Well, with a title like "Hard Times" I knew it wouldn't be a cheery read, but holy cow. Dickens clearly had issues with the disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots", and this novel seems to be a not-so-subtle dig against the mill and factory owners of the time.  Additionally, he is railing against the Utilitarians, a philosophy of the day promoting rationalism and facts over imagination and compassion. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

"It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. There is no mystery in it; there is an unfathomable mystery in the meanest of them, forever."  (location 1281)

So, certainly not the lightest of reads. And yet, I'm finding a lot of humor that I hadn't expected. Many times I've found myself chuckling at Dickens' clever descriptions or bits of irony.

"She was a most wonderful woman for prowling about the house. How she got from story to story was a mystery beyond solution. A lady so decorous in herself, and so highly connected, was not to be suspected of dropping over the bannisters or sliding down them, yet her extraordinary facility of locomotion suggested the wild idea." (location 3478)

Dickens' characters are somewhat predictable - his good guys are very good, and his bad guys very bad. There are not a lot to like in this novel - I have sympathy for one or two, but even they frustrate me at times - I want to tell them to get a spine! But I know it's the style of the time, and I'm still very drawn into their story. I just completed section two - "Reaping" - and Louisa's showdown with her father is heartbreaking. Ultimately, the novel is making me want to read more Dickens, which is great!

Last Word - 6/2/12

Whew. Question for the audience - are all Dickens novels this depressing? Because, seriously, this one was a bit of a downer. Nothing good happened nearly the entire novel through. The moral of the story seems to be that life isn't fair, and good people will get shafted every time. (of course, the bad people get shafted, too, so at least he doesn't play favorites.)

That said, I did enjoy the novel. I was continually surprised at how easy a read it was - Dickens certainly has a different style than modern novelists, but I didn't find it difficult or slow going in any way. I think this was a great start to my re-education. It has certainly motivated me to keep going with my challenge!

Finished: 6/2/12
Source: my kindle
MPAA rating: PG - if it wasn't so depressing, it could be made into a Disney movie.
My rating: 7/10

Next up in my re-education: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin


mar10123 said...

We'll make an English teacher out of you yet. ;-)

Ryan said...

Not all Dickens is depressing. The Pickwick Papers is a downright hilarious romp and Great Expectations, although bleak in places, isn't entirely depressing.