Charles Dickens' Hard Times
Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times critiques the use of extreme utilitarianism as an acceptable means to governing a society in which citizens are able to lead happy, productive, flourishing lives. “Just the facts,”19th century English utilitarianism argued, are all one needs to flourish. Those answers that we can arrive at by way of mathematical, logical reasoning are all needed to live a full human life. Hard Times shows however that a “just the facts” philosophy creates a community inhospitable to the needs of one another, a society nearly void of human compassion, and one lacking in morality. Underlying the novel’s argument is the Aristotelian concept that the primary purpose of government is to correctly educate citizens in morality and, consequentially, to cultivate an upright social environment where all are inspired to flourish.
How fitting, then, that early in the novel we are introduced to Thomas Gradgrind, educator and owner of the M’choakumchild school where “just the facts” are taught and the apotheosis of 19th century English utilitarianism. Although “Gradgrind intellect” is calculated to be the best way to maximize happiness, in the M’choakumchild class room it soon becomes clear that its adherents are the most unhappy and immoral in Coketown, even more so than the “Hands” who suffer from its cruelty indirectly. If the purpose of the state is to cultivate moral individuals who are able to flourish together, the state built on utilitarian values inevitably fails.
Part of the inadequacy of utilitarianism and its statistical approach to addressing human problems is its objective, mass-quantity view of people. Gradgrind’s description alone captures the disconnected nature and cold sterility of a system that sees its citizens as “parcels of human nature.” He is:
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations…With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures… (6)
Even the cloistered and mousy Mrs. Gradgrind knows “there is something – not an ology at all
that [Gradgrind] has missed or forgotten” (152). In her essay “The Literary Imagination in Public
Life” Martha C. Nussbaum writes that the “missing” element in Mr. Gradgrind’s political-economic philosophy is the acknowledgment of life’s qualitative dimension (431). Exchanging the qualitative for the quantitative, the economic utilitarian measures life in statistical terms. Utilitarianism forbids the concept of human complexity to enter its fundamentally formulaic approach to life. Thus, Cissy Jupe is not Cissy Jupe, but “Girl number twenty,” a label that rigidly defines her as a commodity. Even the town bureaucrats are subjected to their method of numerical labeling – bodies number one through four all agree that no one should wonder (41-42).