The Blue-collar Appeal of Hard Times
In Hard Times, Charles Dickens gives us a close-up look into what appears to be the ivory tower of the bourgeoisie of his day, yet these middle-class characters are viewed from a singular perspective, the perspective of those at the bottom of the social and economic system. Though Dickens’ characters tend to be well developed and presented with a thoroughly human quality, the stereotypical figure of arrogant and demanding Bounderby fails to accurately capture the motivations and attitudes of the typical successful businessman of the day and is an indication of the author’s political motives. Hard Times, rather than presenting a historically accurate picture of the extraordinary changes brought about by the industrial revolution, is a one-sided attack on the utilitarian value system of the middle 19th century based upon emotional blue-collar appeals for labor sympathy that are not uncommon in today’s corporate environment.
Josiah Bounderby of Coketown represents the utilitarian attitude and, as such, is the villain of the story and clearly the target of Dickens’ political argument. Dickens characterizes Bounderby as a powerful individual, driven by greed and guided by a distorted view of human nature. He is the only wealthy industrialist introduced in Hard Times, although Mr. Sleary might arguably be considered the more virtuous businessman. Dickens clearly portrays Bounderby as a greedy and individualistic, self-serving capitalist; rather than an insightful, forward-looking crafter of a new industrial age. Dickens artfully weaves his political enemy into a pompous, arrogant image reinforced with traditional working-class themes that lead the reader to conclude that Bounderby, as a manifestation of Gradgrind’s and Choakumchild’s philosophy of "fact," represents all that is wrong with industrial society.
Dickens apparently expects his readers to accept his portrayal of Bounderby as being typical of this new breed of industrialists, but the character reflects none of the beginnings of modern scientific principles of management date emerging in the first half of the 19th century. By building on the principles of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the works of Babbage, Jevons, Newman, Riccardo, Taylor, von Clauswitz, and others were not only helping shape the future of management philosophy, but were decisively impacting contemporary business thought throughout Dickens’ lifetime (George 67-78). No indication of these developments can be seen in the character of Bounderby. Author Archibald Coolidge writes that:
Dickens has a sort of preoccupation with money. But he calls businessmen villains and schemers. He almost never shows or describes them at work; when he does, the are show being crooked or at least harsh...It seems fairly clear that he did not analyze the problems of the businessman or those created by him—never analyzed the problems of creating, distributing, or getting wealth...