Utilitarianism in Hrad Times
English and Literature
Submitted By angelabraga
How does Dickens expose the failings of utilitarianism in his novel Hard Times?
Utilitarianism is a term quite unfamiliar among today’s generation, therefore let me start by defining what this word means. Utilitarianism says an action is morally right if it benefits the greatest number of people. You determine what is right by calculating the amount of pleasure or suffering your actions may cause. The opinion of the majority is more important than that of the minority.
Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out nothing else."
These are the first sentences the reader will read. Pretty harsh words to say to a classroom full of children, whose minds are bubbling to the brim with imagination meaning the reader, will automatically be put into the utilitarian way of thinking as soon as he/she opens the book. When you get further into book1 the reader realises that this novel is based on a time when utilitarianism dominated the country.
Children are known for their wide imagination, their vivid thoughts; yet throughout book 1 we see Mr Gradgrind trying to sap it all out of them. Dickens was trying to show the negative side of imagination and human emotions depriving people of enjoying the qualities they were supposedly carrying with them. Children had no names but numbers; there is no room from an imaginative answer. A good example of this is with Bitzer and Sissy- both children yet from two different backgrounds. When asked what a horse was Bitzer replied using fact “forty teeth, namely 24grinders” yet not stating any qualities a horse might have. In those times Bitzer was seen as victorious because nothing in their lives was possible without reasoning and fact. However with the use of repetition we see Dickens mock the idea of facts being stupendously important. He repeatedly repeated the word “fact” fact this, fact that, fact everywhere to emphasis to the reader that he thought the idea of fact was silly.
Also Coketown isn’t presented as the most beautiful place in the world. Instead it’s described as an industrialized city under the influence of utilitarianism. The smoke which hovers around the town like “serpents” and machines which work like “mad elephants”. Only the rich have a say and the poor are not considered individuals but ‘Hands.’
Dickens portrays the failings of utilitarianism specifically through his characters. At the beginning of book1 Mr Gradgrind is described as “a man who proceeds upon the principle that 2 and 2 is 4 and nothing else”. Dickens, using satire, repeatedly describes Gradgrind as ‘square’- ‘square forefinger’, ‘square shoulders’ to show how boring he was. Yet towards the end he begins to doubt the theory on which he has based his whole life upon. He realises that although you need the wisdom of the head, the wisdom of the heart is equally as important. But the person to show him all this in the end was Sissy. Sissy Jupe steps in as the "stupid" little girl, who knows nothing of reality; she represents the circus people with her innocence and free-will, qualities which are lacking in the lives of the people around her. Mr Gradgrind, the flashy politician, turns out to need help from the little girl that he set out to "help" in the beginning.
Louisa is a perfect example of the failings of the impeccable system. She, like her brother Tom was brought up to be hard, machine-like and exemplars of facts who lack any emotions. According to the system only the facts are important in every situation. The decision of sharing one’s life with someone for the rest of their life should be no different than any other decision taken in life. The facts of the matter are what are of importance, and the facts were that she had received a marriage proposal from Mr Bounderby. So she agreed to marry someone who she wasn’t in love with, this, as predicted turned out to be a big mistake.
Mr Bounderby is one of the wealthiest people in Coketown; owning a bank and a factory, but is not really a likable person. His philosophy is similar to Mr Gradgrind in the respect that a factory is the most important thing in life. Mr Bounderby maintained throughout the story his utilitarian views, which basically stated that nothing else is important besides profit. Being the owner of both a factory and a bank, Bounderby employed many workers, yet seems to offer them no respect at all. He refers to the factory workers as “Hands,” because that is all they are to him. This shows that wealth plays a massive role in society and what privileges people have. Those who were rich had an education, those who weren’t didn’t, and those who believed in utilitarianism were successful.
Dickens paints a vivid picture of this inequality between social classes and shows he does not care much for it. In his mind utilitarianism has a connection with greed and wealth and status but nothing to do with society. Stephen a hardworking and heart-warming man was killed because of the injustices of those in power- he died an honourable death. On the other hand those who were deceitful like Tom died a horrible death. Dickens makes it very clear that characters like Bitzer and Bounderby may seem successful on paper but don’t have the capacity to deal with everyday struggles. Dickens had a vision of life which was that we should laugh, love and be happy but those with narrow minds who have fallen in the trap of utilitarianism won’t experience this.
Utilitarianism is a bad thing because at some point in our lives we will find ourselves in the minority depending on which way you slice up society.