A discussion on Catherine Gallagher’s comments about Charles Dickens’ novel ‘Hard Times’ – from The Open University module A150.

 

In reading 2.2, Catherine Gallagher discusses the opening of Book 1, Chapter 5 of Hard Times, making the point that ‘Like much of the prose of Hard Times, this keynote paragraph carries its point stylistically’ (quoted in A150, Book 3, p. 93). Discuss the relevance of Gallagher’s comment to Hard Times, Book 2, Chapter 1, ‘Effects in the Bank’.

 

The main consideration when looking at the relevance of Catherine Gallagher’s statement to this chapter is the comparison between styles, realism and romanticism.

Realism is often seen in opposition to romance, as it involves facing up to the actual problems of everyday life rather than retreating into fantasy, idealisation and escapism. (Prescott, 2010, p.71)

It is also important that we consider what is meant by style. There are several different facets to style in writing, such as the general feel of a passage or a writer’s use of specific words and sounds to create atmosphere, that are discovered through close reading of the text. There is also the grace with which these come together and the clever use of the subtle changes of narrative style Charles Dickens uses to influence the reader’s opinions of the characters.

 

During the early to mid-nineteenth century there was an increasing popularity in realist, contemporary novels set in Northern industrial towns. These novels were often hard hitting and highly detailed stories about what life was like at the time. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South are excellent examples of this style of writing. Although Dickens was writing at the same time as Gaskell, Hard Times shows a clever use of both romanticism and realism to carry the reader through the book.

In fact, Dickens’s handling of the novel’s narrative voice alone (quite apart from any other non-realist elements in the novel) would make us pause before applying the label ‘realist’ to Hard Times. (Prescott, 2010, p.74)

In the chapter ‘Effects in the Bank’, Dickens jolts the reader to attention with an unexpected sunny day, totally unlike the previous key-note description. He also flits between ethereal make-believe and harsh reality to create a unique, atmospheric image of Coketown on a summer’s day. For example, his description of the mills is an excellent use of fantastical narrative.

The atmosphere of those Fairy palaces was like the breath of the simoom; and their inhabitants, wasting with heat, toiled languidly in the desert. (Dickens, 2003, p.112)

Likewise his description of the bank includes an ideal illustration of his use of realism.

It was another red brick house, with black outside shutters, green inside blinds, a black street door up two white steps (Dickens, 2003, p.113)

His ability to seamlessly stitch narrative styles together not only strengthens Gallagher’s statement about the stylistic tone of the piece but also highlights Dickens’s talent as a wordsmith, adding a dramatic to and fro to the chapter.

 

Looking in more detail at the technical styles within the text we can identify several strong themes. The main one being repetition, however, there is clear examples of alliteration and metaphor as well. Dickens uses repetition of words, phrases and sounds in a masterly fashion, using them to emphasise points and punctuate imageries. For such a short chapter, just 12 pages, repetition plays a big part and is clearly an important tool. It gives the entire chapter a complete feeling and a consistency throughout. In places the technique also lends a rhetorical style to the passage, reminiscent of the speeches that would have been heard at the union rallies throughout Coketown.

They were ruined when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined, when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke. (Dickens, 2003, p.111)

This particular section also gives us an insight into the characters of the mill owners as they save the most emphatic cry of despair for the least awful matter of producing smoke. Not only does this show the mill owners to be ruthless it also brings an element of comedy to the passage as it appears to poke fun at them too. Dickens uses comedy between Mrs Sparsit and Bitzer as well, setting them up as pompous characters and then allowing the narrative to intersperse a few sly digs.

‘I have only one to feed, and that’s the person I most like to feed.’

‘To be sure’ Assented Mrs Sparsit, eating muffin. (Dickens, 2003, p.118)

He also often describes Mrs Sparsit’s features as if they were entities of their own account giving her character a cartoonish feel.

…and convey her dense black eyebrows…up stairs (Dickens, 2003, p.123)

 

Dickens uses alliteration and metaphor to create both visual and aural images of the heat of the day in Coketown. When describing the mills he calls them ‘Melancholy elephants’, he then goes on to say;

The measured motion of their shadows…was the substitute Coketown had to show for the shadows of rustling woods…while, for the summer hum of insects it could offer… the whirr of shafts and wheels. (Dickens, 2003, p.112)

The use of the soft ‘sh’ and ‘m’ sounds realistically portray the sound and feel of the summer season while the actual words romanticise the image. The sounds in your mind as a reader are pleasing to the inner ear and lull you into what could be considered a false sense of security as the Hard Times reality of Coketown is quite different.

 

During the closing paragraphs, the narrative returns to this repetitive style, almost bringing the chapter full circle reminding the reader of the intensity of the hot day. He combines repetition and alliteration, perhaps imitating the ticking of time passing as Mrs Sparsit sits alone.

She sat at the window, when the sun…she sat there, when the smoke…when the colour…when darkness…creep upward, upward, up to the house tops, up the church steeple, up to the summits…up to the sky. Mrs Sparsit sat…the shutting-up of the shop-shutters. (Dickens, 2003, p.123)

She becomes almost removed from the scene due to her immobility.

 

Throughout the whole segment, from p.112 ‘The streets…’ up to p.113 ‘…looks upon to bless’, Dickens’s style moves between hard, soft then back to hard again. He takes us from the painfully dazzling sun and hot oil slick through to ‘Fairy palaces’ and ‘Melancholy elephants’ back to a ‘fierce heat’ and the fact that the sun is an ‘evil eye’. This skilful creation of pitch within the writing maintains the reader’s attention so that when Mrs Sparsit appears they can fully appreciate what the narrator is conveying about her attitude.

She is re-introduced straight after one of the hard sections of text, perhaps predetermining your thoughts towards her. It is the first time we encounter her in her new home at the Bank and she is appearing to try and boost her, self-imposed, importance by using the Bank’s boardroom as part of her apartments. Although not written in the first person it is written very much from her point of view showing the reader how much of an inflated impression she has of herself.

Mrs Sparsit was conscious that she…shed a feminine, not to say also aristocratic, grace upon the office. (Dickens, 2003, p.113)

This is an opinion that is obviously not shared with the inhabitants of Coketown.

Mrs Sparsit considered herself…the Bank Fairy. The townspeople…regarded her as the Bank Dragon. (Dickens, 2003, p.113)

It is also clear that she considers herself as the master of all she surveys and the narrative continues to reinforce this side of her character.

She reigned supreme…She was lady paramount…She was guardian. (Dickens, 2003, pp.113-114)

This entire passage helps Dickens’s narrator to set her personality in the minds of the reader as he takes us into the dialogue between her, Bitzer and Harthouse. The narrative cleverly continues to use different voices to include indications of each character’s specific idiosyncrasies, whilst maintaining its integrity as a third person narrator.

(Bitzer) With a demonstration of great respect for Mrs Sparsit’s oracular authority. (Dickens, 2003, p.115)

(Harthouse) But remained himself carelessly lounging against the table. (Dickens, 2003, p.120)

He does not put these words directly into the mouths of the characters but allows the narrative different voices to bring colour to them. As a reader you would not notice this immediately, it is close reading that draws out the sophistication of this technique.

 

As the chapter draws to a close and Dickens brings us back to the stylistic approach of the beginning, it is evident to me that Gallagher’s statement of Hard Times ‘making its point stylistically’ is as relevant to this chapter as it is to ‘The Key-note’ chapter. This piece of writing is not just a continuation of the plot but it is a superbly thought out interval that is designed to instil certain thoughts and feelings into the reader, both about the characters and Coketown itself, and does so in a very particular way, thus enabling Dickens to continue the plot without having to obviously explain characters and setting.

 

References

Dickens, C. (2003 [1854]), Hard Times, (ed. K. Flint), Penguin Classics, London, Penguin.

The Open University, (2010), A150 Voices & Texts, Book 3, ‘Voices & Texts in Dialogue’, Milton Keynes, The Open University.

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