Hard Times by Charles Dickens

“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 everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

With this dogmatic and militaristic monologue Charles Dickens begins his shortest novel Hard Times. It begins with a very memorable classroom scene in which Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. M’Choakumchild (no subtlety here) expound and implement their revolutionary pedagogical strategies. Nothing but “Fact” is wanted in Mr. Gradgrind’s school. Everything must be properly ordered and aligned according to Fact. Whatever is unable to be measured and statistically comprehended, is not material worthy of any notice. Mr. Gradgrind raises his children on Facts; he lives his life according to Facts down to the very details of his house decor. Anything smacking of fancy, frivolity or wonder has no place in Mr. Gradgrind’s solid world of Facts. Hard times, indeed, for the poor students.

Dickens dedicated Hard Times to Thomas Carlyle. In a letter to the same, Dickens wrote that the purpose of Hard Times was to “shake some people in a terrible mistake of these days.” This ‘terrible mistake,’ which we encounter so forcefully in the opening chapters of the book, was the societal obsession with a certain type of knowledge to the contemptuous dismissal of the others. Other ways of knowing were cast aside and disregarded and scientific knowledge was awarded exaggerated and supreme importance. Real knowledge, Gradgrind would say, can only be said of something if it can be proved and demonstrated by a scientific or mathematical process. Following such a protocol will lead to the truth about anything. Facts are “the one thing needful” which is the ironic title of the opening chapter.

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Dickens illustrates the painful consequences of this ideology on both the individual and the societal levels. The characters we meet who were nursed and nourished on the bottle of Facts end disastrously. Louisa Gradgrind is left jaded and emotionally stunted, Thomas Gradgrind is hopelessly self absorbed and turns to crime, and Bitzer behaves more like a machine than a man. There is something essential missing from all of them although their characters manifest the lack in different ways. Yet it is plain that they are all unable to function properly in a world where facts simply fall short in comprehending the experience of life.

The implementation of such a “Facts” mentality on a grander scale fares no better. Dickens portrays a sad, dirty, and depressed Coketown in which the workers (the Hands) have been reduced to production figures and statistics. To the Coketown masters they are truly nothing more than hands: hands that would be better off disembodied as they would make far less trouble that way. Both the Hands, represented by Stephen and Rachael, and the masters, represented by the ridiculous and blustering Bounderby, have been de-humanized by this ‘terrible mistake.’ As expressed by an old folk song, “hard times in the mill my love, hard times in the mill.”

But, as we read in the first chapter title of book three, there is “another thing needful.” The hyper-rational worldview of Facts simply does not hold up against the human experience: the experience both by and of people. When Mr. Gradgrind witnesses the total collapse and failure of his educational methods in the person of his daughter he says to her: “Some persons hold that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart.”

What is this wisdom of the Heart? It is difficult to say exactly what it is (which is why it holds no credibility by the Facts men) but we have all had experience of it; indeed it is usually something learned through experience rather than through a rational process. It primarily concerns itself with particulars rather than universals, or, to according to Goethe, with experiencing the universal in the living particular without even realizing it. It is knowing and delighting in the beauty and smell of a flower rather than understanding the workings of pollen, pistils and stamens. With no experiences to accompany all of the Facts, the unfortunate adherents of that philosophy unwittingly fall prey to the very error they so ardently wish to avoid: they are left with an incomplete and partial knowledge.

The point is not that there is something wrong with knowing facts. Knowledge of the reproductive systems of plants is a very good thing: scientific knowledge is a good thing. The mistake arises when such knowledge becomes the end of the story. Other ways of knowing must be acknowledged and given their proper dues. The biological workings of a flower do not define and comprehend what it is. The circulatory system does not tell the whole story of the human heart, despite what Bitzer says at the end of the novel.

Throughout the story, Dickens gives us several examples of this wisdom of the heart. Louisa Gradgrind has understood her whole life about the working class in Coketown: their numbers, production rates, birth and death rates, wages, whatever could be quantified and calculated. When she walks into the dwelling of Stephen Blackpool, however, she has a direct experience of one of the workers and quickly realizes that she has not really known them at all. “She had scarcely thought more of separating them into units, than of separating the sea itself into its component drops.” In the space of one interview she has learned more about the Hands of Coketown than in all of her years of study. Similarly in the first scene Sissy Jupe, having grown up in Sleary’s horse circus, is the only one in the room who really understands what a horse is, although she is unable to give a satisfactory and fact-saturated definition to Mr. Gradgrind.

The “one thing needful” is a reference to Luke 10 and the story of Martha and Mary. Martha busies herself with practical preparations while Mary is focused on the person of Christ and what He says. Jesus famously affirms Mary when Martha complains of her. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” The one thing needful is the Person of Jesus Christ. One cannot come to God by any other way than through an encounter with and an experience of an actual human being. A human being, like all others, who cannot be quantified or explained on a spreadsheet or graph. A human being, like all others, who is ultimately mysterious and can only be partially understood by those who, like Mary, are willing to spend time and effort.

For, of course, it would be absurd to say that you know somebody because you have an exhaustive encyclopedic knowledge of human biology and psychology. This is not what is needful in order to know someone and this is the mistake of the Gradgrind school of thought. Such thinking leaves no room for love as Louisa discovers on the night of her betrothal. The Facts mentality is seductive on account of its apparent simplicity and the satisfaction it seems to offer to our vain human natures. In the end, however, it is cowardly and dull at best, terrifying and despairing at worst. It recoils from anything it cannot quantify and categorize, refusing to acknowledge any mystery or mysticism either in the human person or the world. Imagination, wonder, and the desire for higher things are thereby killed, leaving hollow men residing in a hollow world where only the visible surface of things is acknowledged. The real stuff of life—stuff that can only be experienced and loved—has been sadly omitted. This is the meaning of the fox’s secret which he tells to the Little Prince at their last meeting. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

In Hard Times Dickens ultimately reminds us that at the end of our lives we will not be judged based on what we know or what we have accomplished. For these are not needful: these are but the tinkling cymbals and the sounding brass of Bounderby. We will be judged based on what we have loved.


  • Stephen Fitzpatrick

    Stephen Fitzpatrick received a B.A. in the Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. in Theology from the University of Scranton. He is the Head of School at Cardinal Newman Academy in Richmond, VA.

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