21st July 2020 by

Using CLiC and the BMI resources: Restrictions of passion and effects of convention in Hard Times

Following her previous post on using CLiC and BMI (Birmingham & Midland Institute) resources with A Level students, Alex Round steps into her role as a researcher of 19th century literature to discuss the themes of passion, convention and education in Dickens’s Hard Times, and reflect on the educational role of the BMI. This post is part of the BMI Lockdown Life series. Join the conversation on Twitter with #BMILockdownLife.

In Victoria’s England, the concept of childhood began to change following her succession to the throne. Initially, children of the working class were often forced by economic conditions to work, such as Charles Dickens, who lived in debtor’s prison and worked in the Blacking Factory: “No words can express the secret agony of my soul” (Warren, 2011, p85). Following the 1830s, this newfound idea of childhood was motivated in part by a growing acceptance of the Romantic idea of the angelic child. This shift in attitude was partly due to the explosion of the population (from 9 million in 1801 to 36 million in 1911) in England – accompanied by urbanisation. By the end of the 19th century, most children lived and worked in an industrial environment rather than in cleaner, rural communities. This prompted social reformers to encourage better treatment of children; yet despite this, less than 20 percent of children had schooling, as education was only available to those who could afford it. Dickens advocated for education for all socioeconomic backgrounds, as he discusses the restrictions of passion and the effects of convention in his novels and how these affect characterial development.

As stated in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile, “The real world has its limits; the imaginary world is infinite” (Rousseau, 1979, p81). This balance of convention and passion was never fully achieved in Hard Times. The opening scene satirises two schoolings of the 19th century. The first is Utilitarianism, the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham which taught that human nature was motivated by self-interest, replacing ideas of morality with statistically-based explanations for what people should do for themselves. Political Economy, on the other hand, considered the idea of prosperity, and that an increasing accumulation of wealth, “is most likely to be achieved in a society which declines to restrict freedom more than necessary” (Wilmer, 1985, p28). For Dickens, however, their conceptions of man and society were equally destructive. He believed that the individual self cannot be explained by mathematics or logic. Dickens illustrates two contrasting reactions in light of these two different schoolings in the second chapter: Bitzer the model pupil of Gradgrind’s schooling, and Sissy who is incapable of converting her knowledge into factual definition. Considering their respective backgrounds and how Gradgrind treated them differently, their outcomes only solidify Dickens’s concerns. Bitzer’s emotionless interactions with his peers reflect the damage caused by his schooling. Sissy however becomes an ideal member of society, despite society’s rejection of her when young. Their teacher, Mr Gradgrind, idealises a mechanised world run by logic. A CLiC concordance search for the term Gradgrind finds the following example showing that he is described by Dickens as

 “A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over” (HT, Chapter II; p8)

He is introduced as a man who is blinded by his strict rulings, discarding any source of imagination as he deems it “in the name of wonder, idleness and folly” (HT, p17). Gradgrind (shown in Figure 1) represents the utilitarian attitudes of the 19th century, which prove unfit for child development. Conveniently, when doing a concordance search of Dickens’s novels using CLiC for the word Utilitarian, the search results are all traced from Hard Times. This reinforces how the character of Gradgrind embodies the ideals of Utilitarianism and that his regime proves to be his hamartia. Dickens writes the family’s unfortunate end as a consequence for Gradgrind’s regime.

[Thomas Gradgrind Apprehends His  Children Louisa and Tom at the Circus]
Figure 1. “Thomas Gradgrind Apprehends His Children Louisa and Tom at the Circus” (scanned by Philip V. Allingham for The Victorian Web)

This isolation brought into the human mind suggests that those under the control of regulations are dulled by the reality that they believe is the only option. A world of imagination is open to them, yet logic blocks them from experiencing it. Gradgrind educates the children of his family in the ways of fact, and treats his factory workers as emotionless objects that are exploited for his own selfishness. In Chapter V, the narrator parallels both the workers and the Gradgrind children, both leading monotonous existences, evolving into mechanical beings by thwarting the development of their imaginations:

“Surely, none of us in our sober senses acquainted with figures… in the existence of the Coketown working people had been for scores of years deliberately set at nought?” (HT, p28).

This extract suggests that the root of this problem is that they are acquainted with facts and figures, not having the liberty to develop. The workers are viewed as monotonous to imply the unnatural industrial order that Dickens abhorred. This view “implicitly contradicts Dickens’ own characteristic way of seeing people” (Williams, 1973, p153). Dickens wrote in a journal in 1850: “the human breast; which, according to its nurture, burns with an inspiring flame…which can never be extinguished” (Dickens, 1850, p1). This entry confirms his view that humanity itself cannot be defined by logic alone and that education and childhood should not be confined. The industrialised setting proves an unhealthy environment for a child, and just as unhealthy as strict teachings. The key stages of child development cannot be confined to excel in one educational trait and lack in the other. Thus, the quote concludes that despite the contributions that industrial advancement and political philosophies had on the social sphere of 19th century children, it is the very notion of passion that prompts the likes of Dickens to oppose conventions that restrict the essential qualities a human must possess.

Dickens proves to be a seminal figure in the world of British culture, who not only created some of the best-known characters in the history of Literature, but actively sought to educate the working class in outright defiance to the utilitarian schoolings of the nineteenth century. Hard Times itself is a prime example of how these schoolings can hinder the development of a childhood which results with potentially disastrous consequences. The importance of the allegorical message suffused in Hard Times cannot be understated. This blog entry relates to Pete Orford’s blog post “Bitesize Boz: Reading Dickens in instalments online” which discusses Gradgrind’s desire for facts, and how giving the current circumstances with Covid-19 and society in general, proves an poignant message to his readers. This just reinforces the importance of Dickens and his stance on education. It is the mere fact that Hard Times and its message is still being widely received. Whether we are inclined to agree with his notions or not, Dickens’s primary aspiration was to promote education for all socioeconomic backgrounds.

Serena Trowbridge, in her blog post “Hard Times at the BMI”, also discusses the importance of Hard Times, and how Dickens explores the restrictions of passion and the effects of convention in education. As Serena points out, Dickens favoured an accessible education for all social classes, and supported the Birmingham & Midland Institute which sought to provide education for the whole of Birmingham.

The Birmingham & Midland Institute (BMI) played a substantial role in the innovation of scientific and technological advancement of education within the city, Dickens himself became president of the institute in 1869 since its opening in 1854. When I was an undergraduate, I was introduced to the building for the first time by Serena Trowbridge, learning the impact that the institute had on society and Dickens’s contributions. I have since become a member of the society, and use it to aid my research for my MRes degree, as well as my teaching of nineteenth century literature to GCSE and A Level students.

The BMI remains a significant part of National heritage to this day. It continues to educate and enlighten people, as it is enriched with the cultural history of the Midlands, whilst retaining the true spirit of Dickens within its very walls. Fortunately, the #BMILockdownLife series has introduced the BMI to the digital stage and CLiC will remain a complimentary resource. So now the BMI has reopened in a socially distanced mode, there are even more ways to engage with 19th century texts. The impact of this pandemic is frightening, and the BMI needs our help more than ever. You can donate here, to help charitable organisations such as the BMI to continue inspiring forthcoming generations.


Suggested citation: Round, A. (2020, July). Using CLiC and the BMI resources: Restrictions of passion and effects of convention in Hard Times [Blog post]. University of Birmingham: CLiC Fiction Blog.

Enjoyed this post? The Birmingham & Midland Institute has set up a fundraising campaign to “offset the income which would usually keep the BMI running as the social and cultural hub that it should be, and encourage you to donate to what is an important lifeline for many older people in our society.” Check out their fundraiser here.

Alex Round

Author: Alex Round

I'm currently a trustee of the Birmingham and Midland Institute whilst teaching ALevel and GCSE English Literature at Sandwell Academy. I am also a MRes Humanities student at Newman University and an aspiring PhD candidate in Victorian Studies. I have previously read English Literature and Language at Birmingham City University. My research concerns applying psychoanalytical theory to my analysis of Pre-Raphaelitism art and literature, as well as Gothic literature and prose and poetry of the nineteenth century.

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