Hard Times offers a critique of the Utilitarian ideology from a romantic perspective. Hard Times demonstrates that one cannot reason oneself to happiness, but that relying solely on the faculties of the mind will not fulfill the complexities of the human being. John Stuart Mills, in his paper Utilitarianism proposed the philosophy is "not something to be contradistinguished from pleasure, but pleasure itself, together with exemption from pain; and instead of opposing the useful to the agreeable or the ornamental..." However, Dickens did not find this harmony to be a possible outcome of the rigidity of logic, but found the imagination to be a more fertile ground for producing happiness.
Dickens wrote of utilitarianism as it was applied during British industrialization. In the economic climate of the Industrial Revolution capitalism prevailed and social equality was more rhetoric than practice. Capitalism combined with the philosophy to put an emphasis on the individual achieving his or her own goals, rather than focus on the greater good.
Mills did believe in the greater good, but Dickens believed a very logical approach to life would pervert this ideal. Rationalization could overcome virtue by creating mechanical sensibility devoid of caring, which plays an important part in maintaining morals.
Throughout Hard Times Louisa expresses apathy towards life when she asks why she should care about important events, even being married. Rather than suspect something is wrong, the other characters believe she is being logical. Such a response is acceptable to them, even though it is an expression of her unhappiness. Through this example Dickens makes the point reason alone is not enough guidance for a human being's happiness. None of the characters that follow the utilitarian lifestyle are truly happy. Only Sissy, who fails to be taught to be so logical, is actually happy.
Dickens wrote his characters to express emotion or care after realizing how flawed logic can be when applied to human nature. After Mr. Gradgrind realized how unhappy his fortress of numbers and logic made everyone he was able to save his son from prosecution by the law and support his daughter in leaving an unhappy marriage. The collapse of the marriage he had proposed in very logical terms for his daughter, Louisa, was what made him realize how rational decisions may not be the best ones. Although Louisa's response to the marriage proposal was: "Since Mr. Bounderby likes to take me thus, let it be so" (p 112). Though Louisa clearly lacked any sentiment commonly enjoyed in marriage, Mr. Gradgrind accepted her response as proper. He later learned the logical response was less correct to such a proposal than an emotional response, which would have lead to a better outcome.
After having experienced the affections of someone other than her husband, Louisa realized she could not remain in her marriage. She went to her father and explained to him the error of his beliefs (utilitarianism). "How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart?" (p 236). After exposing her unhappiness, Louisa fell to the floor. Dickens used her fall to capitalize the inevitable inapplicability of utilitarianism. "(Mr. Gradgrind) saw the pride of his heart and triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feet" (p 239).
Besides the risk of placing what is reasonable above what is human, and thus creating unhappiness, there are other ways in which utilitarianism may go astray. Dickens' character Mr. Bounderby exemplifies how striving for happiness can easily be perverted to striving for personal gain. Although he promotes himself as an example of a "self-made man" who achieved success through industry, he is eventually exposed as having come from a well-to-do family rather than the street. The discovery makes his self-serving airs all the more deplorable. Mr. Bounderby seems to derive all his satisfaction from being a capitalist, which is economically logical, but socially crippling. He is ultimately left by his wife, Louisa, and fires the only woman who ever tolerated him, Mrs. Sparsit, for offending his reputation. Although Mr. Bounderby has many opportunities to do good things and create happiness due to his powerful position, he values only fiscal achievement. He is cold and friendless. Therefore he is a good example of utilitarian principle at its most humanitarianly corrupt.
Although Mr. Bounderby claims he is a self-made man, it isn't the truth. Contrary to his claims, Josiah Bounderby was raised in a well-to-do house by a caring mother. In Hard Times it is apparent that despite rhetoric about egalitarianism, the people are governed by very different rules according to class. When a working stiff, Stephen Blackpool asks his employer, Mr. Bounderby for advice on how to obtain a divorce from his alcoholic wife, he is chastised. However, in the same scene it becomes apparent Mrs. Sparsit herself was divorced, but only thanks to her social status and wealth. Bounderby is angered Blackpool should even think of himself as having such liberties. The scene represents the disempowered situation of the lower class. Blackpool's employer reminds him he has no rights and immediately expresses concern he will next want more worker's rights. At points like this Dickens makes turn of the 19th century Britain seem almost feudal.
Charles Dickens uses Hard Times to criticize the newly industrial Britain for losing touch with humanity by suppressing imagination and emotion and allowing social inequality to persist, despite the technologically modernizing society. Hard Times does a beautiful job of embodying exactly what Dickens is afraid utilitarianism will destroy, an imaginative, rich invention. The book contrasts an enjoyable piece of literature against the severity of the politics discussed within the story.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Modern Library. 2001.
Mills, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. http://www.utilitarianism.com/mill2.htm.