‘Hard Times’ is a Charles Dickens novel set in the social backdrop of the Victorian era during the Industrial Revolution that took place during the 1850s. The ill effects of Victorian Utilitarianism are upheld in this moralistic vision of the writer. Unlike most of his novels, ‘Hard Times’ is not based in London but in the red and black seemingly monotonous structures of Coketown. That being said, it still realistically allows the reader to observe the systems and structures of society forced to face various economic and social hardships.
What preserves the novel as a social commentary is that the struggles in life and human emotions are still relevant “for these times”. The rise in capitalist ideals brought forth an age where the factory owners took undue advantage of their semi-skilled workers and kept much of the working class oppressed. The Gradgrind system instated everyone to be part of the same monotony that represented Coketown – where fancy had no place in a world full of facts. Here, Sleary’s Circus is introduced as a contrast between the two worlds and re-establishes faith in the imagination of human beings, even for the purpose of entertainment.
Thus, one is introduced to Sleary’s Circus with an equestrian connotation in mind – “Sleary’s horsemanship” – making the imagery of the horse essential. Dickens’ caricature of the people constituting the circus involves a vivid description of their physical appearance and mannerisms which can be perceived as “foreign” or beyond the laws that “bound” everyone in society. They are considered peculiar in contrast to the more “educated” lot in society – generally “dressed in a Newmarket coat and tight fitting trousers…” and “smelt of lamp oil, straw, orange peel, horses’ provender, and sawdust”.
Their gait is also peculiar, one that suggests that they are almost perpetually on horseback. There is a metaphorical relevance with the representation of a winged horse in “Pegasus’ Arms” – the public house above which the company resided. Another more “theatrical one” which was “framed and glazed upon the wall behind the dingy little bar… with real gauze let in for his wings, golden stars stuck on all over him, and his ethereal harness made of red silk” symbolically represents the circus which embodies values quite different rom the “brazen plate” that introduces Bounderby’s realm of existence.
The circus acts as an escape from the drudgery of “hard facts” and the wonder that enamours the company is a direct contrast to the likes of Bounderby and Gradgrind who advocate the idea that one should “never wonder! ” and for whom a horse is only, as Bitzer answers in book I, chapter 2, “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four-eye teeth, and twelve incisive… Although this answer may please Gradgrind, the horse as symbolized by the circus has far greater connotations than mere fact. This is also the system that has been grinded into his children’s life and shows that even with great education, one does not find as much pleasure as the imagination can provide.
The failure of Gradgrind’s system is evident in Louisa who understands the hollowness of her life and in the inability to relate to her father’s teaching as she repeatedly questions “what are my heart’s experiences? The relations within the circus family are fuller and shown to be, more often than not, polygamous “there were two or three handsome young women among them, with their two or three husbands, and their two or three mothers, and their eight or nine children” those who were also put to work as part of the ‘fairy business’. The men during their performance depend on each other to form the pyramidal structure which strengthens the imagery of the circus as an organic whole dedicated to each other emotionally and economically.
The women of the circus have no compunctions in showing their legs as opposed to the prudish compulsions of the women of those times. Their sense of anger against Bounderby, who insensitively states facts to a distressed child, show how there is still some faith in humanity. They openly embrace Sissy and shower her with sympathy and motherly affection when she leaves the company following the abandonment of her father. It is thus, the embodiment of that section of society which is free of the pretentious restrictions that the middle class imposes upon themselves.
In a society that diminishes the individual, Sleary’s Circus acts as an effective contrast to the “eminently practical” Thomas Gradgrind’s Utilitarian world of “fact, fact, fact! ” and the egotistic “self-made” Josiah Bounderby. Though a cohesive unit, there is also a prevailing sense of individualism in the characters of the circus. There is the celebrated vault act of the daring Mr. E. W. B. Childers who was assisted by a “diminutive boy with an old face” acting as a Cupid whose real name was Kidderminster.
Bounderby turns out to be “a self-made man in the same sense that Kidderminster is a self-made Cupid, for Bounderby too makes himself up. There is even an inverted similarity in their most extreme pretences: Kidderminster pretends to be Childers’ son; Bounderby pretends not be his mother’s child”. (Society and Family in Hard Times, Catherine Gallagher). Signor Jupe, also a performer, seemed to have lost the ability to entertain and thought of himself as a “poor, weak, ignorant, helpless man”. He was determined to allow his daughter Sissy Jupe to have the education he wished for her and thus, left the abode for her betterment alone.
Although the theme of failed parenthood is prevalent with respect to the Gradgrind family, Signor Jupe and Bounderby’s self-sacrificing mother who travels and waits endless hours for a mere glimpse of her son restores faith in family values. Though the circus is a commercial enterprise, it still feels more like a family than Grangrind’s household will ever manage to. Mr. Sleary thus, acts as a protector and though he feels compassion for Sissy, he is aware that it is not economically viable for the company to keep her and therefore thinks of more suitable alternatives like her continued education.
Unlike Gradgrind who condemns his daughter to an incompatible and unsuitable marriage. The circus as a whole with all its colours is a great visual contrast to the image evoked by Coketown. It is not shrouded by the by-product of its labour, like the soot that coated the city. The circus, here, stands for all that is loyal and free. Nonetheless, there is a certain disdain in which the gypsies are viewed by the “educated” classes, as Bounderby puts it – “we are the kind of people who know the value of time, and you are the kind of people who don’t know the value of time”.
This is primarily because they cannot be restrained by the laws and obligations of society. Dickens reiterates his own personal faith in those people, like the gypsies by highlighting the presence of complete trust, emotions and faith as opposed to the doubt prevalent in most of society, even with all the privileges and high standards of morality they seem to possess. It is able to address issues like education – that is only successful when the mind and the heart are both balanced like a performer on a tightrope. It is also eventually these socially ostracised people who save Tom Gradgrind from the humiliation of his wrong doings.
Thus, the circus continues to denote a form of escape for people of all classes. Even when Gradgrind prevents his children from watching the performance of the circus people, it is clear that the world craves for amusement. Especially an overworked society such as the people of those times requires a release in the form of entertainment. As Mr. Sleary accurately puts it, “People mutht (must) be amuthed(amused). They can’t be alwayth (always) a-learning, nor they can’t be alwayth (always) a-working; they an’t (aren’t) made for it. You mutht (must) have uth (us).
Do the with (wise) thing and the kind thing too, and make the betht (best) of uth(us); not the wutht (worst). ” Just like the stairs that lead Sissy to her eventual progress, we progress in our own thoughts. The circus manages to represent the opposition of fact and fancy, the triumph of the imagination and the freedom to be an individual and also be an integral part of the family – unlike the uniform products of the Gradgrind system – Tom, Bitzer and more. The eternal hope that Sissy keeps for her father’s return and her understanding the reason for his abandonment shows the inverted relationship between adult and child.
Showing thus, that the authoritative world is really only as playful and silly as the fanciful world of children. “In a sense, the whole purpose of the novel is to convince us of a number of equivalences, most particularly that between the educational philosophy of Gradgrind and the economic theory and practice of the new industrialism; and it is in metaphor that this association is established” (Deconstructing Dickens, Steven Connor). When Sissy makes a mistake with “statistics” for “stutterings”, an underlying commentary on Dickens’ part is evidently portrayed.
Just as Sissy is the epitome of emotion and feeling, it furthers the notion that one does not need theoretical knowledge as it fails in light of all practicality – “Useless as they are for the measurement and understanding of human feeling, statistics really are just ‘stutterings’. ”(Steven Connor) All in all, Sleary’s Circus provides the reassurance that some things in life cannot be grinded out and systemised. They are a welcome escape for both the reader and the novel’s oppressed characters to escape into a fanciful and triumphant world of imagination and wonder that fills the soul with life.