Thomas Gradgrind has a principle in life: Facts and cold logic are all that matters. There’s no room for imagination or anything that can’t be defined or measured. He expects the small school he runs to adhere to that principle, and expects the same of his own two children, Louisa and Tom. After all, what go wrong with the solid logical base of “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few (Or the one)”…?
Dicken’s tenth novel, published in 1854, has a very different feel to most of his other work. For a start, it’s very short for a Dickens novel. The chapters are shorter and the pacing faster as a result, and he doesn’t linger or pad scenes out.
Part of that may be the setting: Dickens isn’t in his beloved London for this one, but a fictional Northern England town called “Coketown”. He can’t fix the geography with real examples, so he goes for metaphor and simile. The pistons of the mills are described as working up and down like “the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness”, for example.
This was another story written as a serial, and it shows early on: Dickens quickly abandons his opening plot line of the school and his master and moves on to getting Gradgrind’s children grown up and married, which is when the story kicks in.
Louisa is married in a loveless union to Gradgrind’s best friend, Bounderby. And what else could it be, but loveless? The young woman has had imagination and love pounded out of her and replaced with cold facts since the day she started school. Her slacker of a brother encourages her to marry Bounderby so he can have an easy life (Tom works for Bounderby, and knows Bounderby will ease up on him to keep his sister happy).
Louisa is briefly seduced by an interloper, and fascinated by his lifestyle, but backs away. Instead, she confronts her father with the results of her cold education: His grand experiment has broken her ability to love, to feel anything for anyone. Shocked that the rigid rules of his life have done this to his daughter, Gradgrind recants.
In the meantime, Tom the slacker has run up some gambling debts and frames a local man for a robbery. He flees, but is captured by one of the former pupils of Gradgrind. In the best scene in the book, Gradgrind pleads with the pupil to let Tom go, but has his Utilitarianism is thrown back at him with brutal efficiency: The needs of the community outweigh Gradgrind’s wishes, after all.
The story wasn’t what I was expecting from Dickens. His tone is almost conversational at the start of the book; it felt more personal than his usual removed narrative voice. The novel is short, which helps the story move along, and the shift of location to a fictional town meant that he didn’t spend pages on padding descriptions.
Refreshingly for Dickens, Louisa felt like a real character and a not just a simpering and melodramatic female. Tom actually felt less well developed and more two-dimensional.
I liked the exploration of Utilitarianism, and I loved the way it was thrown back against Gradgrind, who thought it was wonderful…until he was the one and not the many.