The Cult of Facts
The Intersection of Theme and Character in Dickens’ Hard Times
by Matthew Jarrett
Facts are reality. They rule life and are ultimately indisputable. Societies are wholly based on these concepts, and it is these very concepts that shape the world. But what happens when these foundational ideas, ones that have been proven beyond doubt, are worshipped like a god? And along with that, how are people treated in such an environment? It could be argued that this is the reality the Western World has been grappling with since the Industrial Revolution, and is one that the Industrializing World is facing now. When people are slowly turned into factual components of an assembly line, and being ever increasingly defined by their parts – their hands, their minds – and not by their humanity, then what is left? In few places can this be seen more profoundly than the extreme nature of industrial English cities during the Victorian Era. People may have had a higher standard of living (Bragg), but these workers – people – were being pushed further into darker dungeons that were the factories and workhouses. This darkness, this suffering, can only be captured in its fullest extent in artwork, in particularly literature. Thus, how does one capture that experience in a novel? Through character.
Charles Dickens was, and is, known for his ability portray a wide cast, and do so in an effective and believable way. Kaplan, author of Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction, said that if a writer needs to learn how to write side characters, then they should read Dickens. In the novel Hard Times, Dickens tells the story of a small factory town ruled over by the extreme oppressiveness of what could only be described as a Cult of Facts.” In this environment no one is safe from being reduced to a simple definition, that can even be changed to suit the specific situational needs of an orator. Dickens uses his characters to show how such a system will destroy human relationships and bring ultimate harm to those under its rule.
Part I: Priests of Facts
Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby are the leading men in Coketown, and the greatest proponents of this Cult of Facts. They embody an ideology that erases a person’s identity in exchange for their industrious output and ability to remember specific facts. This is known from the opening lines when Mr. Gradgrind states: “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.” He is then described as an older looking man who has a rather intimidating appearance. In the following chapter, Mr. Gradgrind publicly humiliates a young girl, named Sissy Jupe, who is the epidemy of Wonder, and in Mr. Gradgrind’s mind is the embodiment of a sickly blight upon his town. The whole interaction where Mr. Gradgrind calls Sissy “Girl Number 20” makes the whole environment he has created come into reality. The first chapter played with the idea of Facts being the total and absolute power in Coketown, but the reader never really saw what it does, or what environment it would create. Overall, Dickens eases the reader into this environment, by first expressing it, and then beginning to show what all it is like. That’s where this interaction comes into play.
By placing this interaction in a separate chapter than the one where Mr. Gradgrind is first described, despite the two sequences occurring presumably in the same scene, Dickens creates a break that allows the reader to ponder the environment such a man could make. The interaction with Sissy Jupe devolves into Mr. Gradgrind dismantling her whole identity, and that of her father’s, for little more purpose than to express his power and knowledge over Sissy. She goes on to explain to Mr. Gradgrind that her father works for a horse-riding circus, to which Mr. Gradgrind quickly nullifies her father’s profession and calls him “a veterinary surgeon, a farrier and horse breaker.” All these, while on the surface are aspects of her father’s job, are not the full reality of his occupation. Here Dickens shows the full extent of Mr. Gradgrind’s “Facts” based religion by using it to harm a child, and simultaneously expressing its fundamental weakness to corruption due to a person’s pride and selfishness.
Mr. Bounderby is of a similar vein, but he is far crueler than Mr. Gradgrind. In the following section his interactions with Stephen Blackpool, as well as his marriage with Louisa Gradgrind, will be further discussed, but for the present it will suffice to say that the man further embodies this Cult as he is first introduced through Mr. Gradgrind ranting over his children seeing the circus, asking “What would Mr. Bounderby think?” in Book I, Chapter 3. His character seems to be cut directly from the American Robber Baron architype in that he owns Coketown’s factory and rules over the town as a result. He is shown to not care about his treatment towards his workers, which ends up causing major harm to them. Mr. Bounderby, of all the characters in this novel, has subjected everyone under him to their component parts, and nothing more.
Part II: Murdered Innocents
Dickens names his second chapter “Murdering the Innocents”. In context he is speaking of Sissy Jupe being berated by Mr. Gradgrind. This chapter’s title comes at the novel’s beginning as it lays out the entire novel’s themes of the Cult of Facts destroying everyone it comes into contact with. This destruction often takes the form of forcing someone to remain in an abusive situation, destroying a man’s ability to have empathy, and the total destruction of a woman’s psyche and life.
The character of Stephen Blackpool had dealt with the laborious nature of Coketown for most of his life. He is shown to actually enjoy his work and described as someone who does not wish to change his station in life through study after he returns home from his shift. But in spite of his contentment with his life and station he cannot stand his wife. She is an alcoholic, and an abusive one at that. To escape the situation, he pays her to leave him alone, and she always returns at seemingly random. As all this is occurring, Blackpool has fallen in love with a fellow factory worker named Rachel, as she is a caring and loving individual. Dickens then pulls these three characters together, along with Bounderby, to develop his theme further.
In Book I, Chapter 11, Blackpool seeks to escape his wife and marry Rachel by going to Mr. Bounderby. In this scene Dickens shows how his Cult comes to destroy Blackpool and his innocence. The ensuing conversation devolves, as many of Bounderby’s conversations, into berating Blackpool over how the Facts stand that he married the woman until death do them part, despite the hell she has been bringing upon his life. The conversation expresses the evil done against Blackpool, and by extension the whole of the Working Class, which Blackpool represents. This evil is that those facing hardship in Victorian England had no outs, while the rich and the aristocracy could escape any situation due to their money and status.
On the opposite end of the wealth spectrum, Tom Gradgrind, the son of Mr. Gradgrind, is utterly corrupted by the Cult of Facts. This character is shown to have no empathy, and views everyone in his social circle as a tool. The reason for this is his upbringing causing him to only value Facts, and anything beyond that is abhorrent. It can therefore be reasoned that this corrupted his ability to feel empathy and see people as human beings. He goes so far as to blame Stephen Blackpool for a theft committed by Tom.
Tom framing Blackpool as a thief, and his lack of empathy play right into the themes of the novel. Dickens crafted these two characters in such a way that they are foils to one another, thus bringing about conflict in the story. Tom’s theft depicts his own loss of innocence due to his upbringing denying his humanity through a destruction of any sort of childhood wonder that could have made Tom explore his world, and the notion that people are worth more than means to an end. While on the other hand, Blackpool was made to suffer under the Cult of Facts by being forced to stay in a marriage that destroyed him emotionally, and then dying due to Tom’s denial of humanity, in both himself and others. Tom’s actions show the ultimate and final conclusion of the Cult of Facts’ ideology as it sees people as nothing more than a simple tool to gain power, and that people are meant to be automatons, toiling for the betterment of those in power.
Beyond these two, there is one more innocent murdered by the Cult: Louisa Gradgrind. Louisa is one of the most tragic characters in the novel, next to Blackpool, as she was forced to suffer under the reign of both her father and Mr. Bounderby. In Book I, Chapter 15, Mr. Gradgrind proposes that Louisa marries Mr. Bounderby. Louisa’s response to the proposal is “Father, . . . do you think I love Mr. Bounderby?” The resulting conversation shows Mr. Gradgrind’s lack of understanding of the concept. He dances around the question as he does not know the answer, and after several pages of back and forth on this, Louisa finally agrees with her father, all after she has been properly manipulated against such sentimentalities as love, for her entire life.
What follows in Book II is a display of Louisa’s difficult life under Mr. Bounderby’s rule. She seems to be constantly seen as nothing more than Mr. Bounderby’s show doll. The whole marriage is even protested by Mrs. Sparsit, an elderly gentlelady who has been living with Mr. Bounderby as a House Keeper of sorts. She refuses to call Louisa “Mrs. Bounderby,” but refers to her only as “Louisa Gradgrind”, or “Ms. Gradgrind.” Later in Book II, in Chapter 10, Louisa’s eventual emotional collapse is foreshadowed by Mrs. Sparsit’s staircase, and her obsession with it. Not only this, but the introduction of the character of Mr. Harthouse attempting to woo Louisa into an extra-marital affair goes further to break her, and her father’s Cult.
Part III: Downfall
The Cult of Facts comes to its ultimate downfall with Mr. Bounderby’s marriage falling apart, and his personal history coming to light. The first of these events to occur is the dissolution of his marriage with Louisa. This divorce of sorts occurred at the end of Book II, and utterly changed Mr. Gradgrind’s ideology and worldview.
When Louisa came to her father, she trekked through a horrible storm and came in a broken woman. Her father found out about the toll the marriage took on her, and after coming to this understanding had a change of heart. Mr. Gradgrind seemed to reverse instantly at the sight of his daughter’s suffering, realizing that his whole ideology had brought this upon his loved ones. In Book III Mr. Gradgrind seems to have become softer and more open to his daughter’s and Sissy Jupe’s ideology, which allowed for wonder. The man even came to terms with his son’s theft, going so far as to aid him in fleeing England and riding himself of the toxic Cult of Facts, but knew that his son would one day want to return, after undergoing his own change. This undoing of the Cult of Facts began with Mr. Gradgrind, bringing the surrounding characters new life as they were no longer forced to suffer under such an oppressive ideology. But their Cult was still alive, but mostly dead.
Throughout the novel Mr. Bounderby expresses, with a great deal of pride, that he was abandoned by his mother, raised by his abusive and alcoholic grandmother, and rose from a pour man on the streets to a wealthy factory owner. This narrative comes up a lot throughout the novel, playing into Mr. Bounderby’s pride and statements that if he did it, then anyone can. But this is far from the factual truth.
Up until this point, Mr. Bounderby has been portrayed as Mr. Gradgrind’s counterpart, the two working together to make all of Coketown their own Fact only zone. As it is, the only person to know Mr. Bounderby’s story in full is himself, and it is this set up, mixed with all the events concerning his abusive marriage, that make his downfall in Book III, Chapter 5, so enjoyable.
It comes out, due to Mr. Bounderby’s housemate Mrs. Sparsit, that an odd woman, named Mrs. Pegler, had been watching the Bounderby household for some time, and is eventually brought to the home where she confronts Mr. Bounderby for his lies. Before the whole town Mr. Bounderby is forced to confess that Mrs. Pegler is his mother, and that he had been lying about his upbringing. His childhood was spent in a loving, yet somewhat poor family, and no grandmother was in the picture. Dickens deliberately made this section a part of the story to put on full display the fragility of this Cult of Facts. Thus the Cult faded and broke: proving that the environment it created was not sustainable, and therefore never meant to stand forever.
Dickens’ characters and themes are interwoven so tightly together as they are inseparable. It is this intersection of character and the theme that makes this novel such a classic. The themes of what a single ideology – one so dehumanizing as the Cult of Facts or Utilitarianism – can destroy and corrupt anyone who comes into contact with it.
In truth, Utilitarianism is the true name for the Cult of Facts, as it dehumanizes everyone caught in it to a “moral arithmetic” (Ellisor-Catoe). And this is what Dickens was attempting to get at in this novel. Hard Times is a novel about the dehumanizing nature of Utilitarianism, as seen in Victorian England. Without its wide cast of characters, it could not achieve its effect, which is to humanize the issues the Victorians were facing due to their philosophy that it didn’t matter if a few suffered, so long as the majority were made happy. In other words, it did not matter who was hurt, or how they were hurt, so long as Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby stayed in power, along with their revered Facts.
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Bragg, Michael, Consequences of the Industrial Revolution. “In Our Time,” Humphries, Jane, Emma Griffin, and Thomas Morris, BBC, 30 Dec. 2010, United Kingdom.
Ellisor-Catoe, Paige. Utilitarianism. Anderson University, SC, 2019.
Kaplan, David Michael. Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction. Conrad, Josepha, Tony D’Souza, Erin Giannini, and Michele Kwiatkowski, Story Press, 1997, Cincinnati, OH.
This project was the final essay for my Victorian Literature course this semester, and I’d like to first thank my professor, for all of her hard work in educating us. Your leadership and fun in the classroom is admirable. Thank you.
Ps: Don’t worry, I made sure this paper didn’t have the really bad error my Red Rising paper did before I posted it.
A special thanks to my friend, Marta Zakharchuk, who helped me with this cover. I have no technical skills when it comes to photo editing, and she guided me through the process, as the cover photo was even a part of this course’s project.
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