Pushed by the Patriarchy: Examining Charles Dickens' "Hard Times" through a Feminist L
Copyright 2019 by Michael W. Rickard II
Charles Dickens’ Hard Times provides many opportunities to explore the text using feminist criticism, particularly with the Louisa Gradgrind (later Louisa Bounderby) character and Stephen Blackpool’s wife. In Gradgrind’s case, she is mistreated by her father, brother, and husband. Louisa’s character suffers throughout the novel because she is unable to resist the strong patriarchal forces at play in the narrative. In Mrs. Blackpool’s case, she resists the patriarchy and is reduced to a drunken wretch. The feminist dichotomy of “the good girl” and “the bad girl” presents another opportunity to explore Hard Times using feminist criticism, particularly with the Louisa and Mrs. Blackwood characters who seem to epitomize the “good girl” and “bad girl” identity respectively.
The book’s “sowing, reaping, and garnering sections are ideal titles as they show the forces of patriarchy affecting the novel’s female characters. Analyzing Hard Times using feminist criticism reveals the subordinate status of women, particularly that of the Louisa Gradgrind character. With the possible exception of Stephen Blackpool’s wife, the text’s various female characters find themselves at the whim of male characters. For example, Mrs. Sparsit is quick to try and keep herself in Mr. Bounderby’s home, but he dispatches her not once, but twice in the text when he grows tired of her. Likewise, Bounderby disposes of his mother to maintain his self-created illusion of having raised himself during a harsh childhood. Likewise, Rachael is abandoned by her father and left at the mercy of Mr. Gradgrind who takes her in as a family servant while she continues her education.
While there is a women’s rights movement during the time Hard Times is set, it is non-evident in the narrative with female characters taking subordinate roles to men. There are strong patriarchal forces at play in the novel, with rampant sexism affecting the characters. As Lois Tyson notes, sexism, “…promotes the belief that women are innately inferior to men” (Tyson 85). This is seen not only in the condescending ways women are treated, but in the near absolute power male characters have over female characters due to society imparting men with authority over women.
Louisa serves as a warning to the dangers of patriarchy whether it is her submission to her father, her brother, or her husband. Raised by a domineering father, Louisa subjects herself to her father’s authority as any “good” girl is expected to do. When her father asks her to marry the much-older Mr. Bounderby, she is easily persuaded to do so, despite an inner struggle suggesting there may be more to life than following her father’s orthodox rules. Louisa tells her father: “The baby-preference that even I have heard of as common among children, has never had its innocent resting-place in my breast. You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream.” (Dickens 101)
While Dickens repeatedly stresses Mr. Gradgrind’s cold, logical child-rearing methods as the cause for Louisa’s blind adherence to his rules, I argue patriarchal forces are at play as well, something Louisa eventually recognizes as seen when she tells her father of Mr. Harthouse’s unwanted advances: “…he has been with me, declaring himself my lover. This minute he expects me, for I could release myself of his presence by no other means. I do not know that I am sorry. I do not know that I am ashamed. I do knot know that I am degraded in my own esteem. All that I know is your philosophy and your teaching will save me. Now father, you have brought me to this. Save me by some other means!” (Dickens 211) Sadly, the patriarchal forces that cause Louisa problems leave her with no other option for relief other than seeking help from her father, the same person who has failed her.
Showing more patriarchal forces at play, Louisa’s brother Tom manipulates her by preying on her love for him, repeatedly asking for money from her to cover his hedonistic lifestyle. Louisa caves in to her brother’s demands for money, and I would she does so not only out of love towards him, but his male authority.
Finally, Louisa is subject to the mercies of her husband who orders her home when he mistakenly accuses her of infidelity, shamefully abandoning her when she asks for time to recuperate with her father. This encounter further reveals Mr. Bounderby’s sexism when he argues Louisa has not been brought up the right way, describing a proper education as, “I’ll tell you what education is—To be tumbled out of doors, neck and crop, and put upon the shortest allowance of everything except blows. That’s what I call an education” (Dickens 233). Even hard-minded Mr. Gradgrind disagrees with this harsh method
Another feminist element at play is the dichotomy of the “good girl” and “bad girl.” As Tyson explains, “…patriarchal ideology suggests that there are only two identities a woman can have. If she accepts her traditional gender role and obeys the patriarchal rules, she’s a “good girl”; if she doesn’t, she’s a ‘bad girl’” (Tyson 89). Louisa strives to be a “good girl” but is mentally devastated when she is falsely accused of infidelity, having lived as a good girl, but still abandoned by a sexist husband.
Mrs. Blackwood presents a contrast as she is depicted as a “bad girl,” someone who disappears from her husband for days or weeks at a time, engaging in drunken debauchery. The text does not give the reader much insight into any extenuating circumstances for her behavior but defines her as bad. What is notable about this is that the patriarchy not only labels Mrs. Blackwood as a “bad girl.” The Mrs. Blackwood character presents a fascinating area of study for anyone who, “…resists the author’s intentions and design in order, by a ‘revisionary rereading,’ to bring to light and to counter the covert sexual biases written into a literary work” (Abrams and Harpham 126). Such a reading might identify patriarchal forces at play that are the cause of Mrs. Blackwood’s personal struggles whether it is a loveless marriage, a domineering husband, or something else.
Patriarchal forces play a strong role in Hard Times, making feminist criticism an ideal means of analyzing the text. Whether it is male characters dominating female characters thanks to sexist beliefs of male superiority, or the dichotomy of the “good girl” and “bad girl,” there is much to be examined in Hard Times from a feminist perspective.
Abrams, M.H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 11th ed., Cengage Learning, 2015.
Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory. Penguin Books, 2013.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Penguin Books, 1995.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User-Friendly Guide. 2nd ed., Routledge, 2006.