Charles Dickens' Hard Times is very much a novel of its times, and yet page after page seems written as a direct commentary on our own. It's not Dickens' finest work, but it may be one of his most clairvoyant. Published in 1854, it reads in large parts as a prebuttal of a novel published almost exactly a century later, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.
Thomas Gradgrind operates a school that parodies the educational methods of James Mill, father of John Stuart Mill. He inculcates his students in political economy of the severest "virtue of selfishness" type. Unsurprisingly, his two children Louisa and Tom, are utterly deformed by his teaching: Tom becomes a scheming crook; Louisa passively allows herself to be married off for money to a banker and mill-owner thirty years older than herself, who habitually refers to himself in the third person as "Josiah Bounderby of Coketown." Bounderby is the liveliest character in Hard Times, and a brilliant anticipation of this summer's debate over "you didn't build that."
'I hadn't a shoe to my foot. As to a stocking, I didn't know such a thing by name. I passed the day in a ditch, and the night in a pigsty. That's the way I spent my tenth birthday. Not that a ditch was new to me, for I was born in a ditch.'
Mrs. Gradgrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily; who was always taking physic without any effect, and who, whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her; Mrs. Gradgrind hoped it was a dry ditch?
'No! As wet as a sop. A foot of water in it,' said Mr. Bounderby. …
Mrs. Gradgrind meekly and weakly hoped that his mother-
'My mother? Bolted, ma'am!' said Bounderby.
Mrs. Gradgrind, stunned as usual, collapsed and gave it up.
'My mother left me to my grandmother,' said Bounderby; 'and, according to the best of my remembrance, my grandmother was the wickedest and the worst old woman that ever lived. If I got a little pair of shoes by any chance, she would take 'em off and sell 'em for drink. Why, I have known that grandmother of mine lie in her bed and drink her four-teen glasses of liquor before breakfast!'
Josiah Bounderby's humble origins are his favorite theme, and every iteration builds to the same conclusion: His success owes nothing to anyone. The more he talks about how he slept in a wet ditch, the less he need attend to pleas from others. As Dickens says, Bounderby is a bully of humility.
"I pulled through it, though nobody threw me out a rope. Vagabond, errand-boy, vagabond, labourer, porter, clerk, chief manager, small partner, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. Those are the antecedents, and the culmination. Josiah Bounderby of Coketown learnt his letters from the outsides of the shops, Mrs. Gradgrind, and was first able to tell the time upon a dial-plate, from studying the steeple clock of St. Giles's Church, London, under the direction of a drunken cripple, who was a convicted thief, and an incorrigible vagrant. Tell Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, of your district schools and your model schools, and your training schools, and your whole kettle-of-fish of schools; and Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, tells you plainly, all right, all correct-he hadn't such advantages-but let us have hard-headed, solid-fisted people-the education that made him won't do for everybody, he knows well-such and such his education was, however, and you may force him to swallow boiling fat, but you shall never force him to suppress the facts of his life."
Compared to his misfortunes, his workers' troubles seem hardly worth noticing. Almost any request from them, no matter how minute, he disdains as if they
expect to be set up in a coach and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon!
Only - Bounderby's boasts of self-madeness prove to be - not exactly a lie - but a cruel exaggeration. Bounderby was indeed born poor, but to loving parents, who sacrificed to procure him an education and a start in life. The mother he regularly disparages as the worst person living, a person to whom he owes nothing, he has in fact pensioned off at 50 pounds a year (a pitifully small income even by 1854 standards) on condition that she never visit Coketown where her existence might contradict Bounderby's upside-down boasting. The truth comes to light, even so, to Bounderby's crushing humiliation. He ends alone, estranged from his young wife, leaving a will of monstrous egotism,
whereby five-and-twenty Humbugs, past five-and-fifty years of age, each taking upon himself the name, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, should for ever dine in Bounderby Hall, for ever lodge in Bounderby buildings, for ever attend a Bounderby chapel, for ever go to sleep under a Bounderby chaplain, for ever be supported out of a Bounderby estate, and for ever nauseate all healthy stomachs, with a vast amount of Bounderby balderdash and bluster….
The virtue of selfishness, indeed.
As I said, Hard Times is not the most perfect of Dickens' novels. Some important subplots are allowed to wander away unelaborated and unresolved, the writing can feel hasty, and the portrait of the millhands has a little too much mid-Victorian sentimentality about the simple virtues of simple people. Yet the book still lives, and deserves honor and remembrance if for nothing else than this brilliant reply to the still-recurring fantasy of "Going Galt":
Whenever a Coketowner felt he was ill-used - that is to say, whenever he was not left entirely alone, and it was proposed to hold him accountable for the consequences of any of his acts - he was sure to come out with the awful menace, that he would 'sooner pitch his property into the Atlantic.' This had terrified the Home Secretary within an inch of his life, on several occasions.
However, the Coketowners were so patriotic after all, that they never had pitched their property into the Atlantic yet, but, on the contrary, had been kind enough to take mighty good care of it. So there it was, in the haze yonder; and it increased and multiplied.