“The Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist” (Hard Times, p. 204)
Dickens as always creates characters and situations that exhibit extreme individuality to the point of caricature, including rather satiric names such as Mr. Gradgrind the merchant-become-politician or Mrs. Sparsit, a busy-body spinster of reduced funds, or Mr. McChoakumchild, a schoolmaster. These characters are highly typical of their social classes, highly susceptible to pretensions of various kinds about their place in society, and subject to the extremes of belief, fanaticism, and lack of empathy to others. They could just as well be types to exemplify our own society — especially the banker! There’s not a chance that I could feel any sense of escape from our current reality by reading this book.
I don’t want to belabor the points of similarity between these characters and the miserable specimens that populate our own news feed these days, but I’ll just quote a conversation between Mr. Bounderby, the banker, and Mr. Harthouse, a visitor who has just arrived in Coketown:
"‘Coketown, sir,’ said Bounderby, obstinately taking a chair, ‘is not the kind of place you have been accustomed to. Therefore, if you will allow me—or whether you will or not, for I am a plain man—I’ll tell you something about it before we go any further.’
"Mr. Harthouse would be charmed.
"‘Don’t be too sure of that,’ said Bounderby. ‘I don’t promise it. First of all, you see our smoke. That’s meat and drink to us. It’s the healthiest thing in the world in all respects, and particularly for the lungs. If you are one of those who want us to consume it, I differ from you. We are not going to wear the bottoms of our boilers out any faster than we wear ’em out now, for all the humbugging sentiment in Great Britain and Ireland.’
"By way of ‘going in’ to the fullest extent, Mr. Harthouse rejoined, ‘Mr. Bounderby, I assure you I am entirely and completely of your way of thinking. On conviction.’
"‘I am glad to hear it,’ said Bounderby. ‘Now, you have heard a lot of talk about the work in our mills, no doubt. You have? Very good. I’ll state the fact of it to you. It’s the pleasantest work there is, and it’s the lightest work there is, and it’s the best-paid work there is. More than that, we couldn’t improve the mills themselves, unless we laid down Turkey carpets on the floors. Which we’re not a-going to do.’
"‘Mr. Bounderby, perfectly right.’
‘Lastly,’ said Bounderby, ‘as to our Hands. There’s not a Hand in this town, sir, man, woman, or child, but has one ultimate object in life. That object is, to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Now, they’re not a-going—none of ’em—ever to be fed on turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. And now you know the place.’" (p. 122)
As I read this, I felt as if Mr. Bounderby would be perfectly at home in certain circles of our society, who feel that workers are treated very well -- too well -- and that they only want to lead a good life, a life that should be reserved for bankers and for the upper classes. The only thing that's changed is that the banker wouldn't mention turtle soup and venison.
Hard Times has wonderful characters, a dramatic plot, and plenty of action, and it's also a morality tale. A tale for their time but unfortunately, the tensions, injustices, the self-satisfied successful men, the victimized women, and the few honest people are just the same now as they ever were. The bankers will always be with us.
Blog post © 2020 mae sander.