Biblical Allusions in Hard Times

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Charles Dickens’ Hard Times can be known as a moral fable. This definition may seem as one-sided, however it contains a considerable share of truth. Dickens sometimes likes to lecture his readers, like he did in his Christmas Books and in many different books. Usually such preachers like Dickens are willing to enrich their lectures with parables. Bible surely serves as an example for Dickens. This paper will analyze biblical and parabolic allusions in Dickens’ Hard Times as an imperative component of the novel’s structure filled with prosperous images and moving intonations.
Profoundness and exemplariness of parables must have been one of the aspects of Hard Times. Dickens usually avoided creating parables, but he introduced certain elements of parable poetics in his novels, where they combined with biblical intonations and images and dissolved in his prose. It reflected in the composition of the novel and its comparative simplicity and density, which was different from other novels by Dickens, which are usually intricate and distinguished by their length and confusing plot turns. This time however, Dickens composed his novel of three approximately equal parts and called them symbolically “Sowing”, “Reaping” and “Garnering”. This is about a symbolical field work and not a real one of course. Dickens took this image of natural cycle of time from the New Testament. Paul the Apostle wrote in his Epistle to the Galatians: “A man reaps what he sows” (Paul 6:7). It is important to take the epistle into account as a whole. It is filled with Paul’s passionate faith in Jesus Christ and represents a fervent appeal to Galatians who do not see the deep truth behind words “love your neighbor as yourself”. Dickens is as passionate towards his readers as Luke and tries to teach his own moral lessons. Paul condemns mundane laws that make people “turn back again to the weak and worthless elemental things” (Paul 4:9) and suggests to sow the goodness. Dickens follows Paul and condemns utilitarianism and preaches spiritual values. Because “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Paul 6:8), so “while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith” (Paul 6:10). The general meaning of this epistle is quite clear, but it is worth to mention the “while we have opportunity” part. Dickens does not consider his “hard” time to be that bad; instead he gives sinners a chance to repent. That exactly happens with Gradgrind, his wife and their daughter Louisa, while Blackpool and his Rachael can be considered almost sinless. There are no parables in Paul’s epistle, but it does contain parable expressiveness and penetrating intonations, which also can be seen in Hard Times.

Compositionally the novel is ternary. In the first part Gradgrind literally propagates his utilitarian ideas to the students as the only true ones and believes in them himself with all his soul; Mr. Bounderby is also long filled with these same ideas; they also float like an evil spirit in the minds of many people of Coketown. Such is the sowing and such are the sowers. But there is also an opposition in the form of Blackpool and Rachael. However, there is certainly an evil atmosphere around them. On the other hand, there is a circus of Mr. Sleary, which brings a humorous atmosphere to the book and it is like he sends Sissy Jupe in Gradgrind’s school and it seems like she is supposed to at least partially destroy the evil atmosphere that prevails in this utilitarian school.

A metaphorical reaping starts in the second part called respectively “Reaping”. Gradgrind’s kids that were brought up by his system of dry facts are growing to be angry at life and miserable. Thomas gambles, drinks, gets into debts and eventually steals money from Bounderby’s bank. His sister Louisa is struggling with an unhappy marriage with the same Bounderby, and this hopeless situation almost makes her fall for the courtship of James Harthouse, but she eventually is able to resist this urge and leaves her awful husband and reunites with her family (Lewis 185).

Third part of the novel, “Garnering”, is the story of Gradgrind’s enlightenment, who is buried under the family troubles: a death of his wife, a misery of his daughter Louisa, a disgrace of his son Thomas, who tried to slander Stephen Blackpool of theft and managed to avoid the prison only with the help of Mr. Sleary’s circus performers. “Garnering” is also the death of Blackpool, who falls in the mine-shaft. It is also an unenviable fate of Bounderby. So everyone reaps what he sows.

Dickens uses the rules of rhythmic parallelism and contrast while building his composition, which can also be found in biblical parables and other religious texts. The first chapter of the first part is called “The One Thing Needful”. This can be considered as an ironical rethinking of the words from the Gospel according to St. Luke: “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed, or indeed only one” (Luke 10:41-42). By “the only one thing” Jesus means the service to God of course. Meanwhile, Gradgrind thinks that he should only serve his system of facts and his utilitarianism. The name of the first chapter in the final part (“Another Thing Needful”) is a parallel and a contrast to this simultaneously. And the answer to what this “another thing” is can be found in the last chapter of the second part of the book, in which Gradgrind was trying to prove that “the good Samaritan was a bad economist” (Dickens). With this hint Dickens wants to remind his readers about the episode from the same Gospel of Luke, where Jesus tells about the good Samaritan, who unlike other priests took care of the half-dead man on the road, who was robbed and bitten by the bandits. So the whole novel is filled with evangelical teachings of pity and love for your neighbor and conviction of evil and selfish men (Gribble, 427).

The rhythm of the prose can be heard even in the alternation of chapters within each of the three parts of the book. The first book is built on the consecutive presentation of the main characters and images of the book. First two chapters describe Gradgrind’s school. In contrast to these chapters, third one tells about Mr. Sleary’s circus. In this chapter called “A Loophole” Dickens wants to show that children tormented by utilitarian school of Grandgrind are looking for every chance to escape its stupid routine. On the other hand, last two chapters sound like a family: they are called “Father And Daughter” and “Husband And Wife”. They sound similar, especially since daughter and wife is the same character – Louisa Gradgrind. At first, the rhythm of the names of chapters in the second book follows exposition manner of the first book. “Mr. James Harthouse” is a new character; “The Whelp” is a nickname for Thomas Gradgrind. Next two chapters “Men And Brothers” and “Men And Masters” sound almost symmetrically different. Dickens counterposes evangelical sense of unity of all humanity to its class division in the English society. Next titles signify the beginning of the reaping: “Fading Away”, “Gunpowder” and “Explosion”. The last three chapters also have metaphorical titles: “Mrs. Sparsit’s Staircase”, “Lower And Lower” and “Down”. Here Louisa is getting lower and lower on the staircase of sin and is almost ready for adultery. But Dickens sets her on the way to the family house on time and she remains pure. The third book is built similarly. The first chapter, which was already discussed, supports the sad tone of the narrative. Second and third chapters point at the nature of actions of the main characters – “Very Ridiculous” and “Very Decided”. Next two chapters sound rhythmical again: “Lost” and “Found”.

Parabolic and biblical imagery, parabolic rhythm, and preaching intonations lend the novel a certain solemn or at least serious colour. This distinguishes the novel among other books by Dickens. Of course, Dickens would not be Dickens, if he did not add humor to his preaches, which can be seen even in the titles of chapters. This parabolic tone can not be ignored upon close reading about such hard and formidable times. Biblical references give another deeper level to what may seem like one of the most simple books by Charles Dickens. He manages to construct critique of his times and manners using very old and well-known gospel truths from The New Testament.

Works Cited

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. London: Bradbury & Evans, 1854. Print.

Gribble, Jennifer. Why the Good Samaritan was a Bad Economist: Dickens’ Parable for Hard Times. Literature & Theology Vol. 18 No. 4. Oxford University Press, 2004. Print.

Lewis, Linda M. Dickens, His Parables, and His Reader. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2011. Print.

Luke, Paul, John. A New Testament. London: R. Taylor & Co, 1807. Print.

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