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Talking 'Hard Times' and witty writing

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Tammy Marshall

Tammy Marshall

Satire is a literary tool in which a writer ridicules an institution or society as a whole or a type of person or humanity as a whole through irony, sarcasm, and cutting wit. Where satirists are concerned, Charles Dickens was one of the best, and his novel, “Hard Times,” is a pinnacle of satirical writing.

Published in 1854, “Hard Times” ridicules industrial towns of that era. Dickens also ridicules the way children were educated in them and how an extreme focus on facts, and only facts, does much more harm than good. As a former teacher, I couldn’t help but think of the focus on standardized tests and how we crush the imaginative spark in far too many children by this need for “standardization.” The demand that we “teach to the test” is one of the many, many reasons I left teaching.

A novel about the soul-crushing existence of living and working in an industrial town would be a bleak and even boring read were it not written by the literary marvel that was Charles Dickens. Naturally, he included a wealth of characters who both represent various aspects of society as well as present the human and relatable portions of the story.

Dickens gave the characters of all his novels such memorable names that many live on today to describe characteristics of people – “Scrooge,” for example. In “Hard Times,” Mr. Bounderby is, in fact, a bounder – a bounder is a cad. Mr. Gradgrind only cares about grinding the facts out of everything. Mrs. Sparsit is extremely “sparse” with her affections and loyalty. Even the industrial town has a name that reflects its purpose – Coketown. Coke is the residue left behind after coal is distilled to make fuel, and the coke pollutes the town, the air, and the people who live under and amidst its filth.

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In “Hard Times,” Dickens uses the phrase “direful uniformity.” Those two words sum up, for me, this book. Those words express that dismal and oppressive sameness of the lives of the poor workers of the coal factories who can never, ever rise above that existence and who do the same thing day after day with no hope of beauty or wonder or joy in their lives.

However, even in the most dismal places there will be people who are poets at heart or who know that there is something more to life than that daily drudgery. Those people are in this book, and a few of them suffer the most because they yearn for more than what they can ever have. One pays the ultimate price, and others suffer in different ways.

I put off reading this novel for many years because of its title. I think times are hard enough, so I didn’t relish reading a book about hard times. Thus, I found it interesting that Dickens suggested fourteen different titles for this book before he and his unofficial literary agent, John Forster, settled on “Hard Times.” I would have preferred his suggestion of “The Grindstone;” perhaps I would have read this book sooner.

I love witty writing, so I enjoyed this book, despite some of its bleaker themes. I even laughed out loud at Dickens’ way with words and the relatability of those words. Although this novel was written to satirize a portion of Victorian England, the characters and modes of thinking evidenced in this story are very much alive today. Read it and see if you know a Mr. Bounderby. I certainly do.

Contact Tammy Marshall at

Next month’s reading selection is “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” by Alice Munro.


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