‘I have such unmanageable thoughts,’ returned his sister, ‘that they will wonder.’ (Dickens 90, Hard Times)
Louisa Gradgrind and me. Two peas in a pod. Except I wasn’t emotionally and mentally stunted until my identity disintegrated in a pile of cold, lifeless ash. I did, however, tend to stare at fires (Dickens 89) and stars and wind sifting through blades of grass for longer than the average person, pondering my existence and my imaginative capabilities. Sometimes even “languidly lean[ing] upon the window looking out, without looking at anything” (Dickens 58). I wrote a short story about a fat family cat that turns out to be pregnant (our family had many many batches of for-free newspaper kittens in my early years) that my teacher sent in to the local small town paper. I think that was grade two. Other than Spiro-graph, sewing lessons, and coloring books in which each image had the correct, true to life colors, meticulously kept within the lines, my hands-on artistic activities were quite limited.
But there were other avenues of fancy and expression offered to me as I grew up. I wasn’t suffering from an inner “light with nothing to rest upon” (Dickens 51) like Louisa. I am self-willed, not in spite of but because of, my bringing up (Dickens 52).
“I don’t know what other girls know. I can’t play to you, or sing to you. I can’t talk to you so as to lighten your mind, for I never see any amusing sights or read any amusing books it would be a pleasure or a relief to you to talk about…” (Dickens 88)
My family encouraged me to wonder (Dickens 86), to use my voice to sing, to use words and music to feel and express and long for things I didn’t understand. They gave me time and space to investigate other worlds in books and movies, to empathize with characters and write about them in my journals, my essays. I was a serious and quiet child, always thinking and analyzing much more than I ever spoke aloud. Because of that, I was usually fairly certain of exactly how I felt about this or that. I absorbed my surroundings like a sponge, internalized them, learned from them, decided what I felt about them. And then I was free to express those feelings and observations in many different ways.
Louisa wondered inwardly only. She stared at the fire, watched the glowing coals turn into ashes and wondered if that would be her life, “whitening and dying” (Dickens 91). Her wondering was limited to this dark speculation — she knew that she could have wondered many other things, could have imagined horses on the walls (Dickens 45) if she had been given any sort of chance or space to do so. But she knew, the ashes falling slowly, that her mind would be forever stringent to wonder. The fibers of her imagination had been brushed and hardened into irreplaceable facts and figures. Chains of reason.
And yet she is to me the most heroic character in this book. At a young age, she views her situation with a hardness that both belies her constricted upbringing, and yet also makes brave protest, acknowledging what she is missing out on. When caught “peeping with all her might” through an opening in the wall at the “hidden glories” of the circus, she looks “with more boldness than Thomas d[oes]” at her father (Dickens 51). She is deeply conscious, at a young age, of what is happening to her and what she is missing. Yes, she succumbs to the “frost and blight” of fact by marrying Bounderby (Dickens 241). But at the same time, she is lovingly motivated. She grasps Bounderby as the last way she can love her brother, the last way she can retain a meaningful relationship (Dickens 166). Harthouse notes that the only spark of passion and individuality in Louisa appears when Tom is near; her “impassive face” breaks into a “beaming smile” (Dickens 162).
But the most poignant revelation of Louisa’s true self is that she has a breaking point. Her efforts to be “pleasant and useful to Tom” through her marriage are thwarted by the slow erosion of her expectations for that: “I made that wild escape into something visionary, and have slowly found out how wild it was” (Dickens 242). Her friendship with Harthouse catalyzes her unraveling; all the constructs and orders that she has been upholding are shaken, destabilized, and she unfolds her fact-bound body, allowing painful disappointment to flood into her life once again. The “black gulf” finally absorbs her (Dickens 231). This is the true heroic moment for me in Hard Times.
Not Stephen’s tragic death, Rachel’s long suffering, Sissy’s endless ministering, or any of the other glimmers of truth and human feeling in the story. No, it was Louisa’s loss of control, her explosive spiralling out of fact into heartbreaking understanding of fact’s limitations. The ride through the rain, the swirl of skirts and tears to her father’s fireside once more, the undoing of her hardness and her plea to be freed. Her plea for some kind of recompense. “[S]o colourless, so dishevelled, so defiant and despairing” (Dickens 240), hers is a body worn and torn by the work of maintaining the hard facts of life.
“Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, Oh father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here!” (Dickens 241)
And that is truly where our stories intersect. I won’t be needing to run through the rain to my father’s house to beg for explanation, but my hope is that by studying and embracing art and literature, the human condition, real and true relationship, that I can make some sort of stand against a society that lives a skin deep, money-driven, selfish facade. Louisa Gradgrind makes the ultimate statement of Dickens’ thesis in the book. She symbolizes a life that is crushed and constrained by fact, a childhood “dragg[ed] into gloomy statistical dens by the hair” (Dickens 48). The image of Louisa’s body, “the pride of [Gradgrind’s] heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feat,” is Dickens’ fundamental and prophetic encapsulation of the devastating consequences of a life without fancy (244).
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Ed. Graham Law. Peterborough: Broadview Press Ltd., 2013. Print.