The Gradgrinds’ Wisdom of the Head and Heart in Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Published: 2021-09-15 20:00:08
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A Wisdom of the Head and Heart
Throughout life we face constant inner struggles between the informing oppositions within ourselves and the judgments we make based on these factors. One of the greatest conflicts we are faced with, however, lies in the disparity between nurturing of the head and nurturing of the heart. Oftentimes when people exercise knowledge purely of the head or heart they deprive themselves of reaching their full potential while starving the unnourished aspects of themselves. Education of the heart is often ignored in favor of a more linear education, as is the case of the Gradgrinds in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Within the novel Dickens explores two extremes in the realm of fact and fancy through the strictly practical education of Mr. Gradgrind and the loving circus philosophy of Mr. Sleary. These differing ideologies are explored through the progression of Gradgrind and Sleary’s pupils: Bitzer and Louisa’s rigid, factual education renders them emotionless while Sissy’s fanciful upbringing makes it impossible for her to comprehend practical knowledge. While both of these extreme philosophies are presented in Hard Times, the character’s troubles illustrate that only a true balance of fact and fancy can lead to a complete and fulfilled life, which is ultimately demonstrated by Jane Gradgrind.
In the beginning of Hard Times Mr. Gradgrind is the greatest proponent of a factual education, but through awakened vision he learns to see the flaws in his system and understands the need for a balance between fact and fancy. Before this epiphany Mr. Gradgrind stresses the importance of structured learning, stating, “You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Fact: nothing else will ever be of any service to them” (9). His eyes are further described as taking shelter in “two dark caves”, relating his blindness to anything nonlinear (9). Gradgrind translates this blindness from the classroom to the education of his own children in Stone Lodge, “his matter-of-fact home”, and does his best to trample out any sort of imagination or whimsy that might reside there (17). He is so confident in his system that he fails to notice his daughter Louisa’s unhappiness, and when she detachedly accepts a loveless marriage proposal Gradgrind simply praises her practical nature and celebrates his success in rendering Louisa an unfeeling fact-machine. Gradgrind’s illusion is shattered when Louisa finally confronts him with the misery of her life, saying, “How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death?” (218). This confrontation awakens Gradgrind’s vision and allows him to recognize and accept the other facets he has neglected in himself and in his children. With this new knowledge aroused in his heart he makes “his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope, and Charity” (298). The wisdom he gains grants him the ability to change his ways and perceive the necessity of a harmony between fact and fancy.While Mr. Gradgrind has a complete change of heart, Louisa Gradgrind is so emotionally deficient due to her fact-based upbringing that she is unable to decipher her own feelings or effectively express love. She recognizes that there may be something outside the realm of fact as she often wonders at the fire and even dares to peep at the whimsical circus performers. Louisa is even curious about Sissy, asking the circus girl questions “with a strong, wild, wandering interest” (64). However, upon hearing Bounderby’s marriage proposal, any bit of wonder Louisa might have had seems to die as she dispassionately accepts while quietly spilling out her woes: “What do I know, Father… of tastes and fancies; of aspirations and affections; of all that part of my nature in which such light things might have been nourished?” (106). Spiteful of the meaninglessness of her life and of Sissy’s pity for her, from that moment Louisa becomes “impassive, proud, and cold” and is altogether distant and unforgiving to Sissy, representing Louisa’s forfeit of any small bit of sentiment in her life (107). As she continues to live on in such an unfeeling manner, Louisa is entirely incapable of interpreting her feelings for Harthouse or recognizing his evil intentions, leading to her fall and confrontation with her own bitter unhappiness. Although she achieves a sense of clarity and is now open to Sissy’s love, Louisa is never able to reconstruct herself after so many years of emotional repression. Try as she might to express love and sentiment in the future, she still views it as “a duty to be done”, something that does not come naturally or easily to her (300). Though Louisa will never be as spirited and affectionate as Sissy, she still accepts the importance of nonlinear lives, something Bitzer fails to ever grasp.
As Gradgrind’s star student, Bitzer is a cold, calculating machine susceptible to nothing but fact. From a young age Bitzer thinks only in absolutes, callously defining a horse as “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth…” (12). Dickens also repeatedly describes Bitzer as being extremely pale, emphasizing his lackluster personality and almost inhuman quality. Bitzer, lacking any “affections or passions”, fails to see anything outside of his own linear perspective and wonders why anyone should want a wife, children, or recreational activities (122). He is so blinded by facts that he is literally unable to acknowledge any way of living apart from his own deprived existence. Gradgrind’s failed method of teaching returns to haunt him when Bitzer is the only thing standing in the way of Tom escaping from persecution. Gradgrind desperately begs Bitzer to leave, asking the young man if he has a heart. Much as he had defined a horse in factual terms, Bitzer coldly answers, “No man, sir, acquainted with the facts established by Harvey relating to the circulation of the blood can doubt that I have a heart” (288). Bitzer affirms that he is only moved by reason and is entirely self-serving, as he knows he will be promoted if he turns Tom in. He does not sympathize with the Gradgrinds and is completely immobile to emotional pleas.
Sissy Jupe is the exact opposite of Bitzer; her loving father raised her to be an affectionate young woman with strong morals, but due to her lack of early educational values she is unable to comprehend facts and fails in her studies. In one instance Mr. McChoakumchild asks what the first principle of science is and Sissy answers, “To do unto others as I would that they should do unto me” (62). She cannot make sense of linear knowledge and views everything in terms of emotional value. Sissy’s impracticality also keeps her from making sound judgments of the mind. She anxiously tells Louisa, “Every letter that I see in Mr. Gradgrind’s hand takes my breath away and blinds my eyes, for I think it comes from Father” (67). Sissy is blinded by her love for her father and refuses to accept that he is gone forever, as she even keeps his nine oils in total faith that he will return. Though Sissy fails in these aspects, she is also much more successful than Louisa in making emotional judgments and in expressing her love. While Louisa falls for Harthouse’s deception, Sissy sees who he is clearly and is obstinate to his advances as she firmly stands up to him for Louisa’s sake. Sissy is also careful to comfort Rachael when she recognizes her anguish over Stephen’s disappearance, displaying the kindness Sissy has for even total strangers. Although her loving upbringing gives her a compassionate and bright disposition, an improper balance between head and heart limits Sissy’s potential and prevents her from succeeding in other areas.
Mr. Sleary is able to effectively understand the importance of a balance between fact and fancy, leading him to be benevolent but sound in judgment. Introduced as the proprietor of the circus, Mr. Sleary is described as having “one fixed eye and one loose eye” and being “never sober and never drunk” (42). These details suggest a balance in his character as well as his ability to see in both a linear and nonlinear fashion. He advises Sissy to consider Gradgrind’s proposal as he recognizes the importance of “a sound practical education” and the need for balance in her fanciful life (45). Still, he warns Sissy and Gradgrind not to spurn fancy and to make the best of their situations, essentially expressing that they are in charge of their own fate. In his final appearance Sleary reiterates his wise advice to Gradgrind, lisping, “People mutht be amuthed. They can’t be alwayth a-learning, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a-working, they an’t made for it” (294). Within the harsh realm of Coketown where everything is strictly labeled as either fact or fancy, Sleary is a symbol of the possibility of a harmony between the two. Though Sleary’s insightful wisdom may be overlooked based on his position and class, he truly understands the significance of a multi-faceted life.
Although she never received Sleary’s words of wisdom, Jane Gradgrind is effectively educated in both fact and fancy, which ultimately leads her to become a well-developed and happy individual. Taught in Gradgrind’s factual system and influenced by Sissy’s affection, Jane is both intellectually bright and gently warmhearted. When Mrs. Gradgrind remarks that Jane bears a resemblance to Louisa, Louisa notices that “her sister’s was a better and brighter face than hers had ever been” and that Jane shares Sissy’s sweet, gentle expression (202). Through Jane it is clear that Louisa could have become a happy young woman had her childhood been one of fancy and wonder as Jane and Sissy’s were. Although she was raised in the same household as Louisa, the presence of love and tenderness made all the difference in Jane’s life. Because she was exposed to both fact and fancy, Jane represents the ideal balance between head and heart and the importance of nurturing and encouraging children.
In Hard Times the unfortunate downfalls of the characters that are only educated in one facet make it clear that fact and fancy should ideally be complementing instead of conflicting. Having both “a wisdom of the Head” and “a wisdom of the Heart” promotes balance and fulfillment, ultimately leading to a happier life (226). Although Hard Times was written in the Victorian period, it is clear that there are several parallels between Coketown and modern society. In some aspects the drilling of facts has become even more of an issue as there is increasing pressure put on children and teenagers through testing, classes, and extracurricular activities. However, as Charles Dickens states, “It rests with you and me whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not” (300). Ultimately our fates are in our own hands, and raised with such balance in our lives we will be equipped with the tools to make the right decisions that will not only improve our own lives, but the lives of others.

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