Sunday, 29 May 2016

Hard Times: a Protest Against the Inhumanity of Society and the Law

According to an article written by John D. Baird, Dickens had “compassion for the victims of a bad system” (p.401). With this the article is referring to the complexity of divorce. In the 19th century divorce was not something that happened very often. As the article states: “The average Englishman was more likely to be struck by lightning than to be divorced” (p. 404). In the rare case that a divorce would take place, it would be a “judicial separation which broke the economic ties”, neither could remarry. This was called ‘à mensâ et thoro’; which means 'from bed and board'. They could only remarry in case of a divorce called: 'à vinculo matrimonii'. However, this was even more complicated and expensive than a regular divorce. According to the article the estimated average cost of a divorce in that time was around 2000 pounds.

Men were allowed to plea for a divorce on the grounds of adultery, however; women were not allowed to do the same solely on grounds of adultery. They could only plea for divorce if their husband committed adultery combined with of acts of cruelty, incest or beastiality; but these needed to be very extreme. An example the article gives is a woman who was whipped repeatedly by her husband with a horsewhip, however this was not extreme enough thus the House of Lords rejected her bill on six occasions. This had to do with the fact that the government wanted to discourage divorce. As the article states: “A woman who committed adultery lost her position in society, but men did not” (p. 403).

To give you an idea of how rare divorce was in this time (this is what the article also states): From 01-01-1841 to 31-12-1855 around 2.144.825 marriages took place in England and Wales. In this same period of time there were only 66 acts of divorce à vinculo matrimonii were passed. The main claim Baird makes goes as follows: “It is [Hard Times], more importantly, a protest against the inhumanity of social attitudes which find expression in the law, and against those who contended that society had a vital interest in repressing divorce, and should grant release from the marriage bond only in the most extreme circumstances.” (p. 412)

Stephen is a poor man who works in the factory in Coketown. Every night he walks home from work with his friend Rachel, whom he is secretly in love with. However, he has been married to an alcoholic for years. He really wants to get a divorce, because he feels like it is his last resort. He has tried for a long time to keep living with his wife and to help her; he even talks of having paid her to stay away. However, when he goes to Mr. Bounderby to ask for help, the latter tells him that it would be impossible to get a divorce because it will cost him a thousand pounds. Furthermore, the article states that even if the costs were reduced to fifty pounds, Stephen would still be unable to afford it. Therefore, he has no choice but to stay married to his wife. In order to make sure that the conservative readers of Dickens’ time would pity or sympathize with Stephen, he had to be of good character: he must be completely without vice or offence. Therefore, Stephen is a poor, humble man.

Baird claims that Rachel’s words to Stephen prove that his drunk wife is an adulteress; “Rachael quotes to Stephen Christ's words (John 8:7) on the woman taken in adultery: "Thou knowest who said, 'Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone at her!' There have been plenty to do that." According to him, even though these words are indirect, they make it clear that his wife has betrayed him with other men (plural). Furthermore, the author claims that the “wounds” of Stephen’s wife which Rachel washes and “the sore” to which she applies medicine refer to syphilis, which is an STD. 

On page 82 Mr. Bounderby tells Stephen it would have been better if he had not gotten married, however it's to late to say that now. He's being  really hard on Stephen; rather cynically he says that Stephen should not have married in the first place and should have been happy with how things were. This however, is very hypocitical for reasons we will get to later. Stephen could not have foreseen his wife becoming an alcoholic and an adulteress. It really shows the contrast between society's views and the victims of those views, or rather of the law. The fact that he is stuck with his wife for the rest of his life emphasizes Stephen's misery even more.

Combining all these factors creates empathy for the character and his situation. So, basically, what the author of the article means with the mentioned argument is that Charles Dickens used his description of Stephen to soften the conservative readers’ view on divorce by portraying a man that has had bad luck all his life so that the natural response of the reader would be to pity him and not be offended by the sole situation of him wanting a divorce. We agree with the author’s argument that the depiction of Stephen Blackpool was a character device of Charles Dickens to soften the readers’ and therefore society’s view on divorce.

Also, what makes Stephen a greater man yet, is the fact that after his talk with Mr. Bounderby, he accepts his fate and no longer fights it. However, we are not as sure about the fact that his wife is an adulteress as the writer of the article is because his assumptions are both very indirect and therefore, not completely reliable; she is a drunk and therefore, her wounds could also have been from crawling through the window to get into his bedroom or from falling on the ground too many times because that can also happen when you’re drunk. Therefore, we believe that it would be too easy to just assume that she is an adulteress. 

Later on, Mr. Bounderby is presented with a similar situation as Stephen Blackpool, only Mr. Bounderby is rich enough to be able to afford a divorce. However, he does not have the means to do so because Louisa never actually commits adultery. Therefore, just like Stephen, he is unable to divorce his wife. Yet he responds to this rather differently. Stephen fully accepts his fate and situation. “Bounderby’s response to Louisa’s escapade is, in effect, to deny the existence of the marriage.” (Baird, p. 410, 1977).

Stephen as well as Louisa appear to be the victims of Mr. Bounderby’s views, which seem to be the same as the society’s views. The article also states that Louisa is in fact more similar to Stephen than Bounderby, she is trapped in a marriage that makes her unhappy. “She cannot initiate her own release from that bond, nor will Bounderby release her.” (p. 411). As Marrit already mentioned Bounderby tells Stephen there is no way out of his marriage, due to lack of money. And Bounderby traps Louisa with this marriage by not divorcing her and thus robbing her of becoming a proper wife and even, a mother.

Louisa falls in love with James Harthouse, but due to her high moral standards she flees to her father instead of pursuing an affair with Mr. Harthouse. We agree with the article that this particular event is a comment on how unfair the views of society can be. I will illustrate this further with the following passage. This is a passage from the last two pages of the book. Dickens lists what Louisa wishes of her future. “Herself again a wife – a mother – lovingly watchful of her children, ever careful that they should have a childhood of the mind no less than a childhood of the body, as knowing it to be even a more beautiful thing, and a possession, any hoarded scrap of which, is a blessing and happiness to the wisest? Did Louisa see this? Such a thing was never to be.” (Dickens, p. 327, 1854)

This passage shows that Dickens presents the situation as unfair. Louisa has remained faithful to her husband even though she fell in love with another man. She has lived her life by the facts and in a proper manner. She does what is asked of her by her father and in return she suffers a somewhat lonely fate. In our opinion Dickens tries to turn it into a happy ending for Louisa, through stating that she is loved by the people around her, among which Sissy Jupe and her children, and thus is not completely alone. However, he makes it very clear that this is not in fact what Louisa wanted, after breaking free of the factual childhood and young adult life. In the last few sentences Charles Dickens asks his readers to change. He seems to say ‘it’s up to us’.

We also think that, in the beginning of the book, Louisa’s father represents the strict society’s views, however after Louisa explains to him how inhumane and cruel he has been to her and tried to raise her to be, he re-evaluates everything and realizes that she’s right. Louisa convinces him that what he asks of her is inhumane and cruel. This appears to represent what Dickens himself is trying to do with the book itself: showing the ‘society’ how inhumane and cruel their laws can be.

Works Cited
Baird, J. D. (1977). "Divorce and Matrimonial Causes": An Aspect of "Hard Times". Indiana University Press, 401-412.
Dickens, C. (2012). Hard Times. Penguin Books.

As you may have noticed, this post continuously refers to "we". This was the text used for a presentation, given by myself and a friend of mine.