Hard Times by Charles Dickens

“Now what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”

With this dogmatic and militaristic monologue Charles Dickens begins his shortest novel Hard Times. It begins with a very memorable classroom scene in which Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. M’Choakumchild (no subtlety here) expound and implement their revolutionary pedagogical strategies. Nothing but “Fact” is wanted in Mr. Gradgrind’s school. Everything must be properly ordered and aligned according to Fact. Whatever is unable to be measured and statistically comprehended, is not material worthy of any notice. Mr. Gradgrind raises his children on Facts; he lives his life according to Facts down to the very details of his house decor. Anything smacking of fancy, frivolity or wonder has no place in Mr. Gradgrind’s solid world of Facts. Hard times, indeed, for the poor students.

Dickens dedicated Hard Times to Thomas Carlyle. In a letter to the same, Dickens wrote that the purpose of Hard Times was to “shake some people in a terrible mistake of these days.” This ‘terrible mistake,’ which we encounter so forcefully in the opening chapters of the book, was the societal obsession with a certain type of knowledge to the contemptuous dismissal of the others. Other ways of knowing were cast aside and disregarded and scientific knowledge was awarded exaggerated and supreme importance. Real knowledge, Gradgrind would say, can only be said of something if it can be proved and demonstrated by a scientific or mathematical process. Following such a protocol will lead to the truth about anything. Facts are “the one thing needful” which is the ironic title of the opening chapter.

Dickens illustrates the painful consequences of this ideology on both the individual and the societal levels. The characters we meet who were nursed and nourished on the bottle of Facts end disastrously. Louisa Gradgrind is left jaded and emotionally stunted, Thomas Gradgrind is hopelessly self absorbed and turns to crime, and Bitzer behaves more like a machine than a man. There is something essential missing from all of them although their characters manifest the lack in different ways. Yet it is plain that they are all unable to function properly in a world where facts simply fall short in comprehending the experience of life.

The implementation of such a “Facts” mentality on a grander scale fares no better. Dickens portrays a sad, dirty, and depressed Coketown in which the workers (the Hands) have been reduced to production figures and statistics. To the Coketown masters they are truly nothing more than hands: hands that would be better off disembodied as they would make far less trouble that way. Both the Hands, represented by Stephen and Rachael, and the masters, represented by the ridiculous and blustering Bounderby, have been de-humanized by this ‘terrible mistake.’ As expressed by an old folk song, “hard times in the mill my love, hard times in the mill.”

But, as we read in the first chapter title of book three, there is “another thing needful.” The hyper-rational worldview of Facts simply does not hold up against the human experience: the experience both by and of people. When Mr. Gradgrind witnesses the total collapse and failure of his educational methods in the person of his daughter he says to her: “Some persons hold that there is a wisdom of the Head, and that there is a wisdom of the Heart.”

What is this wisdom of the Heart? It is difficult to say exactly what it is (which is why it holds no credibility by the Facts men) but we have all had experience of it; indeed it is usually something learned through experience rather than through a rational process. It primarily concerns itself with particulars rather than universals, or, to according to Goethe, with experiencing the universal in the living particular without even realizing it. It is knowing and delighting in the beauty and smell of a flower rather than understanding the workings of pollen, pistils and stamens. With no experiences to accompany all of the Facts, the unfortunate adherents of that philosophy unwittingly fall prey to the very error they so ardently wish to avoid: they are left with an incomplete and partial knowledge.

The point is not that there is something wrong with knowing facts. Knowledge of the reproductive systems of plants is a very good thing: scientific knowledge is a good thing. The mistake arises when such knowledge becomes the end of the story. Other ways of knowing must be acknowledged and given their proper dues. The biological workings of a flower do not define and comprehend what it is. The circulatory system does not tell the whole story of the human heart, despite what Bitzer says at the end of the novel.

Throughout the story, Dickens gives us several examples of this wisdom of the heart. Louisa Gradgrind has understood her whole life about the working class in Coketown: their numbers, production rates, birth and death rates, wages, whatever could be quantified and calculated. When she walks into the dwelling of Stephen Blackpool, however, she has a direct experience of one of the workers and quickly realizes that she has not really known them at all. “She had scarcely thought more of separating them into units, than of separating the sea itself into its component drops.” In the space of one interview she has learned more about the Hands of Coketown than in all of her years of study. Similarly in the first scene Sissy Jupe, having grown up in Sleary’s horse circus, is the only one in the room who really understands what a horse is, although she is unable to give a satisfactory and fact-saturated definition to Mr. Gradgrind.

The “one thing needful” is a reference to Luke 10 and the story of Martha and Mary. Martha busies herself with practical preparations while Mary is focused on the person of Christ and what He says. Jesus famously affirms Mary when Martha complains of her. “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” The one thing needful is the Person of Jesus Christ. One cannot come to God by any other way than through an encounter with and an experience of an actual human being. A human being, like all others, who cannot be quantified or explained on a spreadsheet or graph. A human being, like all others, who is ultimately mysterious and can only be partially understood by those who, like Mary, are willing to spend time and effort.

For, of course, it would be absurd to say that you know somebody because you have an exhaustive encyclopedic knowledge of human biology and psychology. This is not what is needful in order to know someone and this is the mistake of the Gradgrind school of thought. Such thinking leaves no room for love as Louisa discovers on the night of her betrothal. The Facts mentality is seductive on account of its apparent simplicity and the satisfaction it seems to offer to our vain human natures. In the end, however, it is cowardly and dull at best, terrifying and despairing at worst. It recoils from anything it cannot quantify and categorize, refusing to acknowledge any mystery or mysticism either in the human person or the world. Imagination, wonder, and the desire for higher things are thereby killed, leaving hollow men residing in a hollow world where only the visible surface of things is acknowledged. The real stuff of life—stuff that can only be experienced and loved—has been sadly omitted. This is the meaning of the fox’s secret which he tells to the Little Prince at their last meeting. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

In Hard Times Dickens ultimately reminds us that at the end of our lives we will not be judged based on what we know or what we have accomplished. For these are not needful: these are but the tinkling cymbals and the sounding brass of Bounderby. We will be judged based on what we have loved.

Stephen Fitzpatrick


Stephen Fitzpatrick received a B.A. in the Liberal Arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. in Theology from the University of Scranton. He teaches at Gregory the Great Academy.

  • NE-Conservative

    And THAT Mr. Fitzpatrick is precisely what’s wrong with the current STEM curriculums and technology ‘boot camps’ (that are) cropping up all over to galvanize job hungry, under-educated, over-degreed mental/emotional adolescents by remaking them into techie zombies – without the ability to conceive let alone consider the consequences of an unreflective application of technology.
    In the ‘Abolition of Man’, C.S. Lewis discusses them as ‘men without chests’; James V. Schall speaks of how to avoid becoming one of them in ‘The Life of the Mind’. especially in the chapter ‘On taking care of one’s own wisdom’. Both of these authors are rarely even known, let alone read by those that need them most.

  • michelle lobdell

    “The one thing needful is the Person of Jesus Christ. One cannot come to God by any other way than through an encounter with and an experience of an actual human being. A human being, like all others, who cannot be quantified or explained on a spreadsheet or graph. A human being, like all others, who is ultimately mysterious and can only be partially understood by those who, like Mary, are willing to spend time and effort.” You claim to have a degree in Theology and yet describe Jesus as a human being “like all others”? What the heck did you learn???? Jesus was NOT a “human being like all others”; he is the Son of the One and Only Living God. An encounter with HIM is what we need, not with a “human being like all others”. I don’t care if you have ten degrees in Theology; if you missed that distinction, you missed it all.

    • bbrown

      Jesus was the perfect human when he walked the Earth. God and man, Christ is three persons in one Godhead. This is mere orthodox Christianity, understood since the time of the Apostles.
      Stephen Fitzpatrick does not say that Jesus is like all other men, but rather is making the point that all the other men contain the ‘imago dei’. All the other men are more than just the rational, calculating, techno-creatures that modernity so often wants to make them. I think you misread Fitzpatrick here; his meaning seems pretty clear, and I think it was beautifully stated in this essay.

      BTW, I love reading Dickens – he’s a great literary genius of such a breadth of God-given sympathetic understanding of human nature; a breath of fresh air in our nihilistic, secular materialist age. How I wish school kids were mandated to read a good part of his corpus. It would do them a world of good in life.

      • michelle lobdell

        bbrown, I think you and I agree completely about who Jesus is, however, take off the lens of Christian faith and re-read this missive. First, his quote very clearly says that one can come to God through “an encounter with and experience of an actual human being”; however, “Faith is a conviction of things not seen”. I have never encountered Jesus as an actual human being, yet I believe. Point: No person who is a follower of Christ would make such a declaration. On the face, it is actually an asinine statement; to be on this planet is to encounter other actual humans; obviously everyone can come to God, yet few do. I see his use of words here as a way to avoid stating what followers believe; that Jesus IS God. Mr. Fitzpatrick only references a passage in the Bible. He wrote this as an essay on the importance of the “human heart”, which the Bible describes as “desperately wicked”. He references Goethe, who described himself as “most decidedly un-Christian”; a philosopher embraced and quoted by Hegel, (the father of Marxism), Nietzsche, Freud and Jung, all atheists whose life works were dedicated to elevating the supremacy of man and our ability to reason. As a liberal arts major, Mr. Fitzpatrick was taught that these philosophers’ works were equally important to the Bible and helped to define modern thought. Fitzpatrick never actually addresses being a Christian. Modern theology does NOT teach that Jesus was God and that he was raised from the dead; modern theology is more like the “coexist” bumper stickers in that it embraces the validity of ALL religious teaching and does not favor one over the other. In modern theology, the Bible is just another book on how to be a “good” person and useful for its moral teachings, while acknowledging that Jesus was a wonderful teacher. Do a little research to validate what I am saying. This man does not profess to be a Christian. While I agree that he is saying that without a heart of love, you can not fully experience or appreciate life and miss much of it, I stand by my remarks. His last statement “we will be judged by what, (not WHOM) we have loved”, is the ultimate testimony to his beliefs. Christians believe that it is ONLY through a personal relationship with Jesus that life is truly experienced; “I came to give you life; and that more abundantly”. Fitzpatrick writes around that truth and my statement was to clarify for anyone thinking that his analysis had anything to do with Christianity, that it does not. With all modern theologians, the end game is to blend religions into one unifying philosophy; the “world” religion. It is a slippery slope and many Christians are fooled by the feel good words and occasional references to the Bible. Discerning Christians can see right through it.

        On another note, I wholeheartedly agree with you about Dickens; is and always will be my favorite writer, melancholy and wordy in his descriptions as he can be. “A Tale of Two Cities” will always stand as a beacon for me in literature, with what I consider the best opening and closing lines of any book ever written by man. God Bless.

        • bbrown


          Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. I appreciate all the time and effort you made here.

          When I looked again at the essay, I do see this, “One cannot come to God by any other way than through an encounter with and an experience of an actual human being”.

          I cannot disagree with you at all that this is really off base. I guess I just did not read it initially as you did, in the context of the essay, but I cannot deny that this is what he said. I was giving a benefit of the doubt and assuming he could not mean it that way. It would, indeed, be good if Mr. Fitzpatrick chimed in here and clarified what he was saying.

          Thanks again for the dialogue,

          –Wm. Brown

          Forest, VA

          • michelle lobdell

            I am always happy to engage in discussion with another sentient being (I use that term purposefully; I think many who post on discussion forums are not sentient at all!). I appreciated your remarks as well and the opportunity to clarify my position. I was raised a Catholic and have studied the differences between Catholic dogma and what the Bible says, as well as church history. I felt you deserved a thorough and thoughtful reply. In no way do I want this to be interpreted as Catholic bashing, as it is not; it is simply pointing out the factual differences in thinking between an Orthodox Christian and a Catholic and why he made have parsed his words in the manner that he did. Being such a radical, crazy, all in for my faith Christian, his statements leapt off the page at me as soon as I read them. So subtle, yet such a huge dichotomy between what I believe the Bible calls a “believer” and what he has been taught. My purpose for the treatise on Catholics was to point out the source of the dichotomy and promote understanding. I AM a crazy Christian, but I am not “unreasonable. 😉

          • Stephen Fitzpatrick

            I certainly did not mean to say anything so controversial. All I am saying in that part of the review is what Jesus says in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.”
            As a Catholic, I believe that Jesus Christ, the second Person in the Trinity, became man in order to redeem us from our sins. Jesus is true God and true man.
            As it says in the above quote from John, we must know Jesus in order to be saved. How do we encounter Jesus? We encounter Him and learn to know and love Him by being members of the one true Church which he founded on Earth, the Catholic Church. We also experience Christ intimately through the reception of His Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist.
            I hope that clears the air a little bit.

            • bbrown

              Thank you Stephen. I am not really sure you addressed the concern. Maybe just a simple change in wording to indicate that it’s God that saves us, and Jesus, as God’s son and as God, is the means by which we are saved. Not so much a human being, as The Human Being, Jesus. I don’t know, I was not tripped up by your wording, but I think Michelle feels that you meant something perhaps borderline heretical. She clearly has sensitivity to subtleties that perhaps I am lacking, based on her background. Error certainly always starts with a very subtle drifting from accurate meanings, and that must be guarded against.

              Re. Catholic triumphalism and the ‘one true church’. I find the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition to be unmatched in it’s depth of understanding and approach to truth in almost all areas. However, there is also a very strong socialist element that is repulsive in it’s naivete, and I think that that may be the one thing that has kept me from swimming the Tiber. I realize that the Catholic Church is a ‘big tent’ so to speak,and this element (“The Social Gospel) is one branch. It just seems to be very prominent and it veers so close to the evil of socialism, in the name of doing good.

              I loved Ratzinger and JP II, but I am worried about Francis. I feel that becoming a Roman Catholic would be something I’d possibly regret, because I feel uncertain about these human representatives and where their teaching will take the church. At least Protestantism offers independent churches, which often maintain a certain element of purity and adherence not only to Christian tradition, but to the gospel as well, without the accrual of layers and layers of (what I think is often) human corruption.

              All that said, I did appreciate your essay, and as someone who greatly benefits from Dicken’s deep insight into humanity, I very much enjoyed the essay.

              • michelle lobdell

                bbrown: Thank you for your very civilized and well put reply to Stephen. I note he still has not addressed my point as he cannot; what I said was true. I am sure you noticed that his beliefs are centered on the “one true church”; a cultic reference, really. He believes that without the “Church” we cannot be saved; THE CHURCH is as important as Jesus Himself. This “sublety” is not a minor thing; it reduces Christ’s work on the cross to a PARTIAL job, not an “it is finished”. To the Catholics, Jesus did half the job, the CHURCH does the rest. This massive doctrinal error; and the difference between Christianity and every other religion; can be reduced to one thing: man’s insistence that HE must be involved in ensuring his own salvation. God says HE did it all; man is arrogant so he makes it all about HIMSELF, (the essence of self-righteousness). As you pointed out, errors begin with a subtle drift from truth. It is Satan’s oldest and most effective way of lying, beginning with Eve in the Garden. It is unfortunate that the Catholics refuse to acknowledge centuries of errors and drift, (your stated “accrual of layers and layers of human corruption), in doctrinal and scriptural interpretation, as well as the abundant corruption that continues even today, when making the statement that it is necessary to belong to THE “Church” in order to know Jesus. The arrogance is a put off. I believe it is this very arrogance, (a complete and very un-Christlike lack of humility in the clergy and church leaders), coupled with the naked and often evil political ambition of the church that has opened the door for miriad abuses over the centuries. You are obviously aware of Francis’ statements regarding “social justice” and a his calls to “unite” the different religions; including Islam, whom HE claims worships the SAME God as us. Seriously, that learned man does not know what Islam teaches about Christ? I share your concern. I find it particularly galling that they pronounce anyone who does not participate in the sacraments, as well as anyone who believes in salvation through faith alone, (Council of Trent), “anathema”. If Francis were really interested in uniting the Church of Christ, he could start by rescinding that little piece of doctrine, which pronounces ALL Protestants damned. However, when it comes to the Roman Catholic intellectual tradition, you and I diverge; I believe it is the very essence and source of their arrogance; there are the Catholic doctrines that simply defy scripture; calling the Pope “Father” when the Bible clearly says to call only our Father in heaven “Father” comes to mind immediately; but there are many others.

                I appreciate your comments so much and the kind manner in which you express yourself. I have taken my ride down the Tiber; I chose to get off that boat.

                God Bless. Thanks for weighing in.

                • bbrown


                  God bless you as well. There’s so much in this reply. Each point could be a departure for a lot of dialogue, and I have views about almost all of what you said. Since I’m at work (in surgery) I only want to say one small and minor thing. Re. my comment on the Roman intellectual tradition, I should have been more specific. I agree with those problematic points you mention. I was referring more to the philosophical tradition in writers and thinkers

                  • michelle lobdell

                    Ummmm… it seems obvious to me that the best thinking came from Roman Catholics simply because the Reformation, (i.e. beginning of Protestantism) occurred 1600 years after Christ; that gave the Catholics an awfully big lead in the “time to think” category. Additionally, all of the well educated; and thus the great thinkers; were Catholic; (at least in upbringing before many rejected their faith). Up until the rise of Islam, the civilized world WAS Catholic. The modern writers you reference really have less to do with religious writing than science and philosophy; although I could have a very spirited debate about their viewpoints and the ways they arrived at them. Truth is, I find philosophers a bit too preoccupied with the use of big words, complicated precepts and their own intellects. I also find that reading their philosophies, while interesting, is like “chasing the wind”. They add nothing to my life or my ability to live it in a way that pleases God. Besides, all of their conclusions are easily explained in view of what God says about His nature and the truth of ours.

                    As for Francis, hard to ignore his blatant remarks and meaning. Confused is a good term; I think when men ponder too much of their own and each other’s brilliance that is exactly where they end up; confused. Think Nebuchadnezzar. Scripturally speaking, God says that he will send them there.

                    So, a surgeon, anesthesiologist, or possibly a nurse? Obviously well educated and curious. I am a fresh “empty nester”, just an ordinary college dropout housewife who launched five children into the world. I have four engineers; two electrical, one nuclear and the younger girl both chemical and nuclear, (the over achiever). (The oldest is still in school, no declared major. There had to be one!) (And ok, yes, that could be considered a bit of boasting; but I think I earned it. Raising five children who are on their own and doing well is nothing short of a miracle these days and was the hardest job I could imagine. Could not have done it without God; I would have killed every one of them at certain points without His grace and wisdom). Anyway, enough of that tangent.

                    Obviously, I read.

                    Thank you for sharing your reading interests; I will take your list as a recommendation of writers and subjects I may want to explore further. I find so few authors deserve my precious time. (As an aside, if you haven’t read Martin Luther, you should).

                    As a final thought, I am pretty simplistic in my viewpoint. Satan rules this planet, it is his. As such; and as he seeks to “steal, kill and destroy”; it shouldn’t be surprising to find everything God made and loves and pronounced “good” corrupted, including the church. The darkness is spreading. The suffering and misery are spreading. I really wonder how much time we have left. I also know where my help comes from; I know where my salvation and my hope is found. I don’t worry, the story is written. For all of our preponderance of doctrine and dogma; reason and philosophy; only one thing matters and that is the Gospel. I think on this often as well; John 3:19 – 20 19 And this is the judgment, that the light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil.

                    20 For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, and cometh not to the light, lest his works should be reproved..

                    No matter how we debate, God has the final word.

  • John Smith

    Walter J. Ong, S.J. “Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, from the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason”

    Peter Ramus (1515-1572), was a French humanist, logician, and educational reformer whose textbook method of analyzing subjects was very widely adopted in many academic fields.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    It is worth recalling Pascal’s ringing defence of the “knowledge of the heart”

    “282. We know truth, not only by the reason, but also by the heart, and it is in this last way that we know first principles; and reason, which has no part in it, tries in vain to impugn them. The sceptics, who have only this for their object, labour to no purpose. We know that we are not dreaming, and, however impossible it is for us to prove it by reason, this inability demonstrates only the weakness of our reason, but not, as they affirm, the uncertainty of all our knowledge. For the knowledge of first principles, as space, time, motion, number, is as sure as any of those which we get from reasoning. And reason must trust this knowledge of the heart and of instinct, and must base every argument on them. The heart senses [Le cœur sent] that there are three dimensions in space and that the numbers are infinite, and reason then shows that there are no two square numbers one of which is double of the other. Principles are intuited, propositions are inferred, all with certainty, though in different ways.” Pensées