Fancy, Circus and Circulating Library
Fancy, Wonder and Imagination are words that represent the creative faculty of man that is responsible for many discoveries, inventions and changes that the world has seen. However, in Hard Times, these words and the faculty it represents are considered to be obstacles to the progress of mankind. Hence, to allow adults and children to engage in anything that is connected to the imagination and the creative faculty is to impede the growth and development of the society in particular and the nation as a whole. Therefore, it is imperative that imagination and creativity are nipped in the bud at the earliest. Mr. Gradgrind’s school represents the institutions in England in the days of Dickens that sought to do just this by imposing the philosophy and principle of rationalism upon the young children who study there. Each of the children is seen as an empty vessel that must be filled to the brim with facts and trained to use reason in whatever they do day in and day out. Every attempt is made to ensure that ‘idle imagination’ is weeded out, maimed or killed. The success of such a system of education rests in the teachers’ ability to completely brainwash their students into becoming scientific, rational, calculative and devoid of emotions.
The Circus, described by Thomas Carlyle as a ‘sham’, was seen as a blight upon society’s otherwise clear countenance. To many conservative people of the day, the circus was a menace and an evil influence. In 1572, the Vagabond Act of Parliament was passed that made entertainment a punishable offense. Apparently, this act still continued to exert its influence upon the English even during the times of Dickens. Two factors could have contributed to the negative perception that people had of the circus – the fact that almost all of the members of the circus came from the lower class and the notion that the circus was fuelled solely by idle imagination. People who either failed to get jobs at the factories and industries or who chose not to work in such places due to the horrible working conditions looked for jobs elsewhere. Some of such people end up working in travelling circuses such as the one seen in Hard Times. These people were usually uneducated or with less education and had very rough nature and hence considered unrefined and uncouth by the educated few. The circus, because of its various acts and items that appear to defy reason and utility was considered useless and derogatory. People who do visit the circus are looked at askance by those who do not.
The Circulating Libraries that lent out novels with romantic and adventurous plots and story lines were yet another target of the ridicule and attacks of the respected section of society. These libraries served as a mode of escape for three types of people – the daughters of rich families, wives of wealthy husbands from the middle and upper classes, and the literate men and women who form the bulk of the labour force. The library in Coketown is one such library with membership coming mostly from the ‘hands’. These men and women after having worked tirelessly sixteen hours daily at the factories in very disastrous working would sit down to read novels as a way of relaxing but more importantly of escaping from their hurts, their struggles and their hungers to be inspired and reinvigorated by the victory of their heroes and heroine.
Mr. Gradgrind and many like him are deeply distressed by the existence and the survival of circuses and libraries in society. They are greatly disturbed to see people opting to visit such deplorable places and partake of the entertainment or fanciful stories that they had to offer.
Dickens’ use of such places, however, in Hard Times and his decision to reveal them as sources of hope, strength and deliverance comes across as a sharp contrast to the views and opinions of the conservative Victorian society of his times. Sissy Jupe and the circus emerge towards the end of the novel as shining knights in armour providing Tom with the only chance to escape the law and to relocate to another country. Sissy Jupe also serves to cushion the fall that Louisa has after her encounter with James Harthouse and later on with her father. It was also Sissy Jupe who took care of Mrs. Gradgrind during the latter’s last dying days. In doing so, Dickens is perhaps not only championing the cause of such people but he is also making a statement about the value of exposures to qualities such as love, emotions, feelings, sensitivity and morality. While many may see such qualities as weak and ineffective they have however proved to be vital to the survival of mankind.