Posts Tagged ‘nature or nurture in Charles Dickens novels’

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

The characters of Hard Times provide a unique case study of the fascinating “nature versus nurture” question – a topic that has invited reams of writing and tomes of dialogue over the years. The complex interplay of the parent-child relationships, education, and innate psychology are central issues in Dickens’s novel. Hard Times portrays characters in their growth from childhood to adulthood and explores how parenting and educational practices play a part in the overall outcome of an individual. Although the primary relationships in Hard Times convey the message of an individual “reaping what he sows” in the realm of parenting and education, Dickens’s underlying message indicates that upbringing integrates closely with the innate personality and psychology of an individual. In Hard Times, it is as though Dickens anticipated the complex interplay of psychological and physiological concepts that the scientific community is only starting to understand today.

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times reads in many ways as a moralistic novel. Some critics, who “thought little of” the novel, claim that it was nothing more than “a didactic tract” (Pittock 109). It is clear Dickens had an objective message he wanted to convey to his readers through Hard Times. When it comes to what exactly the message is, however, one finds differing opinions due to the layers of meaning, the imagery, and the multitude of themes found within the novel. One of the primary messages that Dickens appears to convey in Hard Times is the biblical idea of sowing and reaping, which is apparent even in the main sections of the novel, as they are titled: “Sowing,” “Reaping,” and “Garnering.” The organization of nature’s methods and biblical injunctions are also clear in imagery and wording choices used throughout the novel. For example, scholar Bruce Wallis observes that Dickens “employs the Christian names of the characters living by Christian values to underscore their functions in the story” and juxtapose these characters against the ones who do not uphold the same set of values (26). On the surface, Dickens’s message is straightforward: a man will reap what he sows, and failure to understand this will eventually lead to problems and sorrow.

The main place where these ideas are found is not in the imagery or the names of the characters, but in the characters themselves and in their relationships with each other. In Hard Times, the physical and mental growth of the characters is traced and Dickens clearly delineates the conflict characters face when they do not adhere to laws of nature or fail to recognize that their system of operating “violates rather than conforms to the laws of nature” (Schacht 80). This conflict reflects the question that currently permeates the fields of psychology, philosophy, and biology: “Is nature or nurture more powerful in creating an individual?” Hard Times seems to proclaim nurture as the primary determining factor in how an individual will turn out, yet at a closer glance, characters are found who appear to adhere more to their innate nature than to their upbringing.

Hard Times follows the lives of two children as they grow to adulthood. Tom and Louisa Gradgrind are the eldest children of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind and Mrs. Gradgrind, a couple to whom the facts of life are more vital than any other element in it, and who raise their children to follow a stringent application of facts. The novel declares that the Gradgrind children “had been lectured at, from their tenderest years; coursed, like little hares. Almost as soon as they could run alone, they had been made to run to the lecture room” (15-16). This was the ideal upbringing according to Mr. Gradgrind, an approach that “proves scientifically as well as morally dubious” due to his “false assumption about human nature” (Schacht 82). Because the father fails to understand the vital balance of nature and nurture, his children are “ignorant of a rich range of narratives and entertainments” (Starr 322). As Tom and Louisa children grow, their development is clearly lopsided, which negatively affects their lives in many ways.

Raised according to facts without fancy, Tom shows signs of serious character flaws. From the beginning, he is portrayed as a self-centered character; this does not change throughout the novel. As a young adult, Tom hints to Louisa that she is going to receive an offer of marriage from Josiah Bounderby, a businessman her father’s age, and he pleads with her to accept the proposal because it will ensure him a good position with Bounderby. Tom tells Louisa, “It would do me a great deal of good … It would be a splendid thing for me. It would be uncommonly jolly … You won’t forget how fond you are of me?” (94) His whole focus in the monologue is himself, and his sister’s happiness does not enter the equation. Being raised according to “facts alone” (9) proves to be a serious problem, for the plain facts tell Tom that it would be in his best interests to have Louisa marry a man more than twice her age whom she does not love.

An interesting aspect that also comes into play in Tom’s character (or lack of character) is his mother. Although the part she plays in the novel is slight, the words she speaks make it clear what type of character she is. When correcting her children, Mrs. Gradgrind states, “I declare you’re enough to make one regret ever having had a family at all. I have a great mind to say I wish I hadn’t. Then what would you have done, I should like to know” (23). The woman is self-absorbed, and her son manifests that same perspective on life. With this connection between mother and son, it appears that Dickens is conveying the vital role of a parent’s nurturing, even in subconscious perceptions, and how such things can affect a child over the course of his life.

Years later, when Tom commits a crime and it turns out badly for him, he blames everything on his sister, accusing her of “Leaving old Bounderby to himself, and packing my best friend Mr. Harthouse off, and going home, just when I was in the greatest danger. Pretty love that! … You never cared for me” (275-76). Tom’s self-centered perspective conveys a reflection of both his mother’s attitudes and his father’s education; even though the former was not officially “taught,” it was manifested in the household as he grew, and Tom picked up on it. One scholar remarks that Tom’s upbringing and education formed him into “a heartless egoist, a gambler and a thief” but he also states, “The Toms of this world come from a variety of social and educational backgrounds” (Pittock 115, 122). This indicates that it is not only education and nurture that “makes” a man. Some of these negative personality traits seem to come more naturally to certain characters than others.

Louisa’s character also manifests the importance of nurture, but in a different way from that of her brother. She is the product of her father’s upbringing and education, and as such, “figures as a stunted character who ends badly” (Starr 319). In short, hers is not a happy story. When Louisa chooses to marry Gradgrind in spite of the fact that she has no feelings for him whatsoever, she tells her father, “You have been so careful of me, that I never had a child’s heart. You have trained me so well, that I never dreamed a child’s dream” (101). These pitiful words indicate how powerful her father’s training and input had been over her life and viewpoints. Later, when she returns to her father’s house, the victim of a miserable marriage and a confused heart, she asks her father, “How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? … What have you done … with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here?” (208) Louisa recognizes the failings of her father in raising and training her; yet, as a direct product of her father’s training, she feels she has no power to supersede that influence.

A character in the novel who adds further complexity to the notion of sowing and reaping is Josiah Bounderby, described as, “A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man” (21). Bounderby would tell anyone in hearing range about his inferior upbringing, making statements such as, “I hadn’t a shoe to my foot. … I passed the day in a ditch, and the night in a pigsty” (22-23). It was widely “known” in Coketown that Bounderby was born in a ditch and raised by an alcoholic grandmother because his mother deserted him. Yet later in the story, his mother is introduced; the true relationship between Bounderby and his mother is seen. When asked why she abandoned her son, the mother exclaims, “Josiah in the gutter! … Never! … though he come of humble parents, he come of parents that loved him as dear as the best could” (253). She relates that she and her husband lived humbly so they could afford an education for Josiah. Bounderby’s actual upbringing was completely different from the story he told. Although raised by decent and caring parents, the man turned out dishonest, selfish, and uncaring. Contrasted against Tom and Louisa Gradgrind, who are showcased as products of their educational and moral upbringing, Bounderby seems more a product of himself and his innate nature.

Two other characters in the novel first seen as children, and later as young adults, are Bitzer and Sissy Jupe. These individuals – rather than portraying solely the power of their environment and education – also convey that a combination of elements determine the individual. Little is known about Bitzer, except that he is the son of a widow who works in the workhouse, and that he is a product of the school that Mr. Gradgrind created, a school devoted to teaching “Facts alone” (9). When he grows into adulthood, Bitzer makes a conscious decision to use his education in ways that push himself forward in life. Bitzer envies Tom’s position with Bounderby, and looks for an opportunity to better his position, which he gains when Tom disappears after committing a crime. Bitzer “pursues the escaping Tom and makes a citizen’s arrest on him” because he understands that by doing so, he will “recommend himself to Bounderby” (Pittock 114). The young man is an opportunist, who does not mind whose toes he steps on as long as he can get ahead. His focus on the facts of Tom’s criminal behavior keeps him from manifesting a “heart” in the matter of arresting Tom Gradgrind. Bitzer adheres closely to the facts of life that were the basis of his education in Gradgrind’s school, yet it appears to be a conscious decision rather than a part of his inner personality.

Sissy Jupe was raised among a welcoming group of circus people and is abandoned by her father, an aging clown who leaves town without warning. It is revealed that the father abandons her because he hopes that, without him holding her back, Sissy would “be taught … education” (39). She is taken into the Gradgrind household as a servant / foster child, and enters the “Gradgrindian” world of facts and figures. She asks regularly whether her father has contacted Gradgrind; abandonment weighs heavily on her. In today’s world, parental abandonment is a clear marker for severe psychological issues for a child. Sissy’s presence in the Gradgrind household, however, transforms their world from a bland place of facts and figures to a warm atmosphere where there is a “clear admission of Sissy’s power and influence” (Sage 328). Sissy’s nature proves stronger than her environment. Perhaps it is the effect of her early upbringing in the circus; perhaps it is something innate in her psychology. It is impossible to choose one completely over the other.

Which concept proves to be stronger in the novel? Nature or nurture? It seems that neither idea completely prevails. For a novel written in the 1800s, it is remarkable that Hard Times conveys the complex interplay of nature versus nurture, of environment versus biology, of parenting and education versus psychology and physiology. Charles Dickens could not have known about various concepts known today in the realm of psychology and biology. For example, recent neurological tests on juveniles indicate that there is a neurological difference, even in adolescents, of young people with mental and behavioral conditions as opposed to juveniles in a normal controlled population (Barrutieta, 2015). Abnormal brain functioning in the emotional processing of certain juveniles indicate a neurologically-based inability for these adolescents to experience the effects of certain stimuli, such as unpleasant stimulation, which gives credence to these individuals’ greater levels of aggression or other unhealthy engagements. As if anticipating some of these new concepts, Dickens avoids creating characters who only respond to nurture; nature clearly plays a role. The outcome in his characters’ lives is more complex than what appears on the surface level.

Charles Dickens also showcases in his novel certain parental theories outlined in current psychological practices. For instance, the current concept of the four parenting styles can be seen in Dickens’s novel: the authoritarian parent expects unequivocal and unquestioning obedience; the permissive parent allows pretty much anything, even misbehavior; the authoritative parent invites positive, open communication with children; the neglecting parent is minimally involved in their child’s life (Bartol 116). Mr. Gradgrind demonstrates authoritarian parenting, taking no heed of his children’s natures or desires, yet focusing entirely on facts. Mrs. Gradgrind oscillates between neglecting and permissive parenting, as she is clearly more focused on herself and does not have a close relationship with Tom or Louisa. These unhealthy approaches to parenting clearly had a negative effect on the Gradgrind children.

Josiah Bounderby appears to manifest the psychological idea of cognitive scripts, a concept in which individuals learn what type of behavior brings rewards of some sort, and thus they continue in that behavior (Bartol 144). The cognitive scripts model is a hypothesis promoting the idea that any social behavior, including aggressive behavior, is connected to mental “scripts” that individuals learn and then continue to use out of habit in day-to-day life. One cognitive script that Bounderby learned to utilize was the fictional narrative of his upbringing, which presumably brought him sympathy and recognition, raising his status in the eyes of others. In his case, this verbal script that he used on various occasions was in actuality a cognitive script that must have served him well at some point in his life, so he continued using it to bring those same physical or psychological rewards.

Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind, in spite of their foibles and shortsightedness, only wanted the best for their children. Bounderby’s mother only wanted the best for her son. The same could surely be said of Sissy Jupe’s disappearing father and Bitzer’s mother in the workhouse. Each parent likely did the best he or she could with the knowledge and the capabilities available. The same can be said for the vast majority of parents today. Parents, as a whole, aim to raise happy, successful, wise individuals who will be productive in society in some way – through the arts, the sciences, or the humanities. Yet now, just as in Charles Dickens’s time, there seems to be no “magic bullet” or easy answer as to what parenting approach is guaranteed to produce a well-rounded and happy individual. No amount of strict adherence to facts or stringent application of figures can determine the outcome of a child as he or she grows into adulthood.

What makes a man? What makes a woman? It is a complex interplay of psychology and physiology; of nature and nurture, of environment and innate biology. As such, the exact ingredients and perfect recipe of a healthy and successful individual will likely never be discovered because it is different for each person and so many factors come into play. The best a parent can do is be aware of these multiple factors – as well as take into account the biblical concepts that Dickens conveyed of sowing and reaping. Ultimately, however, parents would likely do well not to forget that all-important thing, the “something” that Mrs. Gradgrind could not quite put her finger on when she was on her deathbed (194). It could be something different for every parent, but one can conjecture that it always has something to do with unconditional love, an invitation to faith, an ample serving of devoted time, and a dash of whimsy and imagination on a daily basis.

Works Cited

Barrutieta, Lucía Halty and Prieto-Ursúa María. “Neurophysiological indicators of emotional processing in youth psychopathy.” Psicothema, 27 (3) (2015): 235-240. Web. 1 May 2016.

Bartol, Curt R and Anne M. Bartol. Criminal Behavior: A Psychological Approach. Prentice Hall: Pearson (2010). Print.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. London: Penguin (2003). Print.

Pittock, Malcolm. “Taking Dickens to Task: ‘Hard Times’ Once More.” The Cambridge Quarterly 27.2 (1998): 107–128. Web. 23 April 2016.

Sage, Victor. “Girl Number Twenty Revisited: Hard Times’s Sissy Jupe.” Dickens Quarterly. 29.4 (2012): 325-335. Web. 27 April 2016.

Schacht, Paul. “Dickens and the Uses of Nature.” Victorian Studies. 34.1 (1990): 77-102. Web. 25 April 2016.

Starr, Elizabeth. “Manufacturing Novels: Charles Dickens on the Hearth in Coketown.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language. 51.3 (2009): 317-340. Web. 25 April 2016.

Wallis, Bruce L. “Dickens’ HARD TIMES.” Explicator. 44.2 (1986): 26. MAS Ultra – School Edition. Web. 27 April 2016.

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