Hard Times


Charles Dickens

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Hard Times: Motifs 2 key examples

Definition of Motif
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the central themes of a book... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of related symbols, help develop the... read full definition
A motif is an element or idea that recurs throughout a work of literature. Motifs, which are often collections of... read full definition
Book 1, Chapter 5
Explanation and Analysis—Serpents of Smoke:

Hard Times explores industrialization and its evils through the motif of urban pollution. The “serpents of smoke” coming from the chimneys of the factories in Coketown, as well as the dye in the river, are symbols of the spiritually corrupting influence of industrialization.

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes would have allowed it; but, as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage [...] It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye [...]  

In this passage, the reader is introduced to Coketown for the very first time, and its standout quality is that it is submerged in pollution and industrial filth. The “smoke serpents” appear over and over in descriptions of Coketown. They appear again as Stephen Blackpool walks to work in Chapter 11 (“the monstrous serpents…trailing themselves over Coketown”), and again after he goes missing in Part 2 (“the smoke serpents were indifferent who was lost or found, who turned out bad or good[.]”). Likewise, in the first chapter of Part 2,  Coketown’s river is described as “black and thick with dye,” and the city itself as cloaked in a “blur of soot and smoke.” 

The degrading effects of this waste on Coketown reflect how industrialization changes the city and the people within it. Tellingly, the town is described as being made of “brick that would have been red” if the smoke “allowed” it. The smoke has changed the appearance of this town totally, just as industrialization has changed it socially; the town is built totally around the needs of commerce and business, with little afterthought given to the quality of people’s lives. The smoke blankets the town when Stephen goes to speak with Gradgrind about divorcing his wife, and again while he is missing. Stephen’s troubles, and even his absence, are invisible in a world dominated by the desire for profit; his concerns as an individual are blotted out. The smoke serpents, as noted above, are “indifferent” to the lives of those underneath them. 

Book 1, Chapter 8
Explanation and Analysis—Burning Curiosity:

Dickens explores femininity and imagination, especially as they present themselves in Louisa, through the motif of fire or ashes. In one scene, Louisa looks into the fire as she imagines possible futures for herself and Tom:

“Have you gone to sleep, Loo?”

“No, Tom. I am looking at the fire.”

“You seem to find more to look at in it then ever I could find,” said Tom. “Another of the advantages, I suppose, of being a girl.”

Fire and imagination are linked together over and over again throughout the novel. Louisa attains a kind of clarity or understanding of the future while staring into a fire, both in this scene and throughout the book. Later on, Gradgrind and Bounderby discuss Louisa and her curiosity while staring into a fire themselves. At one point, Tom tells Harthouse he has seen Louisa staring into the fire for hours at a time. Louisa’s strongest characteristic is her oft-suppressed interest in the world around her, and this is reflected in descriptions of her across the book. She is described, early on, as having a “fire with nothing to burn,” on her face, “a starved imagination.” 

Tom directly attributes this “fire” of curiosity  to her “being a girl” in the scene above. Through the motif of fire, Dickens seems to suggest a relationship between femininity and the capacity for fancy and imagination within Louisa. In Hard Times, women like Louisa and Sissy are the characters who challenge the status quo of industrialization, and ultimately rebel against utilitarianism. Both of these women are also known for their curiosity and imagination; Sissy, like Louisa, is unable to fully conform to the system of “fact” put forward by Gradgrind. Their imagination makes conformity impossible for them. The “fire” of Louisa’s interest in the world lights a new way forward for her, outside of the worldview put forward by her father. 

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