The Dickensian Novel: An Analytical Comparison of Hard Times and Great Expectations

Part I: Capturing the Readers’ Interest

In Hard Times, Dickens immediately grabs the attention of his readers by opening the novel with a very strict and profound statement that instantly lets one know that the initial character in the book is both uncompromising and immovable in his attitude. The opening references – which relate to the fundamental importance of teaching schoolchildren hard ‘facts’ – are indicative of the disciplinarian nature of this initial speaker. As the first chapter progresses, this fact is further confirmed by the manner in which Dickens describes the physical appearance of the speaker himself and thus the author leaves his readers with little doubt as to the sheer intolerance and unpleasant persona of this introductory character. It is as though Dickens is purposely seeking to stereotype his characters, in order that we can each identify with what they have to say. One even begins to sense that perhaps we have already made the acquaintance of these intricate and well sculptured characters. Indeed, by recognising the seemingly deliberate clues of familiarity that litter the text, the reader can become accustomed to the image of a harsh, dull and dictatorial man, obsessed with what he considers to be the vast importance of incontrovertible fact. Dickens even tries to emphasise this importance by using a capital ‘F’ whenever the word arises in the dialogue. Repetition is all.

In Great Expectations, however, the opening passage is far different. The reader is suddenly drawn into a biographical account of someone’s personal family history. It is quite clear that this opening lacks the immediate burst of dialogue that engulfs the reader in Hard Times, although it does capture one’s interest in a quite different sense. This method is far more subtle, but due to the way Dickens adopts the role of the young Philip Pirrip by filling the shoes of his own character, the reader quickly realises that if he or she is to fully the grasp the nature of the individual concerned, it is necessary to pay attention and concentrate. In other words, the attention of the reader is maintained by providing a brief account of Pirrip’s general background. Dickens also introduces an element of humour when it is revealed that Pip is nothing more than a young child, who naturally views things rather differently to that of an adult. Pip’s observances find their expression in childishness and the purity of innocence.

Part II: Setting the Scene by Mood, Description and Language

Hard Times opens uncompromisingly, with a scene that conjures up an image of a classroom that lacks warmth and all sense of humanity. Dickens refers to words and phrases that provide a specific image; words such as ‘monotonous vault’, in relation to the classroom itself. The very idea of monotony seems to imply that the children are being subjected to, nay, force-fed, with a barrage of perpetually boring information. Rather than create the image of a class eager for knowledge and learning, Dickens has introduced us to a stuffy atmosphere which is characterised by its lack of variety. Indeed, the actual portrayal of the initial character is even worse and, once again, the Dickensian tendency to stereotype people and places is very much to the fore. The reader soon begins to accept that this awful setting and this intolerable man go together hand in hand. It is as though the two were made for one another. Dickens uses some vivid descriptions to bring his character to life. We have the ‘square forefinger’, the ‘square wall of a forehead’ and even those unforgettable eyes which ‘found commodious cellarage in two dark caves’. These are also interesting references to the speaker’s mouth, which is ‘wide, thin and hard set’. The speaker’s voice being ‘inflexible, dry and dictatorial’. Dickens is so realistic in his portrayal that the reader can almost feel the stifling confinement which permeates this whole scene, although the reader has an advantage over the schoolchildren in that he or she can put down the book at any time. Therefore perhaps we should reserve some sympathy for these beleaguered pupils, who have to endure the droning solemnity in which they find themselves. Description, mood, language; all three facets intertwine and come together to form a combination that provides the reader with a very effective and capable interpretation of the environs of the novel and the activity which is taking place within it.

The opening lines of Great Expectations, on the other hand, lack the harsh, grim realities portrayed in Hard Times, but things are far from ideal. A strong sense of independence and detachment runs through the text, with the young Pip coming across as a very lonely and isolated child. The fact that he never knew his parents is suggestive of the book’s overwhelming air of restlessness, melancholy, sadness and discontent. The reader takes pity on Pip as he tells of how he has never seen a single photograph of his parents, and of how he has formulated in his mind some kind of childish perception of their personalities, obtained from the inscriptions found on their tombstones which lie in the churchyard. The fact that Pip has lost five of his brothers also contributes to the sense of loneliness. The manner in which he perceives their tombstones to be akin to ‘five little stone lozenges’ reveals his simple and unsullied honesty. Only a child would compare a tombstone with a sweet, and only a child would view this devastating legacy of familial bereavement with such comical innocence. As this passage develops, the surroundings become isolated and bleak, with the sea coming in for particular attention: ‘the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing’. Amongst all the isolation and the ferocity of the elements, we find Pip, frightened and alone. This atmosphere reaches a climax when the young lad is suddenly threatened by the approach of someone who is later revealed to be an escaped convict.

Part III: Being Introduced to the Characters

As already explained above, Hard Times begins immediately with a character expressing himself verbally and Dickens wastes little time in bringing his first character to life. The speaker is obviously the most dominant individual in the opening passages, not merely as a result of his forthright and determined manner, but also for the simple fact that his appearance seems to convey a sense of prestige. The speaker takes centre-stage, whilst the other two adults present in the classroom are subjected to his monotonous dialogue in much the same way as the children. The speaker even causes them to back away slightly, as though even they are slightly nervous and wary of his authoritarianism. Finally, the children are portrayed as totally submissive to the demands of their superiors, being compared to ‘little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.’ Thus, the poor mites are treated like mere objects rather than as human beings with differing needs and demands.

At the start of Great Expectations Pip is the only character described, in this case with Dickens adopting the role himself. Other people are mentioned by Pip, such as his deceased family members, but it is not until the final paragraph that another character is introduced into the text. With Pip appearing so very small and vulnerable, there is a complete contrast between this and the rather threatening image of a man who bursts on the scene from among the tombstones.

Part IV: Recognising Themes and Plots Which May Emerge Later On

The opening page of Hard Times does actually contain elements which give the reader some idea of how the book is likely to develop. With the speaker appearing so highly dislikable, the reader may begin to harbour a secret wish to see this unpalatable specimen knocked from his pedestal of superficial respectability and duly punished for his flippant, bigoted and over-bearing nature. Few readers would take sides with the speaker against the children, unless of course one has certain similarities with this character. Therefore, perhaps the usual inclination is to feel pity for the children and excite one’s natural desire to see them finish the novel in a better position than that of their grim master. Indeed, the reader can probably guess that Dickens is likely to force the speaker to pay dearly for his pompous attitude, although we must remember that not all stories have a fairytale ending. But whilst the reader may well entertain a genuine hunger for justice, of course, in the long term we find ourselves entirely in the hands of the author.

Great Expectations may be interpreted rather differently. In this case the reader may begin to feel that Philip Pirrip requires a friend, someone he can love and respect and who can love and respect him in return. Rather than dislike this particular character, the reader dearly wants Pip to find satisfaction and the company which he is so cruelly denied. The speaker in Hard Times needs to be brought down a peg or two, but Pip cries out to be elevated beyond the confines of his sad and lonely existence. When, in the final paragraph of the book’s opening page, Pip is threatened by a stranger, the hope and trust which we place in Dickens to reward the youngster with love and affection appear to be dangerously threatened. Dickens has caused the reader to fear for the safety of the child, and this feeling is further strengthened when Pip is threatened directly.

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