Symbolic Christianity in Dickens’ Treatment of Utilitarianism

April 10, 2021 by Essay Writer

In Dickens’s Hard Times, Christianity is often alluded to both symbolically and literally. Because of the time period in which the novel was written, the presence of these religious themes are not surprising, but the way Dickens presents these allusions, sometimes with an air of humor and cynicism, is unique.

Many Bible stories are incorporated into the stories of separate characters in the book, and Bible happenings or quotes are paralleled in the happenings of Coketown. Both Rachael and Stephan can be seen as Jesus figures, Rachael because she always cares for others and is Stephan’s light and love, and Stephan because he is, in a sense, a martyr at the hands of the upper class (Bounderby, Tom and others). Sissy can be seen as an angel figure, because she brings light and love to Louisa and Jane Gradgrind. Many characters, especially those like Stephan, Rachael and Sissy, quote bible passages, such as “Do unto others as you would do unto me”, which is Sissy’s answer to a statistics question at the McChoakumchild School.

Many other allusions to Christianity are placed inside the text, hidden in descriptions and passive passages rather than in dialogue or action passages. These are the allusions that add to the overall tone of the novel. Some are even referred to in chapter titles, as in Chapter I of Book the First, “The One Thing Needful”. This refers to the story in the Gospel of Luke in which Jesus praises Mary for valuing God as the “one thing needful” over the trivialities of everyday life. Along with providing an immediate idea of the future religious allusions that may be used in the book, this chapter title sets a major theme of the novel: the idea that facts are, to Gradgrind, Bounderby and other characters, held to be as important as God, the one “needful” thing to be remembered and followed, and be valued above everyday life. Similarly, an Anglican prayer is inserted into a description of Coketown “…the McChoakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchasable in the cheapest market or saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.” (Bk the 1st; Ch. V; pg 37-38). The ending line, “…world without end, Amen”, is the ending line of many Anglican prayers. This, like the chapter title, helps to glorify fact to a godlike level, and sets it as a dogmatic presence in Coketown, more important and adhered to than religion itself.

For the most part, Christian references are embedded in descriptions of Coketown and the fact-based values that many of the characters hold dear. These references exalt Fact and utilitarianism to an almost god-like status, held dearer in some characters’ minds than religion itself. “A town so sacred in fact, and so triumphant in its assertion, of course it got on well? Why no…who belonged to the eighteen (religious) denominations? Because, whoever did, the laboring people did not…” (Book the first: Ch. V; pg. 38). This quote alludes to the fact that religion is not held in as high a value for most Coketown citizens as the utilitarian view of working and production. Furthermore, for the higher society men such as Gradgrind and Bounderby, religion is idle and not factually based, and is therefore not worth spending time on. Fact is much more important. Overall, this affects the tone of the novel by causing it to adopt an almost reverent view of hard fact, as though that is the true religion of Coketown. Dickens often hovers on the edge of satirical with his reverent references to the glory of fact, for example, Gradgrind uses “fact forbid” instead of God forbid or Heaven forbid; and the utilitarian characters ardently adhere to and defend fact to the point of stupidity; they are ridiculous in their earnest love of fact.

This use of satire and exaggeration backs up Dickens’s protest of the utilitarianism and class politics displayed by many of his characters, and, indeed, the city of Coketown itself. Hard Times is, above all else, a social commentary novel, and Dickens’s use of Christian allusions to glorify fact gives the reader an insight into the minds of his characters and helps with an understanding of Dickens’s disgust with the prevalent ideas of the time period. Additionally, the blind glorification of utilitarianism in the face of poverty, repression, and immorality makes the characters and ideas seem all the more inappropriate and ugly.

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