I am doing a blog series on Novels Every Christian Should Consider Reading.
Louis Markos, professor in English and scholar in residence at Houston Baptist University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities.
His books include From Achilles to Christ (IVP), Heaven and Hell: Visions of the Afterlife in the Western Poetic Tradition (W&S), Apologetics for the 21st Century (Crossway), On the Shoulders of Hobbits: The Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis (Moody), and Literature: A Student’s Guide (Crossway).
Not all of the novels of Charles Dickens are 800 pages long! In fact, my favorite Dickens novel, Hard Times, comes in just under 300 pages. Its relatively short length likely has to do with its simple, parable-like structure. As the titles of its three books (“Sowing,” “Reaping,” “Garnering”) make clear, Hard Times illustrates and dramatizes the biblical teaching that we reap that which we sow.
Which is not to say that the novel is schematic or overly moralistic. The characters that Dickens creates are flesh-and-blood people who make agonizing decisions, and for whom we come to care deeply. The flawed protagonist, Thomas Gradgrind, is a retired merchant who runs a model school that trains children to think only in terms of facts. Employing the same utilitarian educational system for his eldest son (Tom) and daughter (Louisa), he forbids them to read poetry or fiction and roots out of them all fanciful, romantic, or heroic notions.
Though Gradgrind is neither a bad man nor an uncaring father, his failure to nurture his children’s hearts and souls has disastrous results; both Tom and Louisa grow up to be stunted adults devoid of real human feeling. Lacking not only a moral center but the kinds of feelings that must ever accompany virtuous behavior, Tom, without suffering a stitch of remorse, first manipulates his doting sister and then robs a bank and frames the crime on an innocent worker. When his father asks him why he has done these terrible things, Tom appeals to the law of averages: given so many workers, so many are bound to be dishonest. Sadly, tragically, Gradgrind must see the bitter fruit of his utilitarian ideals.
The true heart of the novel, however, concerns Louisa’s disastrous marriage to a filthy capitalist, Bounderby, who is thirty years her senior. When Gradgrind passes on Bounderby’s proposal to Louisa, she desires to share with her father what is in her heart but neither of them knows how to communicate on an emotional level. Though they both know Louisa does not love Bounderby, Gradgrind brushes this aside, counseling her to make her decision based on facts and statistics. Her marriage is a loveless one, leaving the emotionally immature Louisa prey to an amoral rake, with whom she nearly runs off.
At the last second, she relents (this is, after all, a Victorian novel!), and, instead, runs home to her father’s house. He greets her at the door, only to have her fall, in an insensible heap, at his feet. Although Gradgrind is humbled by the experience and comes to realize that there was something missing in his educational scheme, he proves unable to mend the damage that has been done. Bounderby rejects Gradgrind’s plea to give Louisa some time apart from him and casts her aside for good. Louisa never remarries and lives as a childless, isolated spinster.
The fates of Gradgrind, Tom, and Louisa might suggest that Hard Times is a gloomy novel, but Dickens is careful to contrast their stories with that of a troupe of circus people who, though they lack facts, are rich in love, warmth, and joy. Through them Dickens teaches us that there are aspects of our lives and ours souls that cannot be so easily weighed and measured.