The Search for Utopia: Charles Dickens' Hard Times and Alfred Tennyson's Mariana

By Vanessa M. Braganza
2014, Vol. 6 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |

Charles Dickens’ Hard Times and Alfred Tennyson’s poem Mariana both invite readers to explore notions of utopia and the ideal setting for human beings. In a remarkably similar rhetorical process, both works present readers with a pair of antithetical settings alongside tragic and comic elements that highlight them as non-ideal. Both writers employ Hazlitt’s principle that “man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be” (269). By inflecting these settings with tragedy and humor respectively, both works suggest that humankind’s proper place in the universe “ought to be” between the two extremes presented. Uncannily, this idealization process seems to bridge the chasm between Tennyson and Dickens’ works – romantic and realist; poetry and prose; comic and tragic – the two writers converge elegantly in their parallel search for humankind’s place in the universe.

Hard Times: Antithetical Settings in Realist Prose

Dickens’ Hard Times depicts urban and rural settings in tragic and humorous contexts respectively in order to demonstrate that neither of these antitheses is ideal. The perturbing filth of urban Coketown described in Book II, Chapter 1 contrasts with the comical state of disarray to which the wilderness reduces Mrs. Sparsit in Book II, Chapter 11. The tragedy of Coketown and the comedy of Mrs. Sparsit’s misadventure pointedly indicate that neither of these antithetical settings constitute humankind’s ideal environment. While Dickens fails to specify the setting which he believes to be ideal, he suggests that humankind’s ideal setting lies between unsatisfactory rural and urban extremes.

Portrait of Charles Dickens

Dickens’ description of industrial Coketown in Chapter 1 of Book II conveys not only its physical ugliness, but its tragic effect upon the lives of its working class “Hands.” The apparent reduction of working class people to much-abused gears in a heartlessly churning industrial system indicates that urban settings are not ideal. The narrator describes repulsively how “The whole town seemed to be frying in oil. There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere,” immediately setting the olfactory sense on edge (112). Following closely on the heels of this revolting stench, the statement that “the steam-engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills throughout their many stories oozed and trickled it” suggests the dehumanization of the Hands by including them in a sequence of items which otherwise consists exclusively of industrial equipment (112). Kearns observes Dickens’ tragic dehumanization of the working class by referring to them as “Hands,” noting that “the artist has a vested interest in this [metonymy]” (864). This use of a fragment of the human anatomy to represent a collective demographic suggests that the Hands are not considered complete human beings, but disembodied sources of manual labor. Not only are the Hands unseparated syntactically from manual labor and inanimate machinery, but they exist in a town which is “impervious to the sun’s rays,” and thus usually devoid of an element which is germane to the development of any form of life (111).

Even on the occasion that the sun shone, it “was less kind to Coketown than hard frost, and rarely looked intently into any of its closer regions without engendering more death than life” (112). Despite the absence or harshness of sunlight, “…no temperature made the melancholy mad elephants more mad or more sane.Their wearisome heads went up and down at the same rate, in hot weather and cold, wet weather and dry, fair weather and foul” (112). Clearly, the Hands operate as incessantly and mechanically as the machinery itself, despite a lack of the elements typically necessary to sustain animate life. The continual “up and down” movement of their heads is strongly reminiscent of the pumping of a bellows or an engine in a factory. Furthermore, the synecdochical practice of referring to the working class by the only part of their physiognomy which is used in their industrial occupation – their “Hands” – demonstrates that they are only valued in this urban setting as a source of labor. Even the daily activities of young Coketown boys who row along the river which is “thick and black with dye” conveys the inevitability of grime and pollution in this industrial town (112).

The simultaneous profusion of filth and dehumanization of the Hands evokes readers’ disgust and sympathy for the factory workers. By depicting the tragedy of both of these factors in a way that is poignant and sympathetic to the human condition in Coketown, Dickens indicates that urban settings are not ideal. Indeed, Raj goes so far as to classify Coketown as a “dystopia,” meaning very specifically a non-deal place (91). Raj reasons that “if ‘utopia’ refers to an ‘ideal’ place, ‘dystopia’ refers to a place where everything is imperfect” (91). It is telling that scholars historically recognize Coketown not only as a distasteful setting, but one in which “a natural world [metamorphoses] into an inferno” (96). Thus, Dickens’ tragic portrayal of this industrial setting has rendered it so inhuman as to be the very opposite of ideal. Since this urban setting tragically reduces human beings to automatons existing in squalid living conditions, it is decidedly not an ideal setting. However, Dickens contrasts the tragedy of living conditions in urban Coketown with the comical rural displacement of Mrs. Sparsit in order to show that rural settings are equally non-ideal.

Dickens’ comic treatment of Mrs. Sparsit’s rural misadventures in Book II, Chapter 11 indicates that purely rural settings are not ideal either. He decidedly takes advantage of Hazlitt’s belief that man is able to distinguish between “what things are, and what they should be,” as every aspect of Mrs. Sparsit’s physical appearance is other than what it should be after she treks through the woods. Comically, her “white stockings [are] of many colours, green predominating” (205). Implicit in this statement is the fact that Mrs. Sparsit’s stockings are supposed to be white, a clean and pure color. Nature has soiled them, making them impure and wild to the eye. This suggests that the rural setting is at odds with, and has somehow contaminated the civilized dignity of Mrs. Sparsit’s person. This discordance between wilderness and civilization is at the very root of Dickens’ suggestion that rural settings are not ideal. Further evidence of the “wildness” of Mrs. Sparsit’s physical state includes the many caterpillars which have “slung themselves, in hammocks of their own making, from various parts of her dress” (205).

Strangely, had these hammocks of caterpillars been replaced with ropes of diamonds or pearls, the resulting description would yield a luxurious and perfectly “civilized” picture. Yet, diamonds and pearls are undeniably no less a product of nature than caterpillars are. The pivotal difference between ropes of jewels and hammocks of caterpillars is the extent to which humans are able to control these products of nature: Mrs. Sparsit can exert no control at all over the caterpillars with which her dress is bedizened. Had Dickens substituted jewels for caterpillars, however, Mrs. Sparsit would have retained control over the element of nature with which her dress was adorned. Very specifically, it is Mrs. Sparsit’s loss of control over the elements of nature with which she is involved which make this extravagant description of her humorous. Voss echoes this idea, observing that “here the apparent order of which Mrs. Sparsit is one part collapses” and she “undergoes a transformation” as a result (40). This “transformation” is ostensibly comical. Man’s loss of control over elements of nature is the variable which classifies particular elements of nature as wild, and can have a decivilizing effect on humans according to Dickens’ example. Indeed, Mrs. Sparsit’s loss of control over the elements has reduced to such a wild state that even caterpillars cannot distinguish her from the surrounding wilderness and drape themselves indiscriminately from her dress. Her “limp and streaming state” identifies the rain as another natural element over which she has no control in this situation (206). She is at the mercy of her temporary rural setting, which does not contain such civilized commodities as city blocks full of boarding houses or shops selling parasols. Dickens suggests that nature, insofar as it remains within the bounds of human control, may be considered civilized and conducive to human flourishing. However, as Mrs. Sparsit’s plight demonstrates, it is impossible to retain complete control over the elements of nature in the “wilderness” of a purely rural setting. Indeed, the loss of control over the elements in a purely rural setting appears to have at least a superficially decivilizing effect on humans, as evident by Mrs. Sparsit’s “limp and streaming state.” Therefore, purely rural settings are portrayed as non-ideal.

Dickens implicitly asserts that urban settings are not ideal by depicting the tragic dehumanization of the Hands and the polluted conditions of industrial Coketown. Conversely, he demonstrates that rural settings are equally non-ideal through his comic portrayal of the decivilizing effect which Mrs. Sparsit’s loss of control over nature has on her physical appearance. Bornstein, too, notes that Dickens “idealizes neither the chaotic growth of a wholly natural forest nor the ordered mechanism of a wholly artificial city” (159). Instead, he “attacks the various forms of Gradgrindery either as corruptions of the garden state or as mechanical parodies of the other extreme, the unregulated forest” (159). It is evident by this statement that Bornstein also recognizes Dickens’ portrayal of unsatisfactory “extremes,” both rural and urban. On one hand, the city of Coketown is tragically “corrupt”; on the other, the wilderness is comically “unregulated.” Neither one is humankind’s ideal setting. Further, readers may only conclude that Dickens’ conception of the ideal setting lies somewhere in between the rural and urban extremes presented. Perhaps Dickens’ ideal setting is a suburban one wherein man may retain control over elements of nature while enjoying its freedom and delights. Along similar lines, Bornstein argues that Dickens suggests that readers should “blend art and nature in their own characters” (159). Tennyson uses a similar idealizing process to contrast non-ideal interior and exterior settings in Mariana.

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