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  • Martha Nussbaum on Dickens's Hard Times
  • Paulette Kidder

At the heart of Martha Nussbaum's work in capability ethics is a rejection of utilitarianism. Nussbaum has repeatedly recounted a pivotal moment in Dickens's Hard Times (1854), in which the young Sissy Jupe delivers an innocent but devastating critique of the utilitarian system.1 Nussbaum's most extended and compelling reading of Hard Times appears in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life.2 Nussbaum convincingly shows that Dickens's novel is a "deep attack" on utilitarianism, going to the heart of the assumption that the human good consists in maximizing the satisfaction of preferences of the greatest aggregate of persons.

In what follows, I will review Nussbaum's philosophical reading of the novel and its critique of utilitarianism, and then return to Hard Times to show that Nussbaum has systematically omitted references to the Biblical themes and references that pervade the novel. Arguing that Dickens's attack on utilitarianism draws much of its power from the resonance of these historically rooted symbols of transcendence, I will conclude with a reflection on the reasons for Nussbaum's avoidance of these themes in her own reading of the book.

Hard Times, which focuses on a set of characters living in the polluted and class-divided manufacturing city of "Coketown," is known as Dickens's most polemical novel. The novel announces its central theme immediately in the opening speech by Thomas Gradgrind to the young students of the Gradgrind School: "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach [End Page 417] these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else . . . ."3

From the youngest age, the children in Gradgrind's school are taught to avoid wonder and imagination and only to focus on science and mathematics—the study of what is observable and measurable. This education leaves his two eldest children, Tom and Louisa, miserably unequipped for the choices they face as adults. Young Tom Gradgrind grows up to be an undisciplined wastrel, incurring gambling debts that lead him to embezzle money and then to frame a factory worker, Stephen Blackpool, for the crime. Louisa Gradgrind endures a miserable marriage to her father's wealthy friend, Josiah Bounderby.

At the moral center of the novel is Sissy Jupe, a girl who proves impervious to Gradgrind's educational system. Sissy, the daughter of a horse trainer who works for Sleary's Circus, is abandoned by her father and taken into the Gradgrind home. Sharing the moral center with Sissy is Stephen Blackpool, a weaver whose honesty and conviction cause him to run afoul of both his employer Bounderby and the demagogic Slackbridge, organizer for the trade union.

In her reading of Hard Times, Nussbaum identifies four elements of utilitarianism: commensurability, aggregation, maximizing, and exogenous preferences, all of which are both dramatized in the novel and critiqued by it (PJ, p. 14). Commensurability means that "all the valuable things under consideration [are regarded as] valuable because they contain some one thing that itself varies only in quantity" (PJ, p. 14). Characters that Dickens presents as memorable individuals are seen by Gradgrind's system as "parcels of human nature." Students in Gradgrind's School are called by number instead of name, and the workers of Coke-town are seen as "hands and stomachs," and are likened to "ants and beetles." Individuality is erased by what Nussbaum terms Gradgrind's "abstracting mathematical mind" (PJ, p. 21).

Aggregation, the second utilitarian element, means that data about individual lives is pooled, "without regarding the boundaries between lives as especially salient for the purposes of choice" (p. 14). Louisa Gradgrind is taught, for example, to view the working classes as "Something to be worked so much and paid so much, and there ended; something to be infallibly settled by laws of supply and demand; something that blundered against those laws, and floundered into difficulty; something that was a little pinched when wheat was dear, and overate itself when wheat was cheap . . . But, she had scarcely thought more of separating [End Page 418] [the people of Coketown] into units, than of separating the sea itself into its...


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pp. 417-426
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