A similar opening is used by Barry Hines in ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’. He too emphasises the dullness of the lives surrounding the characters. ‘There were no curtains up. The window was a hard-edged block of colour of night sky. Inside the bedroom the darkness was of a gritty texture. The wardrobe and bed were blurred shapes in the darkness. Silence.’ The opening paragraph shows no sign of life or light, just dullness and darkness, like the people’s lives were.
The titles of each chapter are relevant to Dickens’ message he’s putting across in the book. The first chapter is called ‘One thing needful”, which tells of how children are taught the necessity of facts. It could mean the ‘one thing needful’ is facts alone. The second chapter is called ‘Murder of the Innocents’. This title gives a suggestion of what’s to come. The title tells us that Dickens views the methods of teaching used at that time were a crime, for use of the word ‘murdering’. Also, ‘murdering’ has been used because life has lost – not in the literal sense of course, because the children are still alive – but in the sense that zest for life is being lost, as well as loss of imagination, humour, animation, etc.
The fact that the Dickens has spelled ‘Innocents’ instead of ‘Innocence’ shows that many an innocent soul is being destroyed, it gives a better picture of what is going on. The fact that both words sound the same gives emphasis as to what exactly is being lost. There is a strong contrast between Sissy Jupe and Bitzer, two students in Gradgrind’s class. Sissy has only recently been added to the class, arriving from a life from the circus, where imagination and all things ‘fancy’ thrive. Bitzer, on the other hand, has been in Gradgrind’s class from the start, and therefore has Gradgrind’s principles and facts ground into him over a length of time. Bitzer’s utilitarian education is a complete success, whilst Sissy’s is a failure. An example of her failing and Bitzer succeeding is Gradgrind’s request of a definition of a horse. Sissy cannot give a definition, and therefore is failing in the utilitarian system of education. She blushes, showing colour, which is not apparent anywhere else in the room.
Sissy has already grown up in the circus, where play and imagination are encouraged. It is an environment which fosters emotions and compassionate behaviour. The circus is free and is not restricted to one area. With a free flowing imagination, it cannot suddenly be suppressed and sent into submission. Bitzer then churns out many facts about the horse making up a definition. Dickens talks about Sissy being at one end of the room, and the sunlight covering and radiating her, whilst Bitzer is at the other end of the room and only just catches the end.
‘The girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired that she seemed to receive a deeper more lustrous colour from the sun…….the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the same self-rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed.’ This tells me that Sissy has not yet had a chance for Gradgrind to drain her of colour and emotions, yet Bitzer, a frequent victim of Gradgrind’s lessons, has been drained of these qualities and colourless, dull facts have taken their place.
The environment in which people of the ‘Hard Times’ era grew up in was a very harsh and unfeeling and cold one. This was also true for Billy, his environment was similar to that of the Gradgrind children. They are stifled in their environment, prisoners of a world of utilitarianism. Gradgrind’s school is very plain and bare, Dickens describing it as a ‘monotonous vault’, and being ‘intensely whitewashed’.
For pupils having to learn in this kind of environment would be extremely boring, and no encouragement is given to exercise imagination, so it wouldn’t be exercised. And what Gradgrind is teaching will sink in more. The fact that they are referred to as numbers and not individuals – ‘Girl number twenty, a definition of a horse,’ makes the class seem like one big learning sponge, and in this environment they would not learn that anything else other that facts is important, which is exactly the message which Gradgrind is putting across.
The school and classrooms of Billy Casper do not faire much better than those in ‘Hard Times’. They too are plain, dull, and the school is generally enclosed. This negative aura would discourage the children from learning properly. Generally, a grim feeling of the environment is given to both places the novels are set in. Dickens names his fictional area ‘Coketown’, which says a lot about the image he is trying to portray. ‘Coke’ will make us think that it is a very typical industrial town, and the fact the product which they export is in the name of the city symbolises that it revolves around work, and making money, therefore having many self-seeking and money-hungry inhabitants. Coke is black, messy and generally an unfavourable substance. The fact that coke is incorporated into the name of the town represents what the town is like – dark and dirty. Dickens sees Coketown as oppressive and destructive; it is a prison from which no-one can escape:
‘ Nature was as strongly bricked out as the killing airs and gasses were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets… and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death. ‘ Nature is bricked out of Coketown. Dickens suggests that the heavy industrial domination of the town and people being confined from nature is unnatural. Factories produce ‘killing airs and gasses’ which produce ‘dead people’; life is being slowly drained from the people of Coketown – they are being murdered by industrialisation and the owners’ desires for profit.
Similar visions depicted by Barry Hines are given in ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, although there is another very different setting existing alongside the industrial one, a major difference in the two books which affects the outcome of Billy’s life greatly. Barry Hines suggests that the environment is responsible for shaping people’s behaviour. The grimness of the environment for Billy is brought across early in the book, as on the first line Hines describes the widow as a ‘hard edged block of colour against the night sky’ and the darkness in his bedroom having a ‘gritty texture’. By showing how close to Billy’s heart the aridity of the environment is gives a better impression as to why Billy is the way he is.
The bad side of Billy’s behaviour seems to have been affected by his bleak home and school and home environment. At home and school Billy is rude. An example of this is when he makes a ‘V’ sign at his mother, blows a raspberry and runs off. He does this for a reason, his mother and brother are very unreasonable people, almost perfect inadvertent products of utilitarianism. They show no (or very little) love or compassion for him, and only use him to benefit themselves. An example of this behaviour is when Billy’s own mother tries to force Billy to nip to the shop and buy her a packet of cigarettes, threatening him with violence if he does not do as she wishes. Billy is protesting that he will be late for school, and his mother does not care. Although he despises school, he has summoned the effort to get himself there, and his mother his severely discouraging him. With such disregard about his education from his mother, it will affect his views sincerely.
At the time of Billy’s childhood, the vast majority of boys were earmarked for industrial labour, most commonly working down the mines. This seemed to be the thing that Billy feared most – ending up working down ‘t’pit’. The fact that school offered almost zero alternative for a job or career must have affected Billy’s view on his education’s value. For example, when Billy is interviewed for career choices, he shows no interest or compassion. One word answers to all the questions asked and seems itching to get out of there to do better things, even though this in theory is really important.
However, in the natural environment Billy’s behaviour is completely different. Qualities not apparent in the urban environment shine in the natural one, such as patience, stealth, being hardworking, being athletically competent, being a good trainer, and having the ability to learn quickly and successfully. All these skills are reflected in the kestrel he trains in the fields, completely successfully and independently. When Billy has his daydream is assembly, the language is quite different from earlier in the book. Explicit detail is used in describing how he treats her and looks after her, and how he has educated himself for her.
This fully contrasts with the assembly episode in which it is wedged between, as the language is not very descriptive and emphasises fear and monotony. A good example of this is when the boy chosen to read an extract from the Bible telling us of a man who loses one of his 100 sheep, leaving 99 on the hillside to go in search of the solitary straying sheep. He finds it, and is more delighted in finding this one sheep than the fact the other 99 did not stray. The moral is that you should treat everyone as an individual and not generalise groups of people.