Setting in Charles Dickens' "Hard Times"

Term Paper, 2007
19 Pages, Grade: 2,7

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Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Setting in Narrative Texts

3. The World of Facts
3.1 Hard Times for These Times
3.2 Coketown – A Triumph of Fact
3.3 Bounderby – A Man of Coketown

4. Between Heaven and Hell

5. The World of Fancy - The Circus, A Circle in a Square City

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography

Primary literature

Secondary literature

Evidences of citations from the primary text are made directly behind the relevant phrase(s) in brackets. For all citations from secondary literature footnotes are used.

For the sake of fluent reading in cases when both genders are meant, only the masculine forms of the particular pronouns are used.

That means, for instance, “his” instead of “his/her”.

1. Introduction

Charles Dickens was born on the 7th of February 1812 and the British Empire was about to become the greatest empire on the planet.[1] Unfortunately not all citizens have profited from this development. Dickens himself had to quit school and started his work in Warren’s Blacking Factory, a period in his life which had – by his own comments – a huge impact on his lifetime and on his works thus, too.[2] His biographer and friend John Forster also points out this factor.[3] This assumption correlates with the sociology of the Frenchman Hippolyte Taine (1828 – 1893) who has said that each individual is determined by the three factors: race, milieu and moment. Stronger related to literary criticism Wilhelm Scherer (1841 –1886) had searched explicitly in the lives of authors for reasons which explain their works.[4]

Especially Hard Times which was written in 1854 is strongly suitable because it mirrors these bad experiences Dickens made during his life.[5] It reflects firstly the current conflict between the class of the working people (proletariat) and the smaller class of the manufacturers (bourgeoisie), secondly the sympathy for the first group resulting from his own youth. In a letter to Charles Knight (17th March 1854) he wrote: “The English are, so far as I know, the hardest worked people on whom the sun shines. […] They are born at the oar, and they live and die at it.”[6] Hans Ulrich Seeber adds that English society decayed into two parts which know almost nothing about each other.[7] Dickens wanted to give a signal which should wake up both sides to stop this development before a revolution would destroy much more.[8]

To guarantee an impact on his readers it seems obvious that he has to describe the milieu and the moment of the story in a prominent way. Thus, especially the setting of Hard Times is worth to take a closer look at.

Besides the economic discrepancy between the two classes Dickens adds the contrast between the world of the people who see only facts as the only reality and the world of the group of people who hold up another than the real world – the realm of fancy.

With the aim to characterize and separate the antagonists from each other Dickens uses among other things the setting which offers him the opportunity to do so in an indirect way. This transfers the task of interpreting the hard times and their causes to the reader’s mind.

2. Setting in Narrative Texts

In most books which are concerned with the analysis of narrative texts the field of setting is often one which finds only little attention. “[F]or a long time, the general assumption was that a verbal narrative's setting simply is not as important as its temporal framework and chronology.”[9]

This belief is outdated. Not at last social/industrial novels like Hard Times or Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell could only function with the background of the time they were written in.

This importance of setting can easily underlined by the determinants introduced by Hippolyte Taine. In relation to setting especially milieu and moment are decisive. Hence the environment of an individual has got active influence on his imprinting – it is forming his character.

M. H. Abrams distinguishes setting into “the general locale, historical time, and social circumstances in which its action occurs”[10] and “the setting of a single episode or scene”[11]. This sounds rather abstract but it covers a huge variety of different aspects. Every little detail, such as weather, houses, a whole town and its countryside or the interior of a single room can tell the reader something important about the person who lives there.[12] Besides the simple arrangement of, for instance, a room, it is also of great importance how the narrator presents it. An apartment by night looks different than at noon. Hence it definitely depends on the narrator how he presents it. “Setting can reveal the author’s view of the world […]”[13], as Richard Gill explains. This is exactly the case when we look at Hard Times. For an author like Dickens it was of extreme importance to convey a critical view on the time he was living in.[14]

He “uses setting to show how a character is situated”[15]. Gerhard Hoffmann speaks of gestimmter Raum as a symbol of analogy between space and character.[16] Here the room/space has got a symbolic meaning which can contrast it with another place. [17] Moreover place is “Aktionsraum[18] where the action which “must have a specific locale to occur in”[19] happens and of course, a character needs a place to live in. It forms among other things his identity[20] as a “’lived space’ or erlebter Raum[21]. Finally the setting “is established by fixed descriptions or by indirect references in the narrative or in the speeches of characters”[22].


[1] Franz Lenze, “Mutter des Imperiums,” GEO EPOCHE 18 (2005): 140.

[2] Annegret Maack, Charles Dickens, Epoche-Werk-Wirkung (München: Beck, 1991) 37.

[3] Maack 38.

[4] B. Jeßing, et al. Einführung in die Neuere deutsche Literaturwissenschaft. 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2007)


[5] Maack 38.

[6] G. Storey, et al. The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 7 (1853-1855) (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 294.

[7] Hans Ulrich Seeber, “Der Sozialroman,” Englische Literaturgeschichte, ed. Hans Ulrich Seeber. 4th ed. (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2004) 277.

[8] Maack 126, 128.

[9] Manfred Jahn, 2005, Narratology, A Guide to the Theory of Narrative, English Department, University of Cologne, <

[10] M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th ed. (Orlando: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998) 284.

[11] Abrams 284.

[12] Richard Gill, Mastering English Literature (London: Macmillian, 1990) 106.

[13] Gill 111.

[14] Maack 126.

[15] Gill 109.

[16] Winfried Spiegel, Der Raum des Fortschritts und der Unnatur, Die Industriestadt im viktorianischen Roman (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 1992) 136.

[17] Birgit Haupt, “Zur Analyse des Raums,” Einführung in die Erzähltextanalyse, Kategorien, Modelle, Probleme, ed. Peter Wenzel. (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag, 2004) 85.

[18] Haupt 72.

[19] Leonard Lutwack, The Role of Place in Literature, (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1984) 17.

[20] Lutwack 17.

[21] Lutwack 27.

[22] Lutwack 74.

19 of 19 pages


Setting in Charles Dickens' "Hard Times"
College  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
The Social Novel in 19th Century England
Catalog Number
ISBN (Book)
File size
555 KB
Setting, England, Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Schwere Zeiten, Industrialisierung, Streiks, Gewerkschaften, Stadtleben, 19. Jahrhundert, Josiah Bounderby, Coketown, Circus, Zirkus, Thomas Gradgrind
Quote paper
Karsten Tischer (Author), 2007, Setting in Charles Dickens' "Hard Times", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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