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What makes Dickens portrayal of the circus and its people so attractive?


The novel Hard Times was published in 1854 by Charles Dickens. Dickens was very interested in politics and social affairs and his novel targets the social ills in the lower, middle and upper classes of Britain. The novel could be read as a satirical criticism of England’s society. With characters built on a utilitarian philosophy and idealistic view on facts. Mr Thomas Gradgrind, his children (Thomas Jr and Louisa) and Mr Josiah Bounderby are all characters originally brought up with these beliefs, they do what benefits them and make decisions based on fact.  The circus plays an important contrast in the novel’s fact versus fancy dichotomy.


Firstly, Dickens appeals to the benefits of the circus by contrasting the seemingly selfish ideals of the Gradgrinds. The utilitarian method is largely represented in the children as they were brought up with this idealistic philosophy and who were ‘only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs’.  This example displays their fact-based thought process because they understand the complex structure of the animal but fail to pay respect to the fact that each cow is a unique living organism. This contrasts the way Charles Dickens describes the circus as all members care for animals and their well being. On page 280, Sleary the leader of the circus is proposed a large sum of money but he says ‘very well, Thquire; the if you’ll only give a horthe-riding, a bethpeak, whenever you can, you’ll more than balanthe the account’.  The refusal to take the money for himself is directly opposing the utilitarian and capitalistic philosophy put forward by the Gradgrinds and Bounderby.


 Dickens makes the circus seem attractive through the way it counters the orderly, efficient world of Gradgrind and Bounderby. How can you mathematically calculate the value of workers that, ‘dance upon rolling caskets, stand upon bottles, catch knives and balls, twirl hand-basins, ride upon anything, jump over everything, and stick at nothing.’ This type of work does not agree with Gradgrind and Bounderby’s fact-based philosophy. Gradgrind assumes that because the value of the circus cannot be calculated, it must mean it has no value. However, the circus has a very strong value in the novel as it represents imagination, and brings life to monotonous Coketown.


Dickens makes the circus people seem attractive through the way it shows relationships between the circus characters. The circus characters have ‘an untiring readiness to help and pity one another’ which is absent from the world of Gradgrind and Bounderby. Dickens highlights the compassion of the circus characters as their most valuable trait and it is seen as an attractive trait as Gradgrind and Bounderby fail to have compassion for any of their surrounding characters.


At the end of the novel, Dickens indites that all characters within the novel do not get a happy ending, however Sissy Jupe, daughter of a circus performer, does. She gets to have children and it is no surprise when it’s realised that Sissy was the only person explicitly mentioned in the ending to have been raised in the circus and without the utilitarian views on society. This is definitely an attractive outcome for her and further cements the notion that circus folk live better and more fulfilling lives.


Dickens uses the circus to represent amusement. As Sleary says on page 45, ‘People mutht be amuthed, … they can’t be alwayth a working, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a learning.’ The amusement of the circus counters Gradgrind and Bounderby’s world of ‘facts, facts, facts.’ Dickens shows us that Coketown is completely saturated with cold, hard facts, and so the circus being a place of amusement, livens up the town as an antidote to Gradgrindism, which makes it seem very attractive.


Dickens shows the attractiveness of the circus people through their sacrifices for Sissy. On page 45, Sleary says to Sissy, “You’ll make your fortune, I hope, and none of our poor folkth will ever trouble you.” This shows Sleary is sacrificing his relationship with Sissy for her own good. Circus life is brutal and comes with bruises and oils, so Sleary selflessly releases Sissy hoping she will have a better quality life with Gradgrind’s education.


Dickens makes the circus people seem attractive through Sissy’s compassion for her father using the nine oils. On page 282, Sleary, talking about the nine oils, says, ‘there ith a love in the world, not all Thelf-interetht after all, but thomething very different.’ Sissy represents compassion and this is shown through her keeping of her abandoned father’s nine oils. This compassion has always been the thing needed to counter the problems of the industrial world. The circus people have deposited their best qualities into the industrial world and made the place more human.


In conclusion, the circus provides a contrasting alternative to the Gradgrinds’ utilitarian method because when the circus focuses on the morality and compassion behind an action the Gradgrinds will decide with logic and rational thinking. By contrasting the bleak view on reality, the circus provides the perfect example to show the reader of the negative effects of the Gradgrind's utilitarian method and this in comparison makes the circus seem attractive to the reader.


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