“Domestic ideology, or the cult of domesticity, can be defined as a series of related ideas that characterized the family home as the particular domain of the woman, that idealized the woman in the home (the angel in house) as the centre of spiritual and moral goodness for the nuclear family, and that based these ideas in the belief that women were innately weaker—both physically and intellectually— and less capable of taking care of themselves in the rough and tumble public sphere. Thus, women needed constant protection.” as written in Women’s Sphere and the Emergence of the Women’s Rights Movement. Such domestic ideology or cult of domesticity was prevalent in the nineteenth century in the United States and Great Britain or in the Victorian era and primarily designed for the upper class. We can see traces of it in Charles Dickens’ ‘Hard Times’ published in 1854 which highlights the social and economic pressures of the time. As stated by Dr Andrzej Diniejko “In Hard Times human relationships are contaminated by economics. The principles of the ‘dismal science’ led to the formation of a selfish and atomistic society.”
The socio-economic desires of the inhabitants of Coketown, the setting of the novel, produces an ugly pollution that infiltrates their own homes and social institutions. The Victorian model of gender was one such situation. As stated by Mariarosa Dalla Costa “With the advent of the capitalist mode of production, then, women were relegated to a condition of isolation, enclosed within the family cell, dependent in every aspect on men.” In Jane Austen’s ‘Pride And Prejudice’ the idea of marriage solely revolves around providing the women financial security. Dickens’ failure to create a strong likeable female protagonist or a credible mother figure in ‘Hard Times’ itself points out the condition of women at the time. Mrs. Gradgrind is a transparent character in the novel, trivial and represented as more an object than a person. She remains under the realm of her husband’s system of facts and even tries to express a sense of loss within this realm on her death bed. She is referred to as a “feminine dormouse” and “bundle of shawls” in the novel focusing the reader’s attention to her absence in the text as a symbol of Domestic Ideology. Her frivolity is elucidated in the fact that the cause of her death and even her first name are unknown to the readers. We could relate this to the fact that her illness kept her from fulfilling her role as ‘the light of the home’ and a ‘true wife’ who was supposed to be the centre of the household which led to her being a transparent character. According to the Domestic Ideology that prevailed at the time, all women were to devote themselves to unpaid domestic labour which arose from the complete financial dependence of a woman on her husband. Her death could be linked to Mr. Gradgrind’s power. Jean Ferguson Carr states that Dickens’ resisting implication that Gradgrind’s intellectual system of power has something to do with the oppressed status of his wife.
Gradgrind trained his daughter Louisa to only think of facts and isolated her in his masculine realm. She showed symptoms of a cultural dissatisfaction and finally had a meltdown, in a dramatic scene, before her father. She physically falls to the ground which symbolizes the failure of Gradgrind’s entire system leading to Mr. Gradgrind’s transformation thus redemption in the course of the novel. Louisa’s unquestioned acceptance of her father’s system and advise could be seen as an evidence of a man’s authority over his daughter or her being a submissive figure adhering to Domestic Ideology or both. Louisa tried to be an ideal daughter, sister and wife hinting at a woman’s image and society’s (and consequently her own) expectations of her. Her inability to do so suggests that her factual knowledge and constant exposure to industrialisation and Utilitarianism prevented her from developing her ‘angelic’ potential. Peterson’s Magazine writes “perfection of womanhood is the wife and mother”. Gradgrind’s family in the novel is the only complete family with a wife and five children apart from Cecilia’s families i.e. the circus and marital. Thus Louisa’s family or marriage was an unhappy one. When her husband Mr. Bounderby confronts Mr. Gradgrind about the same he refers to her almost as a commodity that was purchased giving the readers insight into the patriarchal eye. Bounderby creates a false childhood and pretends to be a self-made man. According to Richard Fabrizio’s ‘Language And The Psychopathology’, “what Bounderby does is replace his ‘ideal’ family-the gentle mother and good husband – with an ideal ‘no-family’ in mythic terms.” With each retelling of his fictive biography he destroys his female side – a kind of gynecide.
Cecilia or sissy was abandoned by her father who worked at the circus. She was taken in by Mr. Gradgrind and trained under his system of facts which focused on hard facts and statistics and left no room for human emotion or imagination. He thought she would be an example of the consequences of ‘fancy’ or wondering to his children. Ironically, in the end she turns out to be the one who ‘saves’ Louisa. She remains uncorrupted thus emerges as the ‘angel’ in the novel. She displays her own goodness by bringing out the angelic qualities in others and her religious overtone can be compared with Racheal’s. Typically, it would be expected that the angelic figure would emerge from luxury but to the readers’ surprise two character who belong to the working class take the shape of the ‘angel’. She did not let go of the hope of seeing her father again which ensured space for fancy in Sissy. Sissy came from the circus which is the only true representation of what a family should actually be like. However the members of the circus remain largely ‘living in their own world’, isolated and looked down upon. “Dickens sees and feels” Lewis intones.
The second character that is referred to as an ‘angel’ is Rachael who epitomizes the perfect woman because she transforms moral character and possesses religious purity. She is a working class seamstress, indicating to the laws that limited employment opportunities for women outside their homes, and unmarried companion of Stephen Blackpool, a poor laborer working in Bounderby’s factories. She saves the life of the alcoholic wife of the man she loves and after his death continues to perform her duties honestly. This represents how Domestic Ideology and the ideology of ‘Separate Spheres’ were at some level limited to the upper class. According to Erin Wooten, “The connection between gender and class in Dickens’ works is a long-standing topic of critical concern”. Also, she is not the ideal figure to be called an angel of a home as she is not actually married to Stephen and hence the idea that a wife is to be the centre of the household is not followed through. We also have to take into account that Stephen’s wife is an alcoholic who wanders in and out of his life thus being a complete opposite of what a married woman is expected to be. She is also suspected to have a sexually transmitted disease by the readers which hints at adultery. She was far from capable of fulfilling her role as a wife and thus Stephen’s family and life was miserable with death seen as his only escape. He could not afford a divorce and hence was forced to tolerate his marriage.
The working class emerges through Stephen. He could be viewed as a stock character. The structure of the novel in terms of family can be compared with the working conditions of the working class. Richard Fabrizo says, “Woman’s function is reduced to her love; man’s affection is replaced by his function. Dickens’ novel for good reason centres on the industrialisation of weaving, the very sign of woman’s traditional status and economic position.” The condition of the working class is chaotic and pitiable. Them being the masses, it is reflected in the entire city. The polluted river filled with production waste and the products failing to benefit the workers can be related to Gradgrind’s system of facts, a result of industrialisation and Utilitarianism, which was in the end proven non beneficiary and even harmful to its followers. The description of the Church and Parliament suggest that they are unable to connect with and aid the masses. The relationship between Mr. Gradgrind and his daughter can be compared with Stephen’s relationship with Bounderby. In both situations the father figure gives advice based on facts about marriage. In ‘Society And Family’, Catherine Gallagher states “Both Gradgrind and Bounderby discount the emotional reality of marriage.” A parallel is drawn between Louisa and Stephen in the novel. They are both stuck in an unhappy marriage that they can’t get out of. Stephen is rescued by death and Louisa by Sissy. Sissy reminds us of the family of the circus and also her own after marriage with children. Stephen’s wife illuminates the stark reality of the poverty and misery of the workers. There is evidence of their drunken and disillusioned lives in the third chapter of the novel. Even the social reformists and the church indulge in self-interest. This can be compared and contrasted with Tom’s incapacity for morals and righteousness as a result of Gradgrind’s education system which only teaches the concept of self-interest. This becomes the cause of him gambling and robbing Bounderby’s bank. The reason that Racheal is unable to take her rightful place in Stephen’s hearth is majorly because the trade union and Bounderby forced him to exile. According to Erin Wooten, Dickens translates a fear of political discord, namely of the Chartist movement (which advocated egalitarian voting rights and the possibility for members of any social class to become Members of Parliament), into a threat to the middle-class construction of femininity. Tellingly, one of the major ways Rachael exhibits her status as an “angel” is through a rejection of the union. The end Stephen’s love story also symbolizes the many lives that are caught in an unnecessary rut and how little scope the aristocrats and law makers leave for them to find and attain happiness.
Bounderby had appointed a house-keeper, Mrs. Sparsit, who came from an aristocratic background but was forced to fend for herself after the demise of her husband. Having belonged to the aristocratic stratum of society she was tainted with such corruption that the class incorporated and hence Dickens does not give her the image of a domestic angel. Her contempt for the workers is highlighted in her encounter with Stephen. Her image of herself in the bank brought forward her masculine ambitions. She becomes a constant source of satire. Through her Dickens addresses some important themes like class, economic problems and the myth of female incapacity. As Lynn M. Alexander writes, many Victorian authors used the figure of a working class woman to “illustrate the hardships and possible social repercussions of industrialization”.
Many critics say Dickens cannot really be termed a sentimental novelist. “In place of Utilitarianism, Dickens can offer only good-heartedness, individual charity, and Sleary’s horse-riding; like other writers on the Condition of England Question, he was better equipped to examine the symptoms of the disease than to suggest a possible cure” says Wheeler. The individual families reflect the society as a whole. The differences between the different classes, genders and superstructures elucidate the similarities between them. The eventual falling out of every character is linked to the failure of a certain system. The Domestic Ideology that supports the idea that ‘true’ women are wives and mothers is criticized in the disguise of non-compliance. As stated by Erin Wooten “Dickens uses the working class angel-in-the-house as a sign of absent virtues among middle-class women, then, in an attempt to illuminate factors which could rock England to its foundations.”