Hard Times – Charles Dickens

Something reminded me today of a question that I read from Charles Dickens when I was in highschool (many years ago). Of course he didn’t make it a question but in his fabulous description drew out the salient irony that raises the question. The piece, from “Hard times” I quote below. The question that I see in it we do see every day. Perhaps I could ask it like this: Because we can decribe something, do we know it? and vice versa, If we know something, does it mean we should be able to describe it? So, what is knowing?

The selection:

“Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?’

‘Oh yes, sir.’

‘Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.’

(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)

‘Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!’ said Mr Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. ‘Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy’s definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.’

The square finger, moving here and there, lighted suddenly on Bitzer, perhaps because he chanced to sit in the same ray of sunlight which, darting in at one of the bare windows of the intensely white-washed room, irradiated Sissy. For, the boys and girls sat on the face of the inclined plane in two compact bodies, divided up the centre by a narrow interval; and Sissy, being at the corner of a row on the sunny side, came in for the beginning of a sunbeam, of which Bitzer, being at the corner of a row on the other side, a few rows in advance, caught the end. But, whereas the girl was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he ever possessed. His cold eyes would hardly have been eyes, but for the short ends of lashes which, by bringing them into immediate contrast with something paler than themselves, expressed their form. His short-cropped hair might have been a mere continuation of the sandy freckles on his forehead and face. His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white.

‘Bitzer,’ said Thomas Gradgrind. ‘Your definition of a horse.’

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer.

‘Now girl number twenty,’ said Mr Gradgrind. ‘You know what a horse is.’


2 thoughts on “Hard Times – Charles Dickens

  1. It would depend on the particular subject in question, and the answer that is expected.
    Mr. Gradgrind, of course, wanted a factual description, instead of an imaginative one, which Cecilia may have wished to voice.
    I believe it depends on one’s expectation of the other’s response. If I, for example, were to describe a horse to an artist I would describe the texture of it’s hair, the shape of it’s nose, it’s behavior, yet if I were to describe the same horse to a scientist I may have described it as Bitzer did.
    I believe one can know something without being able to describe it also. If I was asked to describe a word such as ‘and’ or ‘the’ it would be very difficult, but I used it constantly in writing.

    • Dickens genius, of course, is in his ability to caricature so that we see Gradgind (such ironical names) wanted a rote from a textbook and he got it from a boy who knew nothing but textbooks. Girl 20 had personal experience of horses but couldn’t find expression. So we see that not only can an illiterate person hold much knowledge, but that illiteracy makes disadvantage where literacy and expression is the token of common social trade.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s