A Call for Reform

by Kristine Putz

The first installment of Hard Times by Charles Dickens appears in Sunday, April 1st’s issue of Household Words where the first three chapters are published. The reader is introduced to Mr. Gradgrind and his intense and, thus far, unwavering commitment to facts over emotion where he is “an eminently practical father” (17), who lives in “a calculated, cast up, balanced, and proved house” (16), and whose due it was to be acceptable (17). Mr. Gradgrind dominates the chapters in this installment, as does his counterpart M’Choakumchild who seeks to educate his pupils with the same drive for fact over emotion that Mr. Gradgrind exemplifies in his daily life and thinking.  However, throughout the installment, there is an air of caution and foreboding around the description of these characters, which is explicitly evident on page 15 of Hard Times when Dickens speaks to the reader about M’Choakumchild: “Ah, rather overdone, M’Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more”. Here, Dickens introduces the critique of this obsession over fact. Specifically, when paired with the article that follows the first three chapters of Hard Times in Household Words, “Oranges and Lemons” by John Capper, Dickens seeks to critique the obliviousness of this section of society’s solutions, which, though grounded in fact, are ignorant of experience and make them ineffective decision makers and leaders for the working class.  If they had “learnt a little less” and had more experience, they would be more effective leaders.

Immediately following April 1st’s installment of Hard Times is an article called “Oranges and Lemons”, which begins on page 145 of Household Words Volume 9. The reader is greeted with an image of a street-child selling oranges, which is followed by an in-depth glance into the process of where the oranges and lemons, mostly oranges, come from, how they are transported, and the repealed duties that once impeded efficient transport and consumption. The whole article’s relaying of process mirrors the way Mr. Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild would talk about the process of transporting oranges themselves, in its separation of fact from emotion and experience of the process of production and transport.

The glimpse into the process of transporting these fruit is presented in a way that hints at the laziness and obliviousness of the consumer who reaps the benefit of the process while remaining emotionally and physically ignorant of it:

How few of us have any conception of the vast tracts of land required to rear these pleasant products of the soil: of the hands employed in the culture…while their consumers are sleeping in their beds…of the mean squalor and desolation of the great retail orange-mart in Duke’s Place: of the thousands of men, women, and children who draw a subsistence from their sale in the streets, in steamboats, at fairs, in theatres, or wherever people congregate (145).

Here, Capper makes an explicit distinction between “the hands employed in culture” and the people who ”draw a subsistence” from the sale of these goods and the consumers who sleep in their beds while all of this is happening. This suggests a separation from the process, as does the rest of the article, which continues by relaying the process of how these fruit are transported. The reader is then educated on the process based on fact and rationale, with no actual conception of the physical and emotional aspects of it as a mockery of this consumer’s education of the same concepts.

Furthermore, the image of the street child at the beginning of the article is never really reconciled except to say that the lowering of duties makes the oranges more accessible. The author even goes as far to say that the poor who could not afford oranges now have them readily available because the duties have been lowered: “[W]e are still largely indebted to them [oranges] as tending to promote health, especially for the poorer classes; who do not have access to more costly fruit…A wise policy has so lowered these fruit duties as to bring oranges within the reach of the poorest in the land(Capper 146).  A solution to the poor physical health and well being of the “poorest of the land” is presented in the oranges. Thus, this “wise policy” would, factually and reasonably lead to an increase in their health. This solution, though almost comical, presents a very real and practical solution if one is only looking at facts: The oranges are cheaper now because the duties were lowered. Thus, they are accessible to all. This is reminiscent of Mr. Gradgrind’s and M’Choakumchild’s way of thinking: If a solution is grounded in fact and reason it is able to be considered. If it involves a real knowledge of the poor’s problems, it is foolish because a true knowledge would require experience as a working “hand”, which suggests a lack of education. Thus, questioning the accessibility of the oranges to the “poorest of the land” would be foolish. This solution is meant to be comical in its ignorance because any reader with a true knowledge of process and the emotional and physical labor attached to it would know that the solution to the health of the poor is more complicated than a lowering of duties and does requires more than a factual knowledge of the problem.

This theme is continued later in “Oranges and Lemons” when Capper describes where the oranges come from, how they are cultivated, and how they are prized by the community in which they are grown:

The cultivator in short devotes the whole of his working hours and all his best energies to the care of his quinta, not only during its early growth, but when it has arrived at maturity; for, upon its produce, his main dependence is placed, quite as much indeed as that of the Irish cottier upon his potato-field. The orange is his staff of life (147).

After establishing the orange’s importance in the community and how much work has gone into cultivating them, the author then goes on to say that because of protective duties, many of the same oranges were flung into the river because they were not the right size: “[W]e have been assured by a traveller that during the gathering season he has seen the Douro completely covered by the rejected fruit” (147). The author quickly states that this has been fixed by the removal of those duties. However, only a person who is removed from process could separate themselves completely from the emotions evoked in this passage and dismiss the image of oranges that were so lovingly cultivated and prized by their growers and growers’ communities being dumped into the water because their sizes weren’t quite right while at the same time wasting oranges the poor could not afford. The reader is brought back to the idea of the consumers who are so caught up facts without emotional and physical experience to supplement them, that they can’t solve problems (they often also create) prevalent to the working class. The oranges are no longer being wasted, but will they actually get into the hands of the poor? Dickens and Capper seek to point out the wastefulness and selfishness of this sector of society, driven by a lack of experience, that make them ineffective leaders and managers of companies.

The entirety of this article is meant to be a mockery of the consumer who is educated in fact rather than experience. The reader is not meant to dismiss the idea of so much fruit being wasted, while at the same time the poor, who would have most benefited from the healthy fruit, were left without.   The emotional images and their ineffective solutions are meant to strike a chord with the readers of this journal because they are not ignorant of the process of manufacturing and transport as the consumer referenced in “Oranges and Lemons” and Mr. Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild of Hard Times are. This article, then, when paired with the first three chapters of Hard Times, is a call for reform. Specifically, a reform of who is in charge of making decisions that impact the working class. Dickens and Capper suggest, through the two articles, that in order to be effective decision makers and leaders, one must have knowledge of process beyond factual knowledge.

Works Cited

Capper, John. “Oranges and Lemons.” Household Words, 1 April 1854, pp. 145-150.

Dickens, Charles. “Hard Times.” Household Words, 1 April 1854, pp. 141-145.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Penguin Classics, 1995.


4 Comments Add yours

  1. I think you set up a very nice, succinct summary of Hard Times that leads into a good connection with “Oranges and Lemons.” I like the observation that both of these works are a part of Dickens’s critique of valuing fact over experience, since he had such a heavy hand in putting together the periodical. We certainly get this critique in Hard Times with the obvious satire and conclusion to the story, but someone wouldn’t exactly think right away that this connects to an article that covers the selling of oranges and lemons. But you establish this connection well, and it is not too much of a stretch to say that both look at factual perspectives on a situation and the potential pitfall of such a view.

    If one is paying attention, then it appears that the article turns the critique to the reader, pointing out the separation of emotion and the process/production of selling fruit. Even though the article starts with the image of a potential sympathetic figure, as you say, we drift away from that and instead read about a factual “solution” to the problem presented instead of a more involved solution that would look at the people as a part of the process. Thinking on this critique a bit further and in relation to the periodical itself, the publication was sold for cheap and allowed more working class readers to buy. The critique aimed at the readers, then, might only be aimed at the higher class readers who may not have considered this perspective, while the working class who know this situation well and do see past a factual account and solution have their place as real sympathetic figures to back up this article. Perhaps they would read it and in discussion with it, lend a reality to the situation to other readers, or perhaps it would stir up their sympathies more easily and lead to a better solution that comes from the people it affects. Either way, I like the connection you found between these two seemingly unconnected works.


  2. Amy Valine says:

    Thanks for this well-drawn comparison, Kristine. I agree with Angie’s comment, that the “Oranges and Lemons” article “turns the critique to the reader.” Re-reading your final paragraph, it strikes me that a critique of emotionless fact is particularly impactful—or ought to be—in this periodical context. Because the periodical reading experience involves so much information intake, it would be easy for readers to switch off their empathy and focus on simply gaining knowledge—after all, absorption of fact or absorption in fiction is one of the great pleasures and benefits of reading. To draw a parallel with our current information culture, I’m reminded of how my social media feed is filled with so many articles about horrific disasters or just snippets of plain ridiculous “news” flashes that I am eventually tempted to stop caring.

    In this sense, the juxtaposition of Hard Times and “Oranges and Lemons” initiates a call to reform for not only society in general, but for readers themselves. As we see in Hard Times, Dickens calls for not just education but the right sort of education—an education based in a healthy dose of practical, process-based knowledge of how the world functions and how people (specifically readers) might adjust these processes for better, more fair-minded functioning. As you note, fact intake gives a foundation for informed empathy, which is likely more socially impactful than solely emotion-driven empathy. Perhaps we could then read these two articles as a call to reform the act of reading. What if people responded to factual articles in the same way they responded to fiction? Readers might react to articles like “Oranges and Lemons” by asking themselves how they could improve the system, rather than, like Gradgrind, absorbing the information as an end in itself. With the amalgamation of genres seen in periodicals, reading thus becomes holistically influential, combining the emotional effect of being drawn in to a work of fiction with the practical control that belongs to the informed consumer.


  3. L. Assad says:

    You’ve done such a wonderful job of uncovering the parallels and the tensions that exist between these two texts. I appreciate the way that you begin your essay with a description of Grandgrind, as he seems to embody everything about the modern world that Dickens and Capper strive to critique. You’re right in saying that there is something very striking about the ways in which Dickens describes characters like Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild. Your argument that there is a foreboding air surrounding these characters is compelling, and the quote that you cite to support this argument is fantastic. The idea that one can learn too much is hilarious, yet also saddening.

    I agree that Dickens cautions us to be less like these two characters, but it also seems as though he is encouraging us to poke fun at ourselves when we find ourselves driven by facts. Your analysis of “Oranges and Lemons” is beautiful, and I especially appreciate your emphasis on the child at the beginning of the piece. This child makes me think about all of the children that we encounter in Hard Times. They are, in a way, commodities themselves. Just as misshapen fruits are discarded, the children of Coketown are reprimanded when they deviate from the norm. They are thrown onto the conveyor belts of men like Gradgrind where they skip right over childhood and into adulthood.

    The last thing that I would like to commend you on is your defense of experience. Your argument that nothing is more important than experience reminds me of when Louisa returns home and realizes that she does not possess the feelings of nostalgia that she knows she should possess. She eventually realizes that this is because she does not have any childhood experiences to reminisce on because she never experienced a proper childhood.


  4. I really enjoyed your look at Charles Dickens as an editor and the connection of themes between “Oranges and Lemons” with Hard Times. We know Dickens was a very heavy-handed editor, and he clearly had an agenda and message for his readership. I really like Dickens as an editor and writer because I think he is able to tackle social issues in a smart way. As you point out, he “seeks to critique the obliviousness.” He seeks to introduce to his vast readership a look into something that is taken for granted such as oranges and lemons, while unveiling the residual effects the luxury good has on the working class. Facts are more colored, emotional and have an impact greater than Mr. Gradgrind lets on, which is something that develops throughout the course of The Hard Times serialization.

    However, right away, Dickens is letting the reader know he is going to paint more than just the facts in the articles and content of his publication. I think this is telling with the introduction of the topic through a child in “Oranges and Lemons.” This is an emotional, feature-type lead, which in journalism is used to humanize the story. Moreover, it also is a way for Dickens to let the reader know his publication seeks to explore the direct societal impact of seemingly mundane or commonplace household items such as a fruit. (Or rather what seemed mundane and commonplace for some readers, while others are barred from access, which is made known to readers). While the article passes as a critique, it also presents the facts in a way that leaves the impetus for social change in the hands of a reader – a hallmark of journalism as a collection of objective facts. The editorial choice and juxtaposition of these two pieces is a statement of Household World’s goal to enter into discussion topics that may not be represented or humanized in such a way elsewhere.

    This brings me back to Dickens’ editorial statement of intention for the publication. “We aspire to live in the Household affections, and to be numbered among the Household thoughts, of our readers. We hope to be the comrade and friend of many thousands of people, of both sexes, and of all ages and conditions, on whose faces we may never look. We seek to bring to innumerable homes, from the stirring world around us, the knowledge of many social wonders, good and evil, that are not calculated to render any of us less ardently persevering in ourselves, less faithful in the progress of mankind, less thankful for the privilege of living in this summer-dawn of time.” Your post definitely echoes Dickens’ mission and is a thoughtful examination on his editorial choices.


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