I was assigned Hard Times in high school, and actually remembered it as one of the few works by Dickens I had enjoyed. Rereading it, I did still enjoy it on the whole, but I still found in it so many of the qualities that put me off in Dickens--although often they're closely associated with qualities I do like. What I do like is the humor. Dickens can be witty and sharp, and this satire of utilitarianism comes off in bright primary colors, and his distaste for the Industrial Revolution and Industrialists and members of Unions alike in sooty black. Yet in terms of this picture of the Industrial North of England I couldn't help contrasting it in my mind--unfavorably--to Gaskell's North and South. There are ways in which I do find Dickens the superior writer. He had the humor I remember lacking from Gaskell and goodness, Dickens can turn a memorable phrase. But Gaskell's is a much more nuanced portrait of the Industrial Revolution. She shows its dark side--she can't be accused, unlike Dickens' character Bounderby, of trying to claim the smoky, grimy air is good for your health! Or that factory work is "light" and "pleasant." But Gaskell also shows the dynamism of the new forces at work that empowered workers compared to what had come before or to the more agricultural, class-bound South. Dickens' industrialist Bounderby is no more than a caricature--Gaskell's industrialist Thornton is a rounded figure, with virtues and flaws and a point of view that doesn't represent a straw man. On the other side of the class divide, Gaskell's workingman Nicholas Higgins to me represents a much stronger figure than either Slackbridge or the sentimentalized Blackwell in Hard Times. And I hate how Dickens represents the speech of the working class, though he's hardly alone in that in his era or ours. But it was a trial trying to make out Blackwell's speech: "I ha' hed what's been spok'n o' me, and tis' lickly that I shan't mend it." It's not as if educated speakers of English don't drop sounds. How would you pronounce "thought?" But it's not as if Dickens resorts to that kind of phonetic spelling above for upper class characters. Those caricatures, over-the-top characterizations and the hectoring polemics extend even to one of Dickens' most notable characteristics--the use of character names as tags for one-sided qualities--even if I do have to smile at names such as "Gradgrind" or "Bounderby" or "Harthouse." If my rating doesn't fall below a three (and I didn't hesitate to give A Tale of Two Cities lower) it's because, reading Blackwell's dialogue aside, this is so very readable. So much of this book is very, very quotable. I also found Louisa Bounderby an interesting character. She's a much less pallid character than I usually see in Dicken's women characters--including the others within this book not out and out caricatures like Mrs Sparsit. Louisa's a kind of anti-Emma Bovary. If Flaubert's title heroine was a female Don Quixote, driven to destruction by too much fanciful reading, then Louisa is the other side of the spectrum--one made emotionally arid by strangling all imagination and playfulness out of her from an early age to suit her father's utilitarian principles. And at least in this novel I can't accuse Dickens of being verbose--this one is less than 300 pages. Worth reading, despite my reservations.