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Hard Times versus Pans Labyrinth

Within the scope of this research, we will compare and contrast the novel “Hard Times” by Dickens with the movie “Pan's Labyrinth”. Hard Times is less imaginative observation than an imaginative judgment. It is a judgment of social attitudes, but again it is something more than North and South. It is a thorough-going and creative examination of the dominant philosophy of. That Dickens could achieve this more comprehensive understanding is greatly to the advantage of the novel. The most important point, in this context, that has to be made about Hard Times is a point about Thomas Gradgrind.

Josiah Bounderby, the other villain of the piece, is a simple enough case. He is, with rough justice, the embodiment of the aggressive money-making and power-seeking ideal which was a driving force of the Industrial Revolution. That he is also a braggart, a liar and in general personally repellent is of course a comment on Dickens's method. The conjunction of these personal defects with the aggressive ideal is not (how much easier things would be if it were) a necessary conjunction. A large part of the Victorian reader's feelings against Bounderby (and perhaps a not inconsiderable part of the twentieth-century intellectual's) rests on the older and rather different feeling that trade, as such, is gross. The very name (and Dickens uses his names with conscious and obvious effect), incorporating bounder, incorporates this typical feeling. The social criticism represented by bounder is, after all, a rather different matter from the question of aggressive economic individualism. Dickens, with rough justice, fuses the separate reaction, and it is easy not to notice how one set of feelings is made to affect the other.

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The difficulty about Thomas Gradgrind is different in character. It is that the case against him is so good, and his refutation by experience so masterly, that it is easy for the modern reader to forget exactly what Gradgrind is. It is surprising how common is the mistake of using the remembered name, Gradgrind, as a class-name for the hard Victorian employer. The valuation which Dickens actually asks us to make is more difficult. Gradgrind is a Utilitarian: seen by Dickens as one of the feeloosofers against whom Cobbett thundered, or as one of the steam-engine intellects described by Carlyle.

Dickens sees what we normally understand by both as two sides of the same coin, Industrialism. His positives do not lie in social improvement, but rather in what he sees as the elements of human nature — personal kindness, sympathy, and forbearance. It is not the model factory against the satanic mill, nor is it the humanitarian experiment against selfish exploitation. It is, rather, individual persons against the System. In so far as it is social at all, it is the Circus against Coketown. The schoolroom contrast of Sissy Jupe and Bitzer is a contrast between the education, practical but often inarticulate, which is gained by living and doing, and the education, highly articulated, which is gained by systemization and abstraction. It is a contrast of which Cobbett would have warmly approved; but in so far as we have all (and to some extent inevitably) been committed to a large measure of the latter, it is worth noting again what a large revaluation Dickens is asking us to make. The instinctive, unintellectual, unorganized life is the ground, here, of genuine feeling, and of all good relationships.

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Hard Times, in tone and structure, is the work of a man who has "seen through" society, who has found them all out. The only reservation is for the passive and the suffering, for the meek who shall inherit the earth but not Coketown, not industrial society. This primitive feeling, when joined by the aggressive conviction of having found everyone else out, is the retained position of an adolescent. The innocence shames the adult world, but also essentially rejects it. As a whole response, Hard Times is more a symptom of the confusion of industrial society than an understanding of it, but it is a symptom that is significant and continuing.

Pan’s Labyrinth follows the adventures of a little girl named Ofelia who might be the lost princess of the underworld, and is undeniably the adoptive daughter of a brutal captain in Franco’s army whose job is to root out, torture and kill leftist rebels in a remote village. Some of those rebels, it turns out, are the Captain’s own servants and colleagues who pass medicine to guerrillas in the forest. As Ofelia’s pregnant and ill mother wastes away in bed, the girl becomes attached to a servant named Mercedes. It turns out that Mercedes is also a covert rebel, and Ofelia defies her father by keeping this deadly fact a secret.

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Most of the film is split between a real world where Mercedes uses political tactics to oppose the Captain, and a fantasy world where Ofelia encounters an old, gnarled faun, fairies and members of an ancient forest aristocracy. Eventually the faun reveals that Ofelia must past three tests to prove she’s the true princess of the underworld. As Ofelia battles giant frogs and a made-for-nightmares creature with eyeballs in its hands, she becomes more confident that she’s a princess – and convinced that doesn’t want to be part of the Captain’s world. As the film reaches its climax, Ofelia is about to take the faun’s third and final test while rebels in the forest, fortified with reinforcements, begin an attack on the Captain’s outpost. As the Captain struggles to quell the uprising,

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Ofelia carries out the third test: bringing her recently-born brother to the labyrinth that connects the real and fairy worlds. The Captain follows Ofelia through the labyrinth, catching her just in time to find her talking to the air and clutching her brother. From Ofelia’s point of view, we see that the faun has just told her she must shed the blood of an innocent – her brother. If she refuses, the faun will not protect her from the crazed Captain, who is waving his gun. Implicitly rejecting the fantasy world, Ofelia refuses. Unfortunately, reality isn’t any better: the Captain mercilessly shoots her and takes his son.

In a great concluding scene, the Captain leaves the labyrinth only to find his outpost in flames and a mob of guerrillas waiting for him. “Your son will never know your name,” Mercedes tells him, and shoots him in the face. She’s too late to save Ofelia, however, and as the little girl breathes her last in Mercedes’ arms we see her dressed in gold, joining her dead mother and real father in the land of the fairies. “Your sacrifice was the last test,” the faun tells her. She’s the true princess of the underworld. If you accept that the underworld is real, then this is all really great. Ofelia’s fantasies are clearly designated as such – nothing in them affects the real world, nor does anyone else ever see the fairies and faun. Plus, Ofelia always has a thick stack of fairy tale books with her, and one of the fantasy fairies looks exactly like a picture we see in one of them. Given Ofelia’s namesake– the mad Ophelia from Hamlet who commits suicide – it’s clear that Ofelia’s fantasies are her slightly mad escape from the Captain’s abuse and the horror of watching her mother die.

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One might argue that her fantasies area form of rebellion, a childish version of Mercedes’ political rebellion. Both the child and the woman refuse to live in the Captain’s world, one by escaping into her dreams, and the other by joining the Marxist rebels. And yet Ofelia’s form of rebellion seems ultimately useless. Stealing her brother and fleeing is probably what gets her killed. Are her fantasies in fact making her more vulnerable to the Captain and his henchmen, the very things she’s trying to resist? It would appear so, and yet her fantasies are also what sustain her. Fighting the frog and the scary eyeball creature teach her that she can be brave, and no doubt give her the independence of mind to keep Mercedes’ secrets from her father. Seen from this point of view, Ofelia’s fantasies are deeply political. They show her an alternate reality where the Captain doesn’t rule, and they help her find true allies: Mercedes and the rebels.

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