As a historian who frequently teaches works of literature, I am particularly attentive to historical context. I am also known for my emphasis on genre—one of my favorite sayings is “not every book is a novel.” At the same time, I am occasionally struck by literary techniques that might seem both anachronistic and a-generic. Some authors seem to have been born in the wrong century and to have worked in the wrong genre. Vergil, for example, should have been a screenwriter, as the Aeneid displays a cinematic imagination (a subject for another blog entry). Whereas Charles Dickens, if he were alive today, might be a showrunner, working in television.
Of course, many of Dickens’ works have already been adapted for TV, especially his biggest hits like David Copperfield and Oliver Twist (not to mention adaptations for stage and screen). But I’ve noticed that one of his lesser-known novels, one that has had very few adaptations, uses a technique that is common in television writing. I’m talking about his 1854 industrial novel Hard Times.
Hard Times famously begins with a schoolroom scene in which Mr. Gradgrind, the owner of the school; Mr. M’Choakumchild, the teacher; and an unnamed government inspector berate the hapless student Sissy Jupe, daughter of a circus clown, for being unable to define “horse” and for expressing a preference for wallpaper with pictures of horses and for flowered carpets. I have previously written about this scene and its connection to the ideas of Henry Cole, one of the designers of the 1851 Great Exhibition and first director of what would become the Victoria and Albert Museum. But today I want to discuss how in this scene Dickens is using a technique more commonly associated with TV: the cold open.
The term “cold open” refers to a TV show jumping right into the action, instead of beginning with the opening titles and theme music (which are delayed until later), in hopes of grabbing the audience’s attention before the first commercial break. Some shows that use the cold open include The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Saturday Night Live.
Like most Dickens novels, Hard Times was originally published serially, a few chapters at a time, in a magazine called Household Words. Dickens therefore shared with TV writers the need to capture his readers’ attention so they would come back for the next instalment. Chapters 1-3 of Hard Times were published together, followed the next week by chapters 4 and 5.
So what makes the beginning of Hard Times a cold open? The very first words of the novel are spoken by an unnamed character, with no introduction:
“‘Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!'”
This utterance simply ends, with not even a “he said.” The next paragraph reads like stage directions:
“The scene a plain, bare, monotonous vault of a schoolroom, and the speaker’s square forefinger emphasized his observations by underscoring every sentence with a line on the schoolmaster’s sleeve.”
The paragraph continues with a physical description of the speaker, who is still unnamed:
“The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellerage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. . . . The speaker’s obstinate carriage, square coat, square legs, square shoulders—nay, his very neckcloth, trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp, like a stubborn fact, as it was—all helped the emphasis.”
Only when we turn the page to chapter 2 do we discover that this square lover of facts is named Thomas Gradgrind, as the narrative continues with the interrogation of Sissy Jupe.
The setting for the opening events is finally identified in chapter 5 as Coketown. Dickens introduces Coketown with a musical metaphor:
“Let us strike the key-note, Coketown, before pursuing our tune.”
There follows a lengthy description of Coketown.
“It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.”
What does this make chapter 5? It makes it the title sequence, complete with its theme music. Can’t you imagine the camera panning over whatever British industrial city is chosen to play the part of Coketown as the theme music plays?
Perhaps we should expand the adjective “Dickensian” to refer to this narrative technique. Then TV critics could write sentences like this:
In its deft use of the cold open, The Office is a Dickensian look at the early twenty-first century workplace.