I read Hard Times for the first time when I was 15 because an English teacher I really respected recommended that I read it over the summer after my freshman year of high school. (She's also responsible for my love of Don DeLillo and Margaret Atwood: she recommended White Noise and The Handmaid's Tale, too.) I'd almost totally forgotten what Hard Times is about. All I remembered was that a school with a mean teacher was involved. I think I wanted to reread it precisely because I didn't remember. And I love Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities is one of my favorite novels. (I tried reading Great Expectations, though, and didn't even make it halfway.) In fact, that's the first book I read after I graduated college the first time with an English degree. I decided that even though I had a piece of paper that said I had, I hadn't read anything. So I picked up the nearest "respectable" book which happened to be A Tale of Two Cities. I don't think I expected to like it at all - and I certainly didn't expect to absolutely love it.
Anyway, back to Hard Times. It's generally about utilitarianism and the old debate about nature versus nurture. Thomas Gradgrind, father of Louisa and Tom, believes that all that matters is fact. He piles his children's heads full of facts at the expense of emotion and imagination. We follow Louisa and Tom from childhood to adulthood and see the consequences of their father's decisions. Meanwhile, Stephen Blackpool is a working-class mill worker who is falsely accused of robbing a bank. We see what happens to him as Dickens explores class structure. The End.
That summary makes it seem like I liked Hard Times much less than I did. Maybe it's because it's been a few weeks since I read it, and things get fuzzy quickly. It wasn't at all what I remembered. The school part was relatively short - I guess it was just the part that was most relevant to me at the time. I had totally forgotten about Stephen Blackpool and the bank.
So. Pick up a copy of Hard Times and read it. Not just because it's Dickens and you should. Because it's a really great novel and totally worth a read. And, for Dickens, it's relatively short, which, I guess, isn't saying much.