Hard Times (1854)
Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy, retired merchant in the industrial city of Coketown, England, devotes his life to a philosophy of rationalism, self-interest, and fact. He raises his oldest children, Louisa and Tom, according to this philosophy and never allows them to entertainment . He founds a school and charitably takes in one of the students, the kindly and imaginative Sissy Jupe, after the disappearance of her father, a circus entertainer.
As the Gradgrind children grow older, Tom becomes a dissipated, self-interested hedonist, and Louisa struggles with deep inner confusion, feeling as though she is missing something important in her life. Louisa marries Gradgrind’s friend Josiah Bounderby, a wealthy factory owner and banker more than twice her age. Bounderby continually trumpets his role as a self-made man who was abandoned in the channel by his mother as an infant. Tom is apprenticed at the Bounderby bank, and Sissy remains at the Gradgrind home to care for the younger children.
In the meantime, an impoverished “Hand” (term used to define the lowest laborers in Coketown’s factories), Stephen Blackpool struggles with his love for Rachael, another poor factory worker. He is unable to marry her because he is already married to a horrible, drunken woman who disappears for months and even years at a time. Stephen visits Bounderby to ask about a divorce but learns that only the wealthy can obtain them. Outside Bounderby’s home, he meets Mrs. Pegler, a strange old woman with an inexplicable devotion to Bounderby.
James Harthouse, a wealthy young sophisticate from London, arrives in Coketown to begin a political career as a disciple of Gradgrind, who is now a Member of Parliament. He immediately takes an interest in Louisa and decides to try to seduce her. With the help of Mrs. Sparsit, a fallen aristocrat who works for Bounderby, he tries to corrupt Louisa.
The Hands, exhorted by a union spokesman named Slackbridge, try to form a union. Only Stephen refuses to join because he feels that a union strike would only increase tensions between employers and employees. He is cast out by the other Hands and fired by Bounderby when he refuses to spy on them. Louisa, impressed with Stephen’s integrity, visits him before he leaves Coketown and helps him with some money. Tom accompanies her and tells Stephen that if he waits outside the bank for several consecutive nights, help will come to him. Stephen does so, but no help arrives. Eventually he packs up and leaves Coketown, hoping to find agricultural work in the country. Not long after that, the bank is robbed, and Stephen is suspected.
Mrs. Sparsit sees Harthouse declaring his love for Louisa, and Louisa agrees to meet him in Coketown later that night. However, Louisa instead flees to her father’s house, where she miserably confides to Gradgrind that she is married to a man she does not love. She collapses to the floor, and Gradgrind begins to realize the imperfections in his philosophy of rational self-interest.
Sissy, who loves Louisa deeply, visits Harthouse and convinces him to leave Coketown forever. Bounderby, furious that his wife has left him, redoubles his efforts to capture Stephen. When Stephen tries to return to clear his good name, he falls into a mining pit called Old Hell Shaft. Rachael and Louisa discover him, but he dies soon after an emotional farewell to Rachael. Gradgrind and Louisa realize that Tom is really responsible for robbing the bank, and they arrange to sneak him out of England with the help of the circus performers with whom Sissy spent her early childhood. They are nearly successful, but are stopped by Bitzer, a young man who went to Gradgrind’s school and who embodies all the qualities of the rationalism that Gradgrind once taught him. However, Tom escapes from England after all.
Mrs. Sparsit, anxious to help Bounderby find the robbers, introduces Mrs. Pegler, a known associate of Stephen Blackpool, to Bounderby, thinking Mrs. Pegler is a potential witness. Mrs. Pegler is really Bounderby’s loving mother, whom he had abandoned. Five years later, he will die alone in the streets of Coketown. Gradgrind gives up his philosophy of fact and devotes his political power to helping the poor. Tom realizes the error of his ways but dies without ever seeing his family again. While Sissy marries and has a large and loving family, Louisa never again marries and never has children. Nevertheless, Louisa is loved by Sissy’s family and learns at last how to feel sympathy for her fellow human beings.
A wealthy, retired merchant in Coketown, England; he later becomes a Member of Parliament. Mr. Gradgrind espouses a philosophy of rationalism, self-interest, and cold, hard fact. He describes himself as an “eminently practical” man, and he tries to raise his children—Louisa, Tom, Jane, Adam Smith, and Malthus—to be equally practical by forbidding the development of their imaginations and emotions.
Gradgrind’s daughter, later Bounderby’s wife. Confused by her coldhearted upbringing, Louisa feels disconnected from her emotions and alienated from other people. While she vaguely recognizes that her father’s system of education has deprived her childhood of all joy, Louisa cannot actively invoke her emotions or connect with others. Thus she marries Bounderby to please her father, even though she does not love her husband. Indeed, the only person she loves completely is her brother Tom.
Thomas Gradgrind, Jr
Gradgrind’s eldest son and an apprentice at Bounderby’s bank, who is generally called Tom. Tom reacts to his strict upbringing by becoming a dissipated, hedonistic, hypocritical young man. Although he appreciates his sister’s affection, Tom cannot return it entirely—he loves money and gambling even more than he loves Louisa. These vices lead him to rob Bounderby’s bank and implicate Stephen as the robbery’s prime suspect.
Gradgrind’s friend and later Louisa’s husband. Bounderby claims to be a self-made man and boastfully describes being abandoned by his mother as a young boy. From his childhood poverty he has risen to become a banker and factory owner in Coketown, known by everyone for his wealth and power. His true upbringing, by caring and devoted parents, indicates that his social mobility is a hoax and calls into question the whole notion of social mobility in nineteenth-century England.
The daughter of a clown in Sleary’s circus. Sissy is taken in by Gradgrind when her father disappears. Sissy serves as a foil, or contrast, to Louisa: while Sissy is imaginative and compassionate, Louisa is rational and, for the most part, unfeeling. Sissy embodies the Victorian femininity that counterbalances mechanization and industry. Through Sissy’s interaction with her, Louisa is able to explore her more sensitive, feminine sides.
Bounderby’s housekeeper, who goes to live at the bank apartments when Bounderby marries Louisa. Once a member of the aristocratic elite, Mrs. Sparsit fell on hard times after the collapse of her marriage. A selfish, manipulative, dishonest woman, Mrs. Sparsit cherishes secret hopes of ruining Bounderby’s marriage so that she can marry him herself. Mrs. Sparsit’s aristocratic background is emphasized by the narrator’s frequent allusions to her “Roman” and “Coriolanian” appearance.
A Hand in Bounderby’s factory. Stephen loves Rachael but is unable to marry her because he is already married, albeit to a horrible, drunken woman. A man of great honesty, compassion, and integrity, Stephen maintains his moral ideals even when he is shunned by his fellow workers and fired by Bounderby. Stephen’s values are similar to those endorsed by the narrator.
A simple, honest Hand who loves Stephen Blackpool. To Stephen, she represents domestic happiness and moral purity.
A sophisticated and manipulative young London gentleman who comes to Coketown to enter politics as a disciple of Gradgrind, simply because he thinks it might alleviate his boredom. In his constant search for a new form of amusement, Harthouse quickly becomes attracted to Louisa and resolves to seduce her.
The lisping proprietor of the circus where Sissy’s father was an entertainer. Later, Mr. Sleary hides Tom Gradgrind and helps him flee the country. Mr. Sleary and his troop of entertainers value laughter and fantasy whereas Mr. Gradgrind values rationality and fact.
Bitzer is one of the successes produced by Gradgrind’s rationalistic system of education. Initially a bully at Gradgrind’s school, Bitzer later becomes an employee and a spy at Bounderby’s bank. An uncharacteristically pale character and unrelenting disciple of fact, Bitzer almost stops Tom from fleeing after it is discovered that Tom is the true bank robber.
The unpleasant teacher at Gradgrind’s school. As his name suggests, McChoakumchild is not overly fond of children, and stifles or chokes their imaginations and feelings.
Bounderby’s mother, unbeknownst as such to all except herself and Bounderby. Mrs. Pegler makes an annual visit to Coketown in order to admire her son’s prosperity from a safe distance. Mrs. Pegler’s appearance uncovers the hoax that her son Bounderby has been attesting throughout the story, which is that he is a self-made man who was abandoned as a child.
Gradgrind’s whiny, anemic wife, who constantly tells her children to study their “ologies” and complains that she’ll “never hear the end” of any complaint. Although Mrs. Gradgrind does not share her husband’s interest in facts, she lacks the energy and the imagination to oppose his system of education.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
1. The Mechanization of Human Beings
Hard Times suggests that nineteenth-century England’s adoption of industrialization threatens to turn human beings into machines by limiting the development of their emotions and imaginations. In Chapter 5 of the first book, the narrator draws a parallel between the factory Hands and the Gradgrind children—both lead monotonous, uniform existences, untouched by pleasure. Consequently, their fantasies and feelings are dulled, and they become almost mechanical themselves.
The mechanizing effects of industrialization are represented by Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy of rational self-interest. Mr. Gradgrind believes that human nature can be measured, quantified, and governed entirely by rational rules. Indeed, his school attempts to turn children into little machines that behave according to such rules.
Dickens’s primary goal in Hard Times is to illustrate the dangers of allowing humans to become like machines, suggesting that without compassion and imagination, life would be unbearable.
2. The Opposition Between Fact and Fancy
While Mr. Gradgrind insists that his children should always stick to the facts, Hard Times not only suggests that fancy is as important as fact, but it continually calls into question the difference between fact and fancy.
As a novelist, Dickens illustrates that fiction cannot be excluded from a fact-filled, mechanical society.
3. The Importance of Femininity
During the Victorian era, women were commonly associated with supposedly feminine traits like compassion, moral purity, and emotional sensitivity. Hard Times suggests that because they possess these traits, women can counteract the mechanizing effects of industrialization.
Dickens suggests that Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy of self-interest and calculating rationality has prevented Louisa from developing her natural feminine traits.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
1. Bounderby’s Childhood
Bounderby frequently reminds us that he is “Josiah Bounderby of Coketown.” This emphatic phrase usually follows a description of his childhood poverty: he claims to have been born in a ditch and abandoned by his mother; raised by an alcoholic grandmother; and forced to support himself by his own labor. Then, he has become the wealthy owner of both a factory and a bank. Thus, Bounderby represents the possibility of social mobility, embodying the belief that any individual should be able overcome all obstacles to success through hard work. However, “Josiah Bounderby of Coketown” is ultimately a fraud and Dickens calls into question the myth of social mobility.
2. Clocks and Time
Dickens contrasts mechanical or man-made time with natural time, or the passing of the seasons. The mechanization of time is embodied in the “deadly statistical clock” in Mr. Gradgrind’s study, which measures the passing of each minute and hour. However, the novel itself is structured through natural time. The three books’s titles are “Sowing,” “Reaping,” and “Garnering” and allude to agricultural labor and to the processes of planting and harvesting in accordance with the changes of the seasons. By contrasting mechanical time with natural time, Dickens illustrates the great extent to which industrialization has mechanized human existence.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
When Mrs. Sparsit notices that Louisa and Harthouse are spending a lot of time together, she imagines that Louisa is running down a long staircase into a “dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom.” This imaginary staircase represents her belief that Louisa is going to elope with Harthouse and consequently ruin her reputation forever.
Mr. Sleary’s circus entertainers stay at an inn called the Pegasus Arms. Inside this inn is a “theatrical” pegasus, a model of a flying horse with “golden stars stuck on all over him.” The pegasus represents a world of fantasy and beauty from which the young Gradgrind children are excluded.
At a literal level, the streams of smoke that fill the skies above Coketown are the effects of industrialization. However, these smoke serpents also represent the moral blindness of factory owners like Bounderby. The smoke becomes a moral smoke screen that prevents from noticing the workers’ miserable poverty.
Louisa’s inner fire symbolizes the warmth created by her secret fancies in her otherwise lonely, mechanized existence. Consequently, it is significant that Louisa often gazes into the fireplace when she is alone, as if she sees things in the flames that others cannot see. However, there is another kind of inner fire in Hard Times—the fires that keep the factories running, providing heat and power for the machines. Fire is thus both a destructive and a life-giving force.
Dickens is, under the influence of Carlyle, an enemy of Victorian utilitarianism, he rejects the principles on which an industrial society is based: money and individualism. In Hard Times Dickens describes an industrial town: Coketown, expression of the capitalistic system, has got unnatural and artificial colours, like the strange red that isn’t red of brick that is caused by the smoke and ashes; it is a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage, these two colours dominate the description of Coketown, in particular black paint even the channel and river’s water. From this water then come a terrible stink that is caused by industrial refuses. This ideal town is full of machinery and chimney noise, in the form of rattling and trembling dominates. The metaphor of the head of an elephant in a sort of madness reproduces the movement of the piston of a steam engine, mad is the machine, mad is the consequence of industrial revolution. Dickens introduces an idea of alienation: man is identified with the product and even with the machine that produces this; the machine causes a lack of identity. Dickens shows how the system determines the life of people and criticizes the alienation caused by mass production: persons go out and in at the same hours, they do the same work and for them every day is the same as the last and the next.
Thomas Gradgrind directs a school in the industrial city of Coketown. Once he sees his children, Louisa and Tom, looking into a circus in direct opposition to his views against fancy. The cause for the offense, suggested by Gradgrind’s friend Josiah Bounderby, a “self-made man” banker and mill owner in Coketown, is that Sissy Jupe, who works in a traveling circus, studies in Gradgrind’s school and is a bad influence. Gradgrind and Bounderby asks the girl’s father to remove Sissy from school. They find that he has abandoned the girl and Gradgrind accepts to try to reform her.
Stephen Blackpool, a power loom weaver in Bounderby’s mill, is married to a drunk and asked Bounderby how he can get out of the marriage to marry Rachael, another worker at the Mill. Bounderby tells him that without money cannot be released from the marriage. After his visit to Bounderby he meets an old woman (Mrs. Pegler) in the street who tells him she comes to Coketown every year with the hope to see Bounderby.
Tom, Louisa, and Sissy finish school, Sissy unsatisfactorily. Tom is apprenticed to Bounderby. Bounderby asked Gradgrind for Louisa’s hand and she reluctantly agrees to marry him in the hope of helping Tom. Sissy remains with Mrs. Gradgrind to help raise three younger children.
James Harthouse, with a letter of introduction from Gradgrind, now a Member of Parliament, meets Bounderby and becomes a frequent visitor in the household. Harthouse hopes to go to Parliament.
Stephen Blackpool refuses to unionize with workers of the mill and is ostracized and later fired from his job. Tom has taken to gambling and has fallen heavily into debt. Louisa and Tom visit Stephen and Louisa sympathetically offers money to help him relocate. Tom takes Stephen aside and asks him to go around the bank in the evenings before he leaves town on the pretense of offering work.
The bank is robbed and Blackpool is suspected. Harthouse falls in love with Louisa and tries to convince her to go away from her unhappy marriage to Bounderby. She runs to her father and reveals the unhappiness she has felt since childhood. He realizes the mistakes he made in her education. Louisa stays with him, cared for by Sissy. Bounderby abandons her. Mrs. Sparsit, Bounderby’s housekeeper, captures Mrs. Pegler and brings her to Bounderby’s house where she is revealed to be Bounderby’s loving mother, disproving Bounderby’s story of being a self-made man, abandoned as a child.
Rachael sends word to Blackpool, who is working in another town, telling of the suspicion in the robbery and expects him to come back to clear his name, but he doesn’t show. Rachael and Sissy, walking in the country, come across Stephen’s hat near a deserted mine and realize he has fallen in. Stephen is brought out alive but dies on the way back to town. Before dying he tells Mr. Gradgrind to question his son, Tom, concerning the robbery. Tom escapes, with the help of Sissy, to a town where Sleary’s Circus is performing. Thomas, Sissy, and Louisa meet him there and, after a last minute attempt by Bitzer to capture him, escapes abroad, with the help of the circus folk, where he later dies in misery. Thomas Gradgrind abandons his inflexible demands for facts in favor of “Faith, Hope, and Charity”.