Analysis of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times

Dickens’s 10th novel, serialized weekly in Household Words (April 1–August 12, 1854), unillustrated. Published in one volume by Bradbury & Evans, 1854. This controversial book, the shortest of Dickens’s novels, takes up the issues of industrialism and education and offers a moral fable challenging some of the dominant ideologies of the Victorian era.

SYNOPSIS

I. Book the First. Sowing.

Part 1 (April 1, 1854)
(I:1) Mr. Gradgrind instructs schoolmaster M’Choakumchild that the one thing needful in life is facts. (I:2) Sissy Jupe is the only “little vessel” in Gradgrind’s school that is not filled with facts. Bitzer, the star pupil, shows off his ability to recite all the physical characteristics of a horse. These children are “regulated and governed” by fact; they are never to imagine. M’Choakumchild, a factory-produced teacher, will fill them with facts and kill any harmful fancy lurking within them. (I:3) On his way home to Stone Lodge, Thomas Gradgrind passes the circus and discovers his children Tom and Louisa peeping into the tent. He reprimands them by repeating, “What would Mr. Bounderby say?”

Part 2 (April 8, 1854)

(I:4) Banker and manufacturer, Mr. Bounderby, the “Bully of Humility,” is bullying Mrs. Gradgrind, a woman of surpassing feebleness, with the story of his neglected and abused childhood. Bounderby ascribes Louisa and Tom’s deliquency to the influence of Sissy Jupe, a circus performer’s daughter who is a student at Gradgrind’s school. He and Gradgrind decide to ask Signor Jupe to persuade his daughter to refrain from encouraging the idle curiosity of the Gradgrind children. As they leave to find Jupe, Bounderby kisses Louisa goodbye and she tries to rub off the mark of the kiss. (I:5) Coketown, a red-brick town founded upon fact, is totally utilitarian and functional—blackened by the “serpentlike” smoke from factory chimneys. On the way to Pod’s End, Gradgrind and Bounderby meet Sissy, who is being chased through the streets by Bitzer. They halt the pursuit and go on with the girl.

Part 3 (April 15, 1854)

(I:6) When they get to the Pegasus’ Arms, Jupe is not there. The circus people tell them that Jupe has probably “cut,” run off because his talents were slipping, and deserted both the circus and his daughter. Bounderby berates Jupe’s irresponsibility. Grandgrind offers to take Sissy into his home if she will promise to cut herself off from the circus. Sissy tearfully agrees. As they leave, Sleary, the circus manager, counters Gradgrind’s harsh judgment of the circus by reminding him that “People must be amuthed,” and asking him to “make the betht of uth, not the wurtht.”

Part 4 (April 22, 1854)

(I:7) Mrs. Sparsit, grandniece to Lady Scadgers, acts as Bounderby’s housekeeper. He exploits her privileged background as a contrast to his story of deprivation. She tolerates, but inwardly resents, this vulgar exploitation. Sissy is told to pay proper deference to Mrs. Sparsit, to forget her own past and the circus, and to begin her life anew as a servant to Mrs. Gradgrind. (I:8) The keynote of Gradgrind’s system is “never wonder,” but Tom and Louisa sit before the fire and wonder about the “something missing” in their lives and about the future. Tom wants to leave home and join Bounderby’s bank, where he plans to manage Bounderby by playing on the banker’s affection for his sister. When Mrs. Gradgrind discovers the two children “wondering,” she reprimands them for disobeying their father.

Part 5 (April 29, 1854)

(I:9) Sissy does not do well in school. She cannot take facts seriously and cannot remember them. Given statistical problems, she ignores the percentages and attends only to individuals who are suffering, no matter how small their numbers. She tells Louisa of her father, a clown, and of the stories she read to him from the Arabian Nights. She continues to hope for his return.

(I:10) After work, Stephen Blackpool, a weaver in Bounderby’s mill, walks home with Rachael, the woman he loves, telling her of his unhappiness and of his belief that life is a muddle. When he gets to his own apartment, he discovers that his wife of many years has returned and is lying drunk on his doorstep.

Part 6 (May 6, 1854)

(I:11) Stephen seeks Bounderby’s advice about getting a divorce. Bounderby warns him not to be a malcontent and tells him that he married for better or worse and that there is no way that he, a poor man, can dissolve the bond. Stephen’s response, “Tis a muddle,” shocks Mrs. Sparsit and prompts Bounderby to assert, “I see traces of turtle soup, and venison, and gold spoon in this.” (I:12) Outside Bounderby’s house, Stephen meets an old woman who tells him that she comes to town once a year to look at Bounderby. Later, as he works at his loom, Stephen sees the old woman in the street, looking at the factory building with admiration.

Part 7 (May 13, 1854)

(I:13) At home Stephen finds Rachael attending his ailing wife. He sleeps fitfully in a chair, dreaming that he is on stage and everyone in the world shuns him. Then, half awake, he sees his wife get up from the bed and take a bottle of poison from the table. He is powerless to stop her, inwardly wishing to be free of her. Just as she is about to drink it, Rachael awakens and takes the bottle away from her. As Rachael leaves, Stephen blesses her as “an angel” who “changest me from bad to good.” (I:14)

Some years later, Mr. Gradgrind has become a member of Parliament, Sissy has been dismissed from school but is liked by Gradgrind in spite of her academic failings. Tom works in Bounderby’s bank. When her father makes an appointment to talk with Louisa about marriage, Tom urges her to remember him. Louisa looks into the “factory” of her self and finds it mute, noiseless, and secret.

Part 8 (May 20, 1854)

(I:15) Gradgrind tells Louisa that Bounderby has proposed to marry her. When she asks if she is expected to love Bounderby, Gradgrind advises her just to look at the facts: she is 20; Bounderby is 50. There is disparity in their ages but not in their means or positions. In sum, he says, Bounderby has asked her to marry him. The question now is whether she will. Louisa observes the smoke pouring from the Coketown chimneys, wonders about the shortness of her life, and then accepts the proposal. “Let it be so,” she says. “What does it matter?” Sissy looks at Louisa in wonder, pity, and sorrow. Mrs. Gradgrind worries about what she will call her son-in-law. (I:16) When Bounderby announces his intentions to Mrs. Sparsit, she responds with compassion, simultaneously wishing him happiness and treating him as “a Victim.” She accepts his offer of a position at the bank. At the wedding, Bounderby speaks of Louisa as deserving of him, and Tom bids her goodbye as “a game girl” and a “first-rate sister.”

 

Book the Second. Reaping.

Part 9 (May 27, 1854)

(II:1) On a hot summer day, Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer, now the bank’s light porter, look out of her window above the bank and see a stranger with an “air of exhaustion.” He brings an introduction to the Bounderbys from Mr. Gradgrind and inquires if Mrs. Bounderby is quite the formidable philosopher her father makes her out to be.

Part 10 (June 3, 1854)

(II:2) Bored with serving in the Dragoons and the foreign service, traveling to Jerusalem, and yachting about the world, the stranger, James Harthouse, has decided to go in for hard fact. He flatters Bounderby by agreeing with him on the necessity of smoke, the pleasantness of the work in the mills, and the unreasonable demands of the “hands.” But he is puzzled and challenged by the cold, unrevealing face of Louisa. He believes any set of ideas as good as any other; she seems to believe in nothing. Only when Tom arrives does Harthouse discover something that will “move that face.” So he cultivates “the whelp” and secures him as a guide back to his hotel.

(II:3) Harthouse plies Tom with cigars and liquor and pumps him for the truth about his sister, who married Bounderby for Tom’s sake. He also asks about Mrs. Sparsit, who had her cap set for Bounderby herself, and, inadvertently, about Tom himself. The whelp leaves in a fog, not remembering what he has revealed.

Part 11 (June 10, 1854)

(II:4) Slackbridge, the union organizer, urges the workingmen of Coketown to shun Blackpool as a traitor for refusing to join them. Stephen defends himself before the men, saying that he remains their friend and will work by himself among them, but the loneliness of being shunned is difficult, for Stephen is afraid even to contact Rachael. After four lonely days, Bitzer informs Stephen that Bounderby wishes to see him. (II:5) Bounderby asks him why he refuses to join the union, but Stephen declines to reveal his reason. He defends the men against Bounderby’s charges that they are rebellious, and, taking courage from looking at Louisa’s face, he describes “the muddle” and condemns the rich, who blame everything on the workingmen. By the end of the interview, Bounderby is so angry he fires Stephen.

Part 12 (June 17, 1854)

(II:6) In the street, Stephen meets Rachael and the old lady he met once before outside Bounderby’s house. Stephen tells Rachael he has been fired and that he plans to leave Coketown to search for work. She knows it was because of his promise to her not to join the union. They go to Stephen’s home, where Mrs. Pegler, the old woman, questions Stephen about Bounderby’s wife. Their tea is interrupted by Louisa and Tom. Louisa offers Stephen help for his journey. Tom engages him to wait outside the bank on the evenings before he sets out, telling him that he hopes he can do something for him and that Bitzer will bring a message. But no message comes. After the third night, Stephen sets out on his journey.

Part 13 (June 24, 1854)

(II:7) Harthouse gains the trust of Gradgrind and Bounderby and takes an increasing interest in Mrs. Bounderby. He visits her at the country house that Bounderby has acquired by repossession. There he learns that she has given Tom a good deal of money to cover his gambling debts, but Tom is short with her because she has refused him more money. In a private interview with Tom, Harthouse offers to help him with his debts and urges him to be nicer to his sister. That evening, Tom is indeed much nicer to her. Harthouse observes the gratitude in her face.

Part 14 (July 1, 1854)

(II:8) During the night, the bank is robbed by someone using a forged key. Bitzer and Mrs. Sparsit had seen Blackpool loitering outside the bank, and the disgruntled hand is suspected. After this “explosion,” Mrs. Sparsit comes to stay at the Bounderby country house; she pays particular attention to Bounderby, playing cards with him and fixing his favorite drinks. Louisa is shocked by the news of the robbery. When she asks Tom if he has anything to tell her, she gets only a sullen and resentful reply.

Part 15 (July 8, 1854)

(II:9) Mrs. Sparsit takes over her old role as Bounderby’s housekeeper. Louisa is indifferent, but Mrs. Sparsit’s involvement with Bounderby frees Louisa to spend more time with Harthouse. When Louisa is called back from the country to the bedside of her gravely ill mother, Mrs. Gradgrind tries to tell her daughter of something that has been missing from her life, but she dies without communicating her message. (II:10) Mrs. Sparsit imagines a staircase and, as she contemplates this mental image, she watches Louisa descending. Bounderby informs Mrs. Sparsit that Blackpool and an old woman are the prime suspects in the robbery. That evening Mrs. Sparsit watches Harthouse and Louisa talking in the garden. They are talking about Blackpool: Harthouse found him “dreary,” but Louisa believed in him.

Part 16 (July 15, 1854)

(II:11) Mrs. Sparsit continues to watch Louisa’s descent. When she learns that Harthouse, who is away hunting in Yorkshire, will return while Bounderby is away on business, she hastens to the country house and, hiding in the heavy shrubbery, spies on the couple as Harthouse presses his suit. Louisa resists but appears finally to give in. Mrs. Sparsit cannot overhear the arrangements, however, for a thunderstorm drowns out their words. In the rain, she follows Louisa to the train, but she loses track of her when they arrive in Coketown. (II:12) Louisa goes to her father and tells him that his training has made her empty and confused, that she has left a husband she despises, that Harthouse has proposed to elope with her, and that she has not disgraced her father. She tells him that his philosophy has brought her to this pass and asks him to save her. Then she collapses at his feet.

Book the Third. Garnering.

Part 17 (July 22, 1854)

(III:1) Shaken by his daughter’s revelations, Gradgrind tells Louisa the next morning that he has neglected the wisdom of the heart for the wisdom of the head. Sissy, who has brought such understanding into the Gradgrind household, offers to help Louisa. (III:2) That evening Sissy goes to Harthouse and tells him that he should forget Louisa and leave Coketown. Harthouse is struck by how “absurd” and “ridiculous” he will appear if he just walks away from Coketown, but he is “vanquished” by Sissy and decamps for Egypt and the pyramids.

Part 18 (July 29, 1854)

(III:3) When Bounderby appears at Stone Lodge with Mrs. Sparsit to inform Gradgrind that Louisa has run off, he learns that she is in her father’s house. Although Gradgrind tells Bounderby that Louisa is suffering from the education he gave her and needs time with Sissy to recuperate, Bounderby demands that she return to his house by noon the next day. When she does not appear, he gets rid of her things and resumes his bachelor life. (III:4) Bounderby pursues his investigation into the bank robbery. Rachael assures him that Stephen will return to clear his name; she sends a letter to Stephen telling of the accusations against him, but he does not return.

Part 19 (August 5, 1854)

(III:5) Sissy assures Rachael that the people of Stone Lodge still believe in Stephen. The two women plan to walk in the countryside to search for him on the route he would take back to Coketown. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sparsit has apprehended the old lady who is suspected along with Stephen. The woman turns out to be Bounderby’s mother, Mrs. Pegler. She humiliates her son by giving a very different account of his childhood from the story he tells.

(III:6) In the country, Sissy and Rachael find Stephen’s hat lying on the ground near the entrance to an abandoned mine—the Old Hell Shaft. With help they find Stephen at the bottom, injured but still alive. Stephen tells of hurrying to return to Coketown, cutting across open country at night, and falling into the pit. He also tells of a star he has watched from the bottom of the pit and of his wish that all men might live together peacefully. He tells Gradgrind of Tom’s request that he wait outside the bank. Then he dies.

Part 20 (August 12, 1854)

(III:7) Tom disappears from the group gathered around the Old Hell Shaft. Gradgrind realizes his son’s guilt and Sissy tells him that she directed Tom to go to Sleary’s circus. There they find Tom, dressed as a clown, taking part in the show. He blames Louisa for his crime, for she did not give him the money he needed, and he excuses himself by citing figures to prove his dishonesty was predictable. They prepare to send him abroad, but just as he is about to leave, Bitzer arrives to arrest him. (III:8) Gradgrind tries to appeal to Bitzer’s good nature, which is lacking, and to his self-interest, but Bitzer thinks he can take over Tom’s position at the bank only if he apprehends him. Finally Sleary distracts Bitzer and Tom is spirited away. Sleary explains the circus philosophy to Gradgrind: Sissy’s faith that her father will return is a sign, he says, that there is love in the world and “not all [is] self interest after all.” His other message to Gradgrind is that “People mutht be amuthed. They can’t be alwayth a-learning, nor yet they can’t be alwayth a-working.” Thus Sleary challenges the two central propositions of Gradgrind’s shattered worldview.

(III:9) Bounderby, outraged by the Mrs. Pegler episode, dismisses Mrs. Sparsit and sends her off to live with her relation, Lady Scadgers. The future shows Bitzer rising in business; Bounderby dying of a fit in the street; Gradgrind adopting the philosophy of Faith, Hope, and Charity and exonerating Blackpool; Tom dying penitent abroad; Sissy marrying and raising a loving family; and Louisa, remaining unmarried, loving Sissy and her children.

COMMENTARY

Dickens wrote Hard Times for Household Words, and the novel seems almost tailored to articulate the aims of the magazine, stated in its first issue: “No realities, will give a harsh tone to our Household Words. . . . We would tenderly cherish that light of Fancy which is inherent in the human breast; which, according to its nurture, burns with an inspiring flame, or sinks into a sullen glare, but which (or woe betide that day!) can never be extinguished.”

Yet Dickens had difficulty with the short installments called for in the weekly magazine, and as he worked on the novel, he thought of it in terms of monthly parts. Compared with the other monthly serials, however, Hard Times is a very short novel. Its five monthly numbers (two for “Sowing,” two for “Reaping,” one for “Garnering”) make it only a quarter of the standard length. Even when compared with the other weekly serials, such as A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations, Hard Times is a short novel. Its spare and unembellished prose, its simple fable, and its overt didacticism reinforce the impression that the shortest of Dickens’s novels is also the simplest. So uncharacteristic is it that many Dickensians have considered it insignificant; Frederic G. Kitton (1900), for example, placed it along with the magazine articles, travel books, and Christmas Books among Dickens’s “minor writings.”

The novel’s controversial subject matter has put off many readers like the Whig historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, who dismissed it as “sullen socialism,” but Hard Times has also had defenders; John Ruskin considered it the most important of Dickens’s novels and in Unto This Last (1862) called its view of industrialism “the right one, grossly and sharply told.” This Victorian controversy, which pitted the novel’s detractors, who decried its lack of Dickensian humor, against those who praised its social insights, has continued to the present, supercharged in 1948 by what may be the single most controversial essay on Dickens in the 20th century, F. R. Leavis’s “Note” on Hard Times in The Great Tradition. After excluding Dickens from the great tradition of the English novel as an “entertainer” in whose works “the adult mind doesn’t as a rule find . . . a challenge to an unusual and sustained seriousness,” Leavis added an appendix describing Hard Times as a “masterpiece” and an exception to this rule. He praised the tight construction of the novel as a “moral fable,” its systematic critique of Utilitarianism, and its poetic expression. His eccentric evaluation—reprinted in slightly revised form in 1970 in Dickens the Novelist—aroused many Dickensians to respond. Many made the case for the greatness of the other novels, often at the expense of Hard Times, which was frequently described as misinformed on the issues, humorless, and lacking convincing and engaging characters.

Certainly Dickens’s intent in the novel was serious. When he dedicated it to Thomas Carlyle, he told him, “I know it contains nothing in which you do not think with me.” The critique of industrialism and utilitarianism in the novel is as Carlylean as the history of the French Revolution in Two Cities. Carlyle described Victorian times as diseased, hardened by a belief in “mechanism” and “machinery,” and he attacked the economic philosophers of the day for using an analytic method that reduced everything to numbers and statistics. The utilitarians, he asserted, did not consider individuals, and they denied the truths of intuition and spirit.

Gradgrind represents the utilitarians in the novel. Appropriately, he schools his own children to become creatures of fact like himself. He sees these children not as living creatures filled with wonder but rather as empty vessels to be stuffed with facts. The contrast between the living, organic world that he stifles and the deadly realm of fact that drains life from the children is presented in the contrast between Sissy Jupe and Bitzer as they are caught in a shaft of sunlight entering the schoolroom. Sissy “was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous colour from the sun, when it shone upon her, the boy was so light-eyed and light-haired that the self-same rays appeared to draw out of him what little colour he possessed. . . . His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white” (I:2). This contrast between the natural and unnatural is fundamental to Dickens’s analysis in the novel. By reducing everything to material fact, utilitarianism is unnatural and destructive. It fragments the world into unnatural pieces—like the “facts” in Bitzer’s definition of a horse—and fails to see anything whole as it naturally appears in the world.

Dickens is sometimes criticized for creating an unrecognizable caricature of utilitarianism, the rational-empiricist philosophy of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), James Mill (1773–1836), and Mill’s son, the great political philosopher John Stuart Mill (1806–73). Bentham based his philosophy on a binary opposition between sensations of pleasure and pain and on the principle of maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. The philosophy’s quantifiable social goal was to achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Bentham and his followers were particularly interested in principles of social organization that facilitated progress toward this goal. While Gradgrind’s philosophy may not be intellectually rigorous, it is grounded in a binary opposition between fact and fancy, and it constructs “reality” from analytically derived pieces.

Gradgrind’s educational program has often been compared to the one James Mill developed for his son, a rigorous discipline in mathematics, logic, and language, instilled from early childhood, but Gradgrind’s system, with its commitment to the “-ologies,” may be more scientific than the one Mill devised. Both schemes, however, were unsuccessful. In his Autobiography (1873), John Stuart Mill described a nervous breakdown he suffered in his 20s when he realized that he really did not care about the social and rational principles he had been taught; he overcame the depression only when he allowed the truths of feeling, especially as expressed in Wordsworth’s poetry, to counter the absolute rationalism of his upbringing. In the novel, Louisa, Tom, and Bitzer also discover that their education in Gradgrind’s school, by denying feeling and imagination, has not prepared them to live fulfilling lives.

Louisa has no resources to enable her to respond to Bounderby’s proposal of marriage. When she asks her father’s advice, he can only suggest that she treat the issue “simply as one of Tangible Fact,” and then he reduces the fact to numbers, to the 30-year difference in their ages that he then evaluates statistically. Although Louisa has a vague sense that something more should be at issue, she does not know what it might be and acquiesces to the marriage, saying, “What does it matter?” (II:15). Tom, who has learned the principle of self-interest and who has no empathy for anyone but himself, robs Bounderby’s bank and frames Blackpool. Bitzer, the model analyst who reduces the world to bits, also evaluates everything in terms of self-interest. When Gradgrind tries to bribe him to allow Tom to escape arrest, the calculating Bitzer responds from pure self-interest: “Knowing that your clear head would propose that alternative,” he tells Gradgrind, “I have gone over the calculations in my mind; and I find that to compound the felony, even on very high terms indeed, would not be as safe and good for me as my improved prospects in the Bank” (III:8).

The reductionism inherent in Utilitarianism was exaggerated in the principles of political economy, the popular economic philosophy of the time that reduced all human relationships to economic self-interest. The names of Gradgrind’s younger children—Adam Smith and Malthus— suggest the alliance between the utilitarians and political economists whom Dickens was attacking. Coketown and Mr. Bounderby are the most blatant expressions of the new economics in the novel. A town of red brick, smoke and ashes, machinery, and tall chimneys, Coketown articulates the philosophy that created it: “Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial” (I:5). Like the schoolchildren who are reduced to “vessels,” Coketown’s inhabitants are reduced to “hands,” “people equally like one another, who 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 counterpart of the last and the next” (I:5). What signs there are of imagination have been perverted into repetitive madness by the iron laws of economics that define the town’s existence: from the chimneys “interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. . . . [and] the piston of the steam engine worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness” (I:5).

Bounderby, the captain of industry who represents the triumph of economics, also perverts imagination. Like Dickens’s great comic figures— Micawber, Tony Weller, or Sarah Gamp, for example—Bounderby claims to be self-created, but his rags-to-riches story of rising from abandonment to become Josiah Bounderby of Coketown is not a triumph of imagination. It is a clichéd narrative, produced to affirm the ideology of laissez-faire, and it is a lie. Unlike Gradgrind, who is humbled and changed by Louisa’s fall, Bounderby is simply reinforced in his fatuous dishonesty. He bullies Gradgrind’s humility and rejects Louisa.

Stephen Blackpool’s double bind shows how the “laws” of Coketown constrain and oppress the worker. When he seeks to escape “the muddle,” Bounderby accuses him of rebelliousness and of being a dupe of some “mischievous stranger” (I:11), but when Stephen refuses to go along with Slackbridge and join the Labor Union, he is shunned by his fellow workmen. The marriage laws and the laws of political economy conspire to deny Stephen love, community, and identity. Although Stephen can imagine a better life for himself, he dies as an industrial martyr, killed by falling into the hell shaft of industrial England. He cannot escape the muddle.

Harthouse’s cynical fatalism—“What will be will be” (II:8)—is an apt expression of the fundamental truth of a world without imagination, and it echoes Louisa’s “What does it matter?” If fact rules everything, then human choice and action can have no effect. Harthouse is ironically named, for he is as empty inside as Bounderby, but he does act as a catalyst to make Louisa aware of her own heart and inner needs. Their climactic rendezvous takes place outside Coketown in a natural setting during a cleansing rainstorm (II:11), and it releases Louisa’s natural impulses that have been so long repressed.

Sissy Jupe is the real representative of heart. She acts from a higher law than the law of fact, and she alone can reduce Harthouse to absurdity and convince him to leave Coketown. She affirms the centrality of love. Her loyalty to her father, even after he abandons her, is in marked contrast to Bounderby’s immediate rejection of Louisa after she returns to her father. Sissy’s connections with the circus also enable Tom to escape the inevitability of “the law.”

The circus embodies the alternative to Coketown’s philosophy of fact. Its world of illusion expresses its commitment to fancy, to imagination. Its horses are not fettered to mechanical routines like the melancholy elephants in Coketown; the circus people know and understand them from experience, not from textbook definitions of them, so a real horse can dance rings around Bitzer and foil his attempt to arrest Tom (III:8). There is a community among the circus people, derived from another power of the imagination, the power to empathize with others, to imagine oneself in another’s place. Sleary sums up the philosophy of fancy when he tells Gradgrind “that there ith a love in the world, not all Thelf-interetht after all” and that fancy “hath a way of ith own of calculating or not calculating, whith Thomehow or another ith at leatht ath hard to give a name to” (III:8). These mysterious powers of love, empathy, and imagination offer hope, comfort, and amusement.

The circus has sometimes been criticized as an inadequate symbol to represent the alternative to fact. Certainly the amusing circus vagabonds were a less-established social institution than the factories and schools of fact in Victorian England. The circus’s power to counteract the destructive effects of industrialism is very limited. It saves Tom from arrest, but he will soon die far from home. It may be the basis of Sissy’s ability to achieve happiness, but it cannot remove the taint of Coketown from Louisa, who will never know the happiness of having her own family. Coketown has blighted Tom’s and Louisa’s lives and the lives of every other inhabitant. The circus changes Gradgrind, but he is scorned by his former associates and Coketown goes on as before. The marginality of the circus may suggest just how important its presence was in Victorian England, even if its unspoken philosophy of fancy was accessible only to those who could translate the truths in Sleary’s boozy prose.

CHARACTERS AND RELATED ENTRIES

Bitzer

Star pupil at Mr. Gradgrind’s school, he goes to work for Bounderby’s bank. There he spies on Tom Gradgrind and reports his illegal activities. “His skin was so unwholesomely deficient in the natural tinge, that he looked as though, if he were cut, he would bleed white” (I:2).

Bitzer’s name—especially apt today in the age of computer bits—identifies him as an example of the fact school that fails to see things whole and instead cuts them up analytically into bits and pieces. His education has left him with only one motivation, self-interest. His opposite in the novel is Sissy Jupe, who is as colorful as he is white. She thinks only of individuals, not averages or numbers, and her primary motivation is love for others.

Blackpool, Mrs.

Stephen’s wife of 19 years, “a disabled, drunken creature . . . so foul to look at, in her tatters, stains, and splashes, but so much fouler than that in her moral infamy, that it was a shameful thing even to see her” (I:10). A shadowy figure who has left her husband, she reappears periodically, disrupting his life and his hopes of marrying Rachael.

Blackpool, Stephen

A power-loom weaver in Bounderby’s mill, he is “a rather stooping man with a knitted brow, a pondering expression on his face, and a hard-looking head sufficiently capacious, on which his iron grey hair lay long and thin” who finds life “a muddle” (I:10). He loves Rachael, another Coketown factory hand, but he is unable to marry her because he is already married. When he seeks advice from Bounderby about how to obtain a divorce, he is rebuffed by his employer as a troublemaker (I:11), and when he refuses to join the union he is ostracized by his fellow workers (II:4). When Stephen leaves Coketown to look for work, Tom Gradgrind manages to throw suspicion for the bank robbery on him (III:4). As he returns to clear his name, Blackpool falls into an empty mineshaft, the Old Hell Shaft, and dies shortly after he is rescued by Sissy and Rachael (III:6).

Stephen’s name, combining allusions to Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Blackpool, a town in Yorkshire, suggests the tension between his symbolic role as a victim of industrialism and his realistic role as a Yorkshireman. He has been criticized as sentimental and impossibly good, and he has been praised by Ruskin and others as an accurate portrait of a workingman.

Bounderby, Josiah 

Coketown banker and mill owner and friend of Mr. Gradgrind: “A big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh. A man made out of coarse material, which seemed to have been stretched to make him. . . . A man who could never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man. . . . A man who was the Bully of humility” (I:4). To maintain the myth that he is self-made, Bounderby hides his mother, Mrs. Pegler, who has sacrificed to give him an education and a place in the world. He bullies his employees, convinced that they are a rebellious lot who want to “be set up in a coach and six, and . . . fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon” (I:11). He pursues Stephen Blackpool, one of his mill hands who is accused of robbing his bank, and later the actual robber, Tom Gradgrind, who works in the bank. His marriage to Louisa Gradgrind is a loveless union that ends when she leaves him and returns to her father’s home (II:12). The truth about his origins is revealed at the close of the novel (III:5).

A satiric portrait of a “Manchester Man”—the composite of the generation of mill owners that emerged in the early decades of the industrial revolution—Bounderby has often been considered one of the great achievements in Hard Times. Described by James Marlow (Charles Dickens: The Uses of Time, 1994) as “an archetypal character of capitalistic civilization,” Bounderby represents the practical captains of industry who often allied themselves with the philosophic radicals like Gradgrind to promote their interests and doctrines of laissezfaire. Typical of this new class, Bounderby combines ownership of the factory with that of the bank to control the economy of Coketown; he celebrates his economic ascendancy by hiring as his housekeeper Mrs. Sparsit, a lady with upper-class relations, and by acquiring in a liquidation sale a country house formerly owned by a member of the gentry. Most of all, Bounderby concocts a clichéd rags-to-riches story, attributing his success solely to his own hard work. The novel exposes him as a bounder and fraud and his story as a lying misuse of the power of fiction.

Childers, E. W. B.

Equestrian performer with Sleary’s Circus, “a remarkable sort of Centaur . . . celebrated for his daring vaulting act as the Wild Huntsman of the North American Prairies” (I:6). He stands up to Gradgrind and Bounderby when they disparage Sissy’s father (I:6), and he later helps Tom escape to Liverpool (III:7, 8). He is married to Sleary’s daughter Josephine, and their three-yearold son is billed as “The Little Wonder of Scholastic Equitation” (III:7). His name is associated with the childlike qualities of the imagination that are represented by the circus and threatened by industrialism.

Coketown

Industrial town that serves as the setting for Hard Times; “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 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” (I:5). Commentators have disagreed whether the original of Coketown was Manchester or Preston; it is safe to say that it is neither but rather a town based on Dickens’s visits to both places and to other industrial towns in the north of England.

Gradgrind, Louisa

Gradgrind’s daughter, whose emotional life and imagination are blighted by her father’s philosophy. She is vaguely aware that something is missing in her upbringing and her life: “struggling through the dissatisfaction of her face, there was a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow, which brightened its expression.” Taught to consult only her head and not her heart, she marries Bounderby because she can think of no reason not to, because her father provides no help with her decision (I:15), and because Tom asks her to. She is wholly unprepared to encounter the seductions of James Harthouse who, by playing on her affection for her brother, convinces her to leave her husband (II:11–12). She does not run off with Harthouse but instead returns to her father, whose transformation is inspired by her fall. She is denied the joys of motherhood but becomes a loving nurturer to Sissy’s children (III:9).

Gradgrind, Mrs.

Thomas Gradgrind’s wife. So much in the shadow of her husband, Mrs. Gradgrind lacks even the identity of a Christian name. She is “a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily; who was always taking physic without any effect, and who, whenever she showed any symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her” (I:4). Gradgrind’s philosophy has so drained her of life that she is reduced to near transparency and idiocy. She dies unenlightened before Louisa returns home (II:9).

Gradgrind, Thomas

Retired merchant and member of Parliament for Coketown, he is the sponsor of a school devoted to teaching his philosophy of hard facts and a representative of the utilitarian point of view in Parliament. “A man of realities—a man of facts and calculations—a man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over” (I:2). Gradgrind’s educational system discourages imagination, stresses fact, and encourages such rote memorization as Bitzer’s definition of a horse (I:2). The children are told to “never wonder” (I:8). This heartless philosophy has its harshest effects on his children: Louisa accepts a loveless marriage, and Tom is consummately selfish. The names of the other Gradgrind children, Jane, Adam Smith, and Malthus, bespeak their father’s philosophical commitments. The coldness, hardness, and lack of imagination in Gradgrind’s philosophy is caricatured in Stone Lodge, his home, which expresses the same qualities as its owner: “A great square house, with a heavy portico darkening the principal windows, as its master’s heavy brows overshadowed his eyes” (I:3).

Gradgrind is not a wholly unsympathetic figure. His motives, unlike Bounderby’s, are not selfinterested, and his remorse when Louisa leaves her husband and Tom robs a bank generates a natural sympathy for him not unlike that for the converted Scrooge. Gradgrind has often been criticized, especially in the 19th century, as a shallow and ignorant depiction of utilitarianism, but the story recounted in John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography (1873) of his nervous breakdown after he underwent a one-sided utilitarian curriculum gives credence to Dickens’s critique.

Gradgrind, Thomas, Jr. (“the Whelp”)

Son of Thomas Gradgrind whose education leaves him totally selfish and unconcerned for others: “It was very remarkable that a young gentleman who had been brought up under one continuous system of unnatural restraint, should be a hypocrite; but it was certainly the case with Tom. It was very strange that a young gentleman who had never been left to his own guidance for five consecutive minutes, should be incapable at last of governing himself; but so it was with Tom. It was altogether unaccountable that a young gentleman whose imagination had been strangled in his cradle, should be still inconvenienced by its ghost in the form of groveling sensualities; but such a monster, beyond all doubt, was Tom” (II:3). Tom urges Louisa to marry Bounderby to forward his own career at Bounderby’s bank (I:14). Later, he robs the bank after framing Stephen Blackpool to appear guilty (II:6–8). He hides in Sleary’s circus, and Sleary helps him escape to Liverpool and from there to America.

Harthouse, James

A good-looking gentleman of 35 who comes as a potential parliamentary candidate to look over Coketown. “Had tried life as a Cornet of Dragoons, and found it a bore; and had afterwards tried it in the train of an English minister abroad, and found it a bore; and had then strolled to Jerusalem, and got bored there; and had then gone yachting about the world, and got bored everywhere” (II:2). He insinuates his way into Louisa Bounderby’s affections by his apparent interest in her brother Tom, whom he calls “the Whelp” (II:7). When Bounderby is away, he meets Louisa in the garden of her country house and urges her to run off with him, but she returns instead to her father’s home (II:11–12). Representing Louisa, Sissy Jupe confronts him and persuades him to leave Coketown (III:2).

Described by George Bernard Shaw (1985) as the typical Victorian “swell,” Harthouse is the catalyst who prompts Louisa’s transformation, even as he fails to engage her affections. He is less sympathetically treated than some others among Dickens’s dandies, characters such as Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities or Eugene Wrayburn in Our Mutual Friend. Diffident, fashionable, and smooth, he is described as satanic and devilish, and he uses his diabolical smoothness to take in Gradgrind, corrupt Tom, and seduce Louisa. In the end, his schemes come to nothing, and he leaves Coketown “a great Pyramid of failure . . . to go up the Nile” (III:2).

Jupe, Cecelia (Sissy)

Daughter of the circus clown and dog trainer Signor Jupe, she is adopted into the Gradgrind household when her father runs off and abandons her. There she is unsuccessfully educated, as “Girl number twenty,” at Gradgrind’s school. A foil to Bitzer, whose whiteness reveals his lack of human feeling and warmth, Sissy “was so dark-eyed and dark-haired, that she seemed to receive a deeper and more lustrous color from the sun, when it shone upon her” (I:2). She is wholly incapable of making sense of statistics, which she calls “stutterings.” Her loving-kindness counters the “hard fact” utilitarianism in the Gradgrind household. She cares for Louisa after her separation from Bounderby, convinces Harthouse to leave Coketown (III:2), discovers the dying Stephen Blackpool in the Old Hell Shaft (III:6), and accompanies Gradgrind and Louisa when they go to Sleary’s circus in search of Tom (III:7).

Jupe, Signor

Circus clown and dog trainer who disappears from the circus when he thinks himself too old to perform (I:6). Although Jupe’s fate remains unknown, Sleary assumes that he has died when his dog, Merrylegs, returns to the circus on his own (III:8).

Kidderminster

“A diminutive boy with an old face” who assists E. W. B. Childers in his equestrian act in Sleary’s Circus. “Made up with curls, wreaths, wings, white bismuth, and carmine, this hopeful young person soared into so pleasing a Cupid as to constitute the chief delight of the maternal part of the spectators; but in private, where his characteristics were a precocious cut-away coat and an extremely gruff voice, he became of the Turf, turfy” (I:6). Like that of his colleague Childers, Kidderminster’s name suggests the childlike imagination that is symbolized by the circus.

M’Choakumchild

Schoolmaster in Gradgrind’s school of hard facts. “He and some one hundred and forty other schoolmasters, had been lately turned out at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs. He had been put through an immense variety of paces, and had answered volumes of head-breaking questions. Orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody, biography, astronomy, geography, and general cosmography, the sciences of compound proportion, algebra, land-surveying and levelling, vocal music, and drawing from models, were all at the ends of his ten chilled fingers. . . . If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!” (I:2).

In M’Choakumchild, Dickens satirizes the gen eration of teachers produced—mechanically, he thought—by the new teachers’ colleges. M’Choakumchild’s Scottish ancestry alludes to the importance of the Scots as political economists and hard-facts philosophers. George H. Ford and Sylvere Monod (1966) suggest that M’Choakumchild was based on the Scottish schoolmaster and textbook writer J. M. McCulloch, headmaster of Circus-Place School, Edinburgh.

Rachael

Coketown factory hand and faithful friend to Stephen Blackpool: “She turned . . . and showed a quiet oval face, dark and rather delicate, irradiated by a pair of very gentle eyes, and further set off by the perfect order of her shining black hair. It was not a face in its first bloom; she was a woman of five-and-thirty years” (I:10). Although she and Stephen love each other, his inability to secure a divorce from his drunken wife prevents their marrying. She tends Stephen’s wife during her illness (I:13). Stephen’s promise to her not to join the trade union causes the other workmen to shun him (II:4). With Sissy, she discovers the injured Blackpool at the bottom of Old Hell Shaft (III:6).

Slackbridge

Union organizer in Coketown who publicly castigates Blackpool for refusing to join the association. “An ill-made, high-shouldered man, with lowering brows, and his features crushed into an habitually sour expression, he contrasted most unfavourably, even in his mongrel dress, with the great body of his hearers in their plain working clothes” (II:4).

George Bernard Shaw (1985) considers Slackbridge Dickens’s “one real failure in the book,” revealing the author’s bourgeois mistrust of unions. Slackbridge’s characterization is vague, and his language, as Steven Connor (1985) points out, has an “elaborately ‘written’ quality.”

Sleary

Proprietor of an equestrian circus, “a stout man . . . with one fixed eye, and one loose eye” and a lisping, asthmatic voice “like the efforts of a broken pair of bellows, . . . and a muddled head which was never sober and never drunk” (I:6). He cares for Sissy Jupe after her father deserts her (I:6), and he shelters Tom Gradgrind after he runs from Coketown (III:7). Sleary’s philosophy, summed up in his assertion “People mutht be amuthed” (III:8), expresses Dickens’s views that imagination must temper hard facts and that amusement is essential even in the most earnest life. Many commentators consider Sleary’s circus inadequate as a symbol to represent the realm of imagination and counter the factualism of Gradgrind’s philosophy.

Sleary, Josephine

The circus owner’s daughter, “who had been tied on a horse at two years old, and had made a will at twelve, which she always carried about with her, expressive of her dying desire to be drawn to the grave by the two piebald ponies” (I:6). She marries E. W. B. Childers.

Sparsit, Mrs.

Bounderby’s housekeeper. A widow with aristocratic pretensions and “a Coriolanian style of nose” (I:7), she trades on her connections with the Powler and Scadgers families and hopes to marry Bounderby. When he marries Louisa, she is relegated to a position at Bounderby’s bank where, resentfully, she sets out to undermine his marriage, creating the fantasy of a great staircase that she sees Louisa descending. She spies on Louisa, brings news of Louisa’s rendezvous with Harthouse (III:3), and uncovers the identity of Mrs. Pegler as Bounderby’s mother (III:5), an act for which she is dismissed from Bounderby’s service (III:9). Critics have generally admired Mrs. Sparsit as an unerring portrait of aristocratic snobbery, satirically balanced to Bounderby’s bourgeois pretensions. Each is, in a way, the undoing of the other.

FURTHER READING
F. R. LEAVIS’s essay, first included in The Great Tradition (1948) and later in slightly revised form in Dickens the Novelist (1970), defined many of the critical issues in Hard Times and threw down a gauntlet to other critics by describing the novel as a “masterpiece.” John Holloway (“Hard Times: A History and a Criticism,” Dickens and the Twentieth Century, edited by John Gross and Gabriel Pearson, 1962) responded to Leavis by arguing that the novel was a shallow and simplistic rendering of utilitarianism. Robin Gilmour (“The Gradgrind School: Political Economy in the Classroom,” Victorian Studies, 1967), on the other hand, showed that Dickens understood in some depth the educational philosophy and schools that he was attacking. Michael Goldberg (1972) discusses Dickens’s debt to Thomas Carlyle in the novel. Paul Schlicke (1985) describes Victorian circuses and analyzes the symbolism of the circus in the novel. Steven Connor (1985) deconstructs the novel by analyzing the tensions between metaphor and metonymy. Kate Flint (1986) suggests that Dickens failed to confront the structural and social issues in his critique of industrial capitalism and chose instead to offer a sentimental vision of Sleary’s circus as an anarchic alternative to Coketown. George H. Ford and Sylvere Monod (1966), in their edition of the novel, include a selection of contemporary background pieces and responses to the novel as well as Leavis’s essay and some responses to it. Margaret Simpson’s Companion to Hard Times (1997) provides exhaustive notes to the text, its sources, contexts, and backgrounds.
Source: Davis, P. (2007). Critical companion to Charles Dickens. New York: Facts On File.



Categories: Historical Fiction, Literary Criticism, Literature, Novel Analysis, Victorian Literature

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