Hard Times begins in a classroom in the fictional English industrial town of Coketown, where Thomas Gradgrind is explaining his educational principles. He believes education should be based on facts and nothing else. On his way home, Gradgrind passes a circus and is shocked when he finds his two children, Thomas and Louisa, amusing themselves there. He scolds them and takes them home. At Gradgrind's home, Bounderby is taking pride in explaining to Mrs. Gradgrind about his deprived childhood, when Gradgrind returns and worries about his children's interest in the circus. He and Bounderby decide this is probably because Cecilia (Sissy) Jupe, one of the pupils at the school, is the daughter of one of the circus men. Bounderby gives instructions for Sissy to be dismissed from the school. Intending to meet Sissy's father, Gradgrind and Bounderby visit the circus folk at the Pegasus's Arms. But Sissy's father has deserted her. Gradgrind agrees with Mr. Sleary, the circus owner, to take Sissy into his own house and educate her. Bounderby tells Mrs. Sparsit, his housekeeper, that he intends to employ young Tom Gradgrind after he has finished his education. Later, Tom tells Louisa he hates the education he has received. He plans to enjoy himself more when he lives with Bounderby because he knows Bounderby is fond of Louisa, and he plans to use that to his advantage. Meanwhile, Sissy finds it Hard to settle down in her new life, with her education in facts alone. She waits every day for a letter from her father, but it never arrives. Stephen Blackpool, a weaver at a local factory, meets his friend Rachel in the street and walks her home. When he returns to his own house, he finds that his drunken wife has returned to him again. Stephen makes an appointment with Bounderby and asks whether he can divorce his wife. Bounderby says he must live with the situation. On his way home, Stephen is accosted by a mysterious old woman, who asks him about Bounderby, offering no explanation of why she wants the information. When Stephen arrives home, he finds Rachel attending his wife, who has been injured. During the night his wife wakes up and almost drinks some poisonous medicine. Rachel stops her in the nick of time. Some time passes. Tom goes to live with Bounderby; Gradgrind becomes a member of Parliament, and Bounderby marries Louisa, even though she does not love him. Bounderby then dismisses Mrs. Sparsit but gives her an apartment in the bank.
Book the Second — reaping
Bitzer, the bank messenger, informs Mrs. Sparsit that he does not trust Tom. A well-dressed stranger arrives to speak to Mrs. Sparsit, inquiring about Bounderby and his wife. The stranger is James Harthouse, who has been trained in the "hard facts" school of political thought and sent to Coketown by Gradgrind. Harthouse befriends Tom and takes a liking to Louisa, whom he realizes does not love her husband. A union representative, Slackbridge, gives a fiery speech to the factory hands, in which he condemns Stephen Blackpool for refusing to join their union. Stephen is thereafter scorned by the other factory hands, who refuse to speak to him. Stephen is summoned to see Bounderby, who fires him, and Stephen decides he must leave town. The mysterious old woman visits Stephen and Rachel and says she is Mrs. Pegler. Louisa and Tom also visit. Louisa gives Stephen a small amount of money to help him on his way, while Tom lays a plot that will result in Stephen being accused of robbery. Harthouse ingratiates himself with Louisa by revealing that he knows her brother has gambling debts. Harthouse convinces Louisa that he wishes to help Tom, but his purpose is to win over Louisa's heart for himself. Later, Tom confesses to Hart-house that he is in desperate need of money and resents his sister for not giving him more. Bounderby reports that some money was stolen from Tom's safe at the bank. He suspects that Stephen is the culprit, since Stephen was seen lurking in the vicinity of the bank for several nights. Bounderby also suspects the mysterious old woman he has heard about. But Louisa fears that Tom might have had something to do with it.
Aided by the meddling Mrs. Sparsit, who is jealous of Louisa, Louisa and Harthouse become closer, and Louisa becomes alienated from her husband. When Bounderby is absent, Mrs. Sparsit observes Harthouse and Louisa in earnest conversation. Harthouse tells Louisa he is in love with her. Mrs. Sparsit thinks they are planning to meet in town, and she follows Louisa on the train to Coketown but then loses track of her. Louisa confesses to her father that she hates her husband. She also confides that she may be in love with someone else, who is waiting for her to meet him. After appealing to her father for help, she faints at his feet.
Book the Third — garnering
Louisa wakes up in her old bed at her father's house. She is comforted by her younger sister, Jane. Gradgrind is distressed about her condition and begins to doubt the wisdom of his "hard facts" philosophy. Harthouse, who is disturbed about why Louisa has not come to meet him as planned, is confronted by Sissy at his hotel. She knows what has happened between Harthouse and Louisa, and she takes it upon herself to demand that Harthouse leave town immediately. Harthouse reluctantly complies. In the meantime, Mrs. Sparsit has reported her suspicions to Bounderby. Summoned by Bounderby, Gradgrind refutes Mrs. Sparsit's allegations by informing him that Louisa is at his house and has no intention of acting improperly with Harthouse. Gradgrind requests that Louisa be allowed to stay a little longer at his house, but Bounderby is insulted by this suggestion. He sends Louisa's belongings along and resumes life as a bachelor. Bounderby offers a reward for the arrest of Stephen, who is then publicly denounced by Slackbridge, the union delegate. Rachel writes to Stephen, asking him to return to clear his name. She expects him within two days, but many days go by and Stephen does not appear. Mrs. Sparsit confronts Mrs. Pegler, who turns out to be Bounderby's mother. It also transpires that Bounderby lied about his deprived childhood. He was, in fact, well provided for. Sissy and Rachel walk in the country. By chance they find Stephen's hat, which lies near an old mine shaft. They realize that Stephen must have been walking back to Coketown when he fell down the shaft. They summon local villagers for assistance. After much preparation, two men are lowered into the shaft, and they return with Stephen, who is badly injured. He dies before he can receive proper medical attention. Gradgrind is now sure that Tom is guilty of the robbery. Tom has disappeared, but Sissy knows he is hiding with the circus. Louisa, Sissy, and Gradgrind travel to the town where the circus is, where Tom confesses. The circus owner, Mr. Sleary, agrees to have Tom conveyed to Liverpool and then shipped to America. But Bitzer arrives and tries to take Tom back with him to Coketown. Sleary arranges to have them intercepted on the way, and so Tom escapes as planned. Bounderby punishes Mrs. Sparsit by sending her away to live with her relative.
Five years later, Bounderby dies of a fit in the street. Gradgrind repudiates his former philosophy and is derided by his political associates. Rachel continues to work Hard and shows compassion for Stephen's wife. Lonely, Tom dies of fever on his way home to see his sister. Louisa, although she never has children of her own, is loved by Sissy's children and does her best to stimulate in others a sense of beauty and imagination
Characters Bitzer Bitzer is a boy who attends Gradgrind's school and later becomes a porter at the bank. He is clearheaded and calculating, without emotion. Near the end of the novel, when Gradgrind tries to arrange for Tom's escape, Bitzer attempts to thwart their plans by taking Tom back to Coketown. He hopes to be rewarded by Bounderby, his employer, with a promotion. In this incident, Bitzer shows he has fully absorbed his education in the "hard facts" school and acts heartlessly in his own selfish interests. Stephen Blackpool Stephen Blackpool is a worker at the factory. He is industrious and virtuous, showing no malice to anyone despite how badly he is treated. Stephen is trapped in a bad marriage to an alcoholic wife, who makes his domestic life a nightmare. He has a loyal friend, Rachel, but they are unable to marry because Stephen cannot afford a divorce. Stephen is ostracized by the other workers at the factory because he refuses to join their union. Bounderby decides Stephen is a troublemaker and fires him. Without any means of livelihood, Stephen leaves Coketown, only to find that he has been accused of a robbery he did not commit. Returning to Coketown to clear his name, he falls down a disused mine shaft. He dies shortly after being rescued. Josiah Bounderby Josiah Bounderby is one of Coketown's most important citizens. He is a rich, self-made man in his late forties, although he looks older. He is a banker, a manufacturer, and a merchant. Bounderby is an arrogant, conceited, boastful man who takes pride in endlessly repeating how he dragged himself up by his own efforts after he was abandoned by his mother as a child. He practices a kind of inverted snobbery, in which the more wretched and poor he makes his childhood out to have been, the more moral credit he can claim for himself for becoming the important, respected man he is. Bounderby has no understanding of human nature and is content to hold his bigoted opinions. He thinks all the factory workers are idlers who want a life of luxury. He badly misjudges Stephen Blackpool and has no ability to communicate with his young wife, Louisa. When she goes to stay with her father, he angrily rejects her and returns to living as a bachelor. Bounderby's ultimate humiliation comes when his mother appears and reveals in the presence of others that his claim to have been abandoned is untrue. He was in fact well provided for as a child by a loving mother. Louisa Bounderby Louisa Bounderby is Thomas Gradgrind's daughter. She is an imaginative child, but she is emotionally stifled by the rigid education she receives in her father's school and household. She is strongly attached to her brother Tom. She agrees to marry Bounderby, even though she does not love him. She does this in part to please Tom, who is living at Bounderby's house and wants to see more of her. Louisa resigns herself to her fate and keeps her emotions under control. She seems to expect nothing more from life than what she receives, since her father has never allowed her to dream. Her life is disrupted when James Harthouse arouses her affections. In turmoil, she goes to stay with her father and confesses how unhappy she is. Bounderby considers that she has left him, and the marriage is in effect over, although there is no divorce. Louisa lives the rest of her life trying to encourage others to live a more balanced life than mere facts can provide. Thomas Gradgrind Thomas Gradgrind is a local businessman who made money in the hardware trade. He prides himself on being "eminently practical" and values only facts and figures. He raises his children according to these principles, refusing to let them indulge in "fancy." He even admonishes them when he finds them trying to peep into a circus booth. Gradgrind becomes a Member of Parliament and only begins to realize the error of his ways when he discovers how unhappy his daughter Louisa is. His misery is compounded when he learns that his son, Tom, is a thief. Realizing that his "hard facts" philosophy is deeply flawed, he tries to amend his life, paying more attention to the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. He is then scorned by his former political associates. Tom Gradgrind Tom Gradgrind is Thomas Gradgrind's son and Louisa's brother. He dislikes the education he receives from his father and becomes a failure by his father's standard. Put under Bounderby's wing, he becomes a clerk at the bank, but he is lazy and also accumulates gambling debts. To escape from the debts, he steals money from the bank and tries to frame Stephen Blackpool for the crime. To escape justice, he is forced to emigrate to the United States. James Harthouse James Harthouse is a charming but cynical gentleman who has found no true mission in life. He has been a cavalry officer and has traveled around the world, but he always gets bored with what he is doing. He is recruited by Gradgrind for the utilitarian cause and sent to Coketown. But Harthouse only pretends to be a utilitarian and merely idles his time away. He ingratiates himself with Tom Gradgrind and tries to seduce Louisa, but when confronted by Sissy, he agrees to leave town. Cecilia Jupe Cecilia Jupe, known as Sissy, is a young girl whose father is a member of the circus. When her father deserts her, Gradgrind takes her into his house and allows her to attend his school. Sissy does not fare well at school because she is too much in touch with her heart and does not understand the school's emphasis on mere facts and figures. She and Louisa become friends, and when Louisa is pursued by Harthouse, Sissy confronts him and demands that he leave town. Mr. M'choakumchild Mr M'Choakumchild is the teacher in Gradgrind's school. He is well trained and knowledgeable, but the narrator does not believe he is a good teacher. Mrs. Pegler Mrs. Pegler is Josiah Bounderby's mother. She appears mysteriously in Coketown without at first disclosing her identity. But when she meets her son, she discloses the true details of his upbringing, which he has falsified. Rachel Rachel is Stephen Blackpool's longtime friend. She shows great love and loyalty to him, even though she knows they will never be able to marry. She is with him when he dies. Slackbridge Slackbridge is the union delegate who gives a rabble-rousing speech to the factory workers. He excoriates Stephen Blackpool for not joining their union and later on is quick to condemn Stephen again when Stephen is accused of robbery. Mr. Sleary Mr. Sleary is the owner of the circus. He is a kindly old man who suffers from asthma and is frequently the worse for drink. His philosophy is the opposite of Gradgrind's; he believes that people cannot spend all their lives working and learning because they must also have their amusements. Near the end of the novel, he shelters Tom Gradgrind and makes arrangements for Tom to leave the country. Mrs. Sparsit Mrs. Sparsit is Bounderby's housekeeper. She comes from the distinguished Powler family, but a long time ago she entered a disastrous marriage and has since come down in the world. She takes a dislike to Louisa and takes great pleasure in the breakup of Louisa's marriage to Bounderby. Bounderby eventually dismisses her, and she goes to live with her irascible great aunt, Lady Scadgers. Stephen Blackpool's Wife Stephen Blackpool's wife is never named. She has been married to Stephen for nineteen years, but the marriage deteriorated early because of her love of drink. She remains a drunk who brings her husband nothing but misery
Mr. Gradgrind's educational philosophy is based on the utilitarian idea that only facts and figures are important. This excludes all other values, especially "fancy." Everything in Gradgrind's world is based on facts, measurement, and strict order. Even his house, with its rigidly symmetrical design, reflects his principles, as do the grounds. Lawn, garden, and walkway are all "ruled straight like a botanical account-book." Fancy, on the other hand, is embodied in the child's sense of wonder, which Gradgrind attempts to eradicate in his children. Tom and Louisa are not allowed to read poetry, learn nursery rhymes, or indulge in other childish amusements. Instead of toys, their nursery contains cabinets in which various metallurgical and mineralogical specimens are neatly arranged and labeled. Once, when Louisa began a conversation by saying, "I wonder," her father had replied, "Louisa, never wonder!" For him, all questions in life can be solved by calculation, by arithmetic. Anything that is not amenable to such analysis, that does not have a tangible reality, does not really exist. Gradgrind's world of "hard facts" also excludes all the values of the heart. This is amusingly depicted when Louisa deliberates about how to respond to Bounderby's marriage proposal. Gradgrind invites her to consider only the facts. Regarding the thirty-year difference between her and Bounderby, Gradgrind offers some statistics. He informs her that a large proportion of marriages in England and Wales are between people of very unequal ages and that in three-quarters of these cases, the elder party is the man. Similar statistics apply, according to Gradgrind, to British possessions in India and in China. Having established these facts, Gradgrind asserts that the difference in the ages of Louisa and Bounderby virtually disappears. For Gradgrind, there is nothing else to consider. Louisa's feelings in the matter are not important. Facts and statistics are at the heart of the curriculum in Coketown's school. This is why Sissy, who was raised in a circus family (the embodiment of fancy, according to Gradgrind), does not fare well there. The schoolmaster, the appropriately named M'Choakumchild, tries to convince her with statistics about how prosperous a town is if, out of a million inhabitants, only twenty-five starve to death in the streets each year. Sissy replies that it must be just as hard on the twenty-five, however many people there are who are not starving. Sissy always gives common sense answers that show she is in touch with the feeling level of life. She converts statistics into real people with real lives, which is not the way to flourish in Gradgrind's model school. Gradgrind's dedication to facts does not work because it deprives people of vital aspects of their humanity. Louisa is forced to live an emotionally stifled life and finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage. Tom resents his education and says he would like to take all the facts and figures he has been taught and all the people who had taught them and blow them up with gunpowder. In Book Three, everything Gradgrind represents unravels. Louisa's marriage fails, and Tom is revealed as a thief. Such are the fruits of Gradgrind's "hard facts" approach to education. The only person who thrives on the education he receives is Bitzer, who shows in his confrontation with Gradgrind in Book Three how well he has absorbed his lessons. When Gradgrind, trying to Tom, asks Bitzer whether he has a heart, Bitzer replies in true Gradgrindian fashion: Since the blood cannot circulate without a heart to pump it, he certainly does have a heart. But it operates only according to the dictates of reason. Bitzer wants to take Tom back to Coketown because he expects Bounderby to reward him by promoting him at the bank. When Gradgrind tells him he has only his own interests at heart, Bitzer reminds his mentor that the whole social system is set up as a matter of self-interest. He is only repeating what he was taught. Gradgrind, to his distress, is hoisted on his own petard.
Evils of Industrialism
Dickens's critique of industrialism is apparent in his physical descriptions of Coketown and in his presentation of relations between owners and workers. Coketown is an unnatural, blighted place, constructed according to the utilitarian philosophy that Dickens refers to as Fact. Everything in Coketown is designed to maximize industrial output. Nothing else matters. The town itself is disfigured by all the smoke that belches from the factory chimneys and which turns the red bricks of the houses black. The river has been polluted by bad-smelling dye, and the canal is black. All the houses are exactly like one another, and all the other buildings resemble one another, too. (The jail, the infirmary and the town hall all look the same.) Everything, including the people, has been reduced to drab conformity. The place runs according to clockwork; everyone's routine is the same, day after day, year after year. It is a place not fit for humans to live in. This is symbolized by the variety of crooked and stunted chimneys on the houses, which proclaim that anyone born under these roofs is likely to be stunted in some way, too. Industrialism, with its emphasis on efficient production and nothing else, has ruined the lives of the workers in the factories, who toil long, monotonous hours, with little relief. Relations between the classes in Coketown are abysmal. The employers have a contemptuous opinion of the workers. They think the factory hands drink too much or stupefy themselves with opium. This hostile attitude is represented by Bounderby, who regards all the workers as ungrateful and restless, forever dissatisfied with their lot, even though, in his mind, they can afford to live well. Bounderby assumes the factory hands are all lazy and that anyone who complains simply wants a life of luxury, with "a coach and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon." He dismisses legitimate complaints as the work of external agitators. Stephen Blackpool expresses the situation between the two groups in a nutshell when he says the bosses consider themselves "awlus right," while the workers are "awlus wrong," no matter what they say or do. Stephen regards the economic and political system in Coketown and beyond as a "muddle." He can offer no solution to the problem (and neither does Dickens), but he does tell Bounderby the approaches that will not work. It is no use the employers trying to defeat the workers by force. Nor will the economic policy of laissez faire favored by the utilitarians accomplish anything. Stephen calls this "lettin alone"; it refers to the policy of allowing market forces to dictate economic arrangements without interference by government. According to Stephen, this will only create a "black unpassable world" between the two groups. Most of all, Stephen says, it will not work to treat the workers as machines rather than as human beings with feelings and hopes. Bounderby's response to this is to fire Stephen. Dickens, although often accused of writing a didactic work, offers no prescription for redeeming places like Coketown or changing economic systems that put men like Bounderby in charge of them. His final image is of Louisa doing what she can in her own small sphere to keep alive the hope of a balanced life, one not ruthlessly circumscribed by the worship of purely utilitarian considerations.
Satire is the literary technique of exposing someone or something to ridicule. The intent is to arouse contempt or amusement in the reader. Gradgrind, M'Choakumchild, Bounderby, and Mrs. Sparsit are the principle targets of satire in Hard Times, as well as the powers-that-be in Coketown. For example, in Book 1, chapter 2, the description of the rigors of M'Choakumchild's training and the long list of the subjects he has studied are not meant to impress the reader with his knowledge and wisdom. On the contrary, they are set out only to mock him, as the facetious tone suggests and as the last sentence explicitly states: "Ah, rather overdone, M'Choakumchild. If he had only learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught much more!" The point is that M'Choakumchild may know a lot, but he has neither the wisdom nor the skill to know how to impart it to young minds. Sometimes Dickens uses satiric irony, in which the satire is carried out by implying the opposite of what the surface meaning of the words states. This technique can be seen in the way Gradgrind mentally introduces himself to virtually anyone he encounters:
Thomas Gradgrind, sir. 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.
The irony is that Gradgrind thinks this shows what an intelligent, "eminently practical" man he is, but of course to the reader it means the exact opposite.
Coketown is always enveloped in clouds of smoke, which are belched out from the chimneys of houses and factories. They are described as "serpents of smoke," primarily because they trail out in a coiled shape that never uncoils. The image, which is repeated several times in the novel, suggests the ominous, life-denying quality of the industrial town, as if an evil, serpent-like spirit hovers over it. The serpent-smoke image is used in conjunction with an elephant image. The pistons of the steam engines in the factories as they move up and down are likened several times to "the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness," an image that gives to inanimate objects the sinister, aggressive quality of great animal power trapped in endless repetitive activity.
Pegasus, the winged horse from Greek mythology, is used in the novel as a symbol of fancy, as opposed to fact. The circus folk, who embody the fancy-principle, live at the Pegasus's Arms, which has a picture of Pegasus on its signboard. Inside, behind the bar, is a framed portrait of "another Pegasus," one of the circus horses, "with real gauze let in for his wings, golden stars stuck on all over him, and his ethereal harness made of red silk." The circus performers make their living by riding horses and performing feats of balance, strength, and horsemanship on them. The horses are a vital part of the entertainment that the circus offers, giving people a sense of wonder, something other than facts and figures. Horses can make the human imagination soar. The Pegasus symbol offers a devastating comment on Gradgrind's directive to the children in class (Book 1, chapter 2), to define a horse. Bitzer offers a purely factual definition, which includes this: "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive." This definition pleases Gradgrind, but of course it excludes everything symbolized by Pegasus. The point is driven home further if the flying Pegasus is seen in light of the comment made by the government gentleman to the children in Gradgrind's class. He tells them that they would never paper a room with representations of horses because such a thing would contradict reality: "Do you ever see horses walking up and down the sides of rooms in reality — in fact?" The government gentleman cannot conceive of a horse like Pegasus, but "fancy" can.