“Hard Times” by Charles Dickens was originally published between April and August in 1854 in a serialized form. Realizing that his weekly periodical, Household Words needed a boost in sales, Dickens hoped that putting “Hard Times” in it would help. He was right, it did boost sales. Charles Dickens had visited some factories in Manchester and was appalled at the working conditions. He pledged to use the biggest weapon at his disposal to bring the conditions to light. Since his writing was his weapon of choice, he wielded it perfectly. He uses his characters in this story to tell his opinions. A good bit of Dickens’ stories brought about reform in various areas. A feeling that children were taught too many dry facts in schools and not given the chance to allow their imaginations to grow is what prompted some of the storyline in this book.
“Hard Times” follows the story of a group of people in a small industrial town, and how the choices they made led to the outcomes they experienced. A father who thought he was exactly right, learned he was very wrong. A young girl who never learned to love is taught how, and another who has so much love to give, finds people who need her love.
In true Dickens’ fashion, all the characters come to the only conclusion they could have. The villains are left to die alone, and the good at heart are given a warm world to live in and spread their love around.
Book 1 – Sowing
April 1, 1854.
Hard Times opens in an empty school room. Three men are discussing the importance of education for young children. The importance of facts and facts alone in education is under discussion, while the children watch quietly, waiting to have facts “poured into them until they were full to the brim.” Mr. Thomas Gradgrind has established a model school in the small industrial town of Coketown. His school will teach nothing but the facts to children. He doesn’t want any imagination. Not fairy tales or adventure stories. While he is explaining his method of teaching to his newest teacher, Mr. McChoakumchild, Mr. Gradgrind decides to quiz the children, as an example of his methods. He asks girl number twenty to define a horse. She is new, so he doesn’t know her name, just her number. When he asks her what her name is she replies that it is Sissy Jupe. Mr. Gradgrind admonishes her for using a nickname. When she tells him it is what her father calls her, he asks what her father does. She says her father belongs to the “horse-riding”. He further corrects her by saying he must break horses. Fearful of correcting her teacher, she agrees, then he goes on to say, that the man doctors sick horses, so he must be a veterinary surgeon.
After reminding her that she is Cecelia Jupe, he asks her again to define a horse. When she is too alarmed to answer, he announces to the children that “Girl number twentynis unable to define a horse.” Then he throws the question over to a little boy, Blitzer. He has cold eyes and unwholesome skin. But, his definition is only facts, quadruped, forty teeth, etc. Sissy, embarrassed, sits down. Later, while walking home, Mr. Gradgrind sees his two oldest children peeking through a hole in the fence at the circus. He is furious! Mr. Gradgrind trained all of his own children since birth to deal with only facts and to not indulge in any entertainment. But, here is his oldest daughter, sixteen-year-old Louisa, and her younger brother, Thomas staring at the circus for entertainment. Louisa tries to defend her brother, by saying she pulled him there. But when Mr. Gradgrind pulls them away he then asks them what Mr. Bounderby would say if he could see them.
Mr. Bounderby is a friend of Mr. Gradgrind’s. He is boastful and coarse, but wealthy, which is why everyone admires him. He is, at this time, in the Gradgrind’s parlor bragging about his impoverished childhood. He blusters about it often; his mother abandoned him in a ditch, he was raised by an alcoholic grandmother, beaten, starved, barely clothed, etc.He is just getting into his favorite topic with the sickly Mrs. Gradgrind, while blocking the heat from her fire when Mr. Gradgrind comes in pulling his children along. Mr. Gradgrind proceeds to tell his friend about their misbehavior, expecting him to join in his admonishments. But, Mr. Bounderby just half heartily speaks to them and then tells them to go and study.
Mr. Bounderby theorizes that little Miss Jupe may be the cause of leading the children astray. Mr. Gradgrind agrees with him and the two decide to tell her father that she is no longer welcome at the school. But, before he leaves, Mr. Bounderby makes a quick stop in the nursery to see Louisa. He tells her he has redirected her father’s anger and wants a kiss in payment. She allows him to kiss her on the cheek, but, is obviously disgusted by him.
Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby take off for the circus. Along the way the see Sissy Jupe being chased by Blitzer. The two men stop the bullying and accompany the girl back to her father, who had sent her out to get horse liniment.
When the trio reaches the hotel the circus performers are all staying in, she learns that her father had lost his ability to perform, and had left, abandoning her. Mr. Gradgrind feels compassion for her and agrees to take her home with him. He plans to educate her in the same method he did his own children. Without imagination, only facts. She agrees only because she believes her father will be back for her. The circus master agrees to tell him where to find her if he does.
The next day, Bounderby is discussing Sissy with his housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit. Mrs. Sparsit is from an aristocratic family that has fallen on ‘hard times’. She is employed by Mr. Bounderby but never lets him forget about her lofty family. Since Mr. Bounderby has already staked out young Louisa as his future wife, he is concerned that Sissy may be a bad influence.
Meanwhile, Mr. Gradgrind has informed Sissy that she will still be attending his school and she will help out his wife while at home. This is all against the advice of Mr. Bounderby, but, Mr. Gradgrind likes to experiment with young minds. Louisa is not happy. Her world at the Stone Lodge is colorless. Her little brother, Tom, is also unhappy, but neither of them can quite put their finger on what is missing. Her mother warns Louisa against “wondering” about anything. Her father thinks it is fanciful to ‘wonder’ about things. She should gather facts and then know.
Little Miss Jupe is having trouble at school. Studying just the cold, hard facts is too difficult. Her mind wanders away quite often, and she worries about her father. Mr. Gradgrind admonishes her to stay to the facts and not think about her father, who may never come back. But, Louisa finds her fascinating. Louisa has been steered away from any strong emotions all her life, and she finds Sissy’s ability to express emotions wonderfully. During her talks with Sissy, Tom often reminds her to be careful. Mr. Bounderby won’t like her wondering about Sissy’s past.
April 29, 1854.
Mr. Stephen Blackpool works in one of Mr. Bounderby’s factories. His job is as a “hand”. It is one of the lowest menial jobs to be had in weaving. Though only forty years old, he seems much older. Stephen is stooped and wrinkled. But, he brightens when he sees his good friend, Rachael. She is good, honest and kind. He is in love with her, but hasn’t been able to express it in all the years the two have known each other, and the reason why is sitting on the floor of his tiny hovel. When he almost trips on his wife, Stephen is disgusted. She is a slovenly drunk, and she is back, again. She tells him to get up off the bed, as she will have it. He sadly puts his head in his hands and lets her have the bed. He settles his old bones onto the floor.
The next day, Stephen visits his employer, Mr. Bounderby. Considering him to be quite intelligent, Stephen explains his situation and asks if it is possible for him to get a divorce. Mr. Bounderby once again relays the story of his impoverished childhood, then informs Stephen that only the rich can afford a divorce. He will just have to accept his lot in life. After leaving Bounderby’s house, Stephen heads off to work. He meets an old woman who is watching the house. She tells him that she lives in the country and saves the whole year so she can visit that spot once a year and hope to catch a glimpse of Bounderby. Since she thinks he may not come out, she is glad to get to talk to Stephen who has just come from seeing the man. She accompanies Stephen to the factory and says how lovely the grim place is.
After work, Stephen dreads going home, and daydreams about a life with Rachael. He thinks how warm their home would be. When he does reach his home, Stephen is surprised to see Rachael tending to his sick wife. She tells him to go to sleep in the chair and rest. Suddenly, Stephen is awakened and sees his wife about to swallow a lethal dose of medicine. He is frozen with indecision about stopping her, but, Rachael steps in and takes the medicine away from the woman. Stephen thinks Rachael is an angel.
May 13, 1854.
Mr. Gradgrind has decided that Sissy is getting no where in school, but can stay with Mrs. Gradgrind and help her. School is not the place for her. Mr. Gradgrind has become a member of Parliament and is in London quite a lot. Since young Tom has begun his work as an apprentice in Mr. Bounderby’s bank, he has become more self-centered and hedonistic. He misses his sister taking care of him, and wants her to accept the marriage proposal he knows is coming from Mr. Bounderby. Since he has taken up residence in the home of Mr. Bounderby, she can live there, too. He knows that with her there, Mr. Bounderby would not interfere with Tom’s new past time of seeking pleasure with his friends.
Mr. Bounderby is fifty years old, and Louisa is sixteen, but when her father presses her on marrying the man, she doesn’t discount it. What she can’t understand, is if she is supposed to love him. After discussing the matter with her father, she realizes she may not know how to love, so what does it matter who she marries. She agrees to it because it makes her father happy. Mr. Bounderby is unsure about mentioning the marriage to his housekeeper. She is obviously not pleased, but agrees to care for the apartments he owns at the bank. He is thrilled with his choice of wife, and showers her with jewels and gifts. She still shows no emotion, until the last minute, when she clings to her brother afraid she is making a huge mistake. He, heartlessly tells her, “Time’s up. Goodbye!”.
Book 2 – Reaping
May 27, 1854.
Mrs. Sparsit has been residing at the bank for a year. Every day she sits in the window. She considers herself to be the Bank Fairy, sprinkling the bank here and there with her womanly graces. Adding a bit of sophistication to the bank. But, the people coming into the bank consider her to be the Bank Dragon, keeping watch over the treasures of the bank. Young Mr. Blitzer is now a porter at the bank, and the two of them are discussing the dissipation of young Tom Gradgrind. While they are talking, there is a knock at the door. An elegant young man enters. He is a stranger and saw her sitting in the window of the bank. He wanted to inquire as to if she knew Mr. Bounderby and his wife. When Mr. Sparsit tells him Mrs. Bounderby is young, he is surprised because he had heard she was very clever. He says that he is planning on studying politics with Mr. Gradgrind.
In the next chapter, the reader learns that the young man is James Hearthouse. He is also wealthy and a liar. He is only there to alleviate his boredom. He thinks studying politics will help with the boredom, and he has no interest in the philosophy Mr. Gradgrind follows, but he is willing to pretend he does, just to pass the time. When he has dinner with the Bounderby’s, James decides that the young Mrs. Bounderby may be just the ticket to passing that time pleasantly. Especially after he meets her brother. He and Tom have a few drinks together, at which point Tom has too many and get quite drunk. He tells James that the only reason his sister married Bounderby was to help him with his own finances. That she never loved the man. James plans to seduce her.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Coketown, the unions are brewing. There is a meeting going on with the Hands that work in the factories. They want better-working conditions and more pay. Stephen is at the meeting, but, he is against the union. He feels it would jeopardize the relationship between the workers and their boss. Most of the men think the union is a good idea, even his friends. Even though they have been his friends for years, they decide to ostracize Stephen. After four days of the cold shoulder, he is relieved when Blitzer comes to bring him to see Bounderby.
Mr. Bounderby wants to know what happened at the union meeting, but Stephen refuses to spy. In a rage, Bounderby fires him. Since his friends have all turned on him, Stephen must leave Coketown to find work. Outside the house, Stephen see Rachael speaking to the old woman he met there a year ago. He tells Rachael about losing his job, then invites the two women back to his place for tea. Even though he should be sad, he spends an enjoyable afternoon in Rachael’s presence. Soon, there is a knock at the door. It is Louisa and her brother, Tom. She heard Stephen tell her husband he would do nothing to stop the unions and was impressed with his honesty. She offers him money to help out, but he only agrees to take two pounds. Then Tom pulls him aside to make another offer. He says that if Stephen will wait outside the bank every evening, someone will come by with a good deal for him.
Stephen does this, but nothing happens, except Mrs. Sparsit and Blitzer noticing his loitering. Finally, he decides to be on his way to look for a job. As he is walking away, he thinks about Rachael and how much he misses her. James is dabbling in politics, but mostly planning the seduction of Louisa. He thinks he has found emotions in her she doesn’t know she has. Apparently, the only person she loves is her brother, so James plans his assault through him. He uses his influence over the boy to make him be nicer to his sister. Then James makes sure she knows he is the cause of her brother’s kindness.
July 1, 1854.
Mr. Bounderby comes charging into the parlor where James is working on his seduction. He announces that the bank has been robbed of 150 pounds. They suspect Stephen because he was seen loitering around the bank. Mrs. Sparsit is so unnerved by the robbery that she must stay with the Bounderby’s. While there she spends most of her time with Mr. Bounderby and insists on calling Louisa “Miss Gradgrind.”. Louisa believes that Stephen is innocent. She knows that her brother is in financial straights, so she confronts him. He denies committing the robbery, but when she leaves he weeps into his pillow.
Mrs. Sparsit is working on Mr. Bounderby, by flattering him and spending time with him, while noticing that Louisa spends time with James. All these romantic games are halted when Louisa receives a letter from home. Her mother is dying and Louisa rushes to her side. When Louisa arrives, she is surprised to see how much happier her little sister, Jane is. Sissy has been caring for the girl. Without the influence of her parents, the child is cheerful. While sitting with her mother, Louisa hears her mother call to her husband because there is something she forgot, and he will know what it is. After trying to trace the patterns of whatever was in her mind to write, Mrs. Gradgrind died.
Mrs. Sparsit is determined to catch Louisa with James. She imagines Louisa going down a dark spiral staircase into an abyss and can’t wait for it to happen. Feeling suspicious, Mrs. Sparsit catches the two of them in an intimate conversation. James is professing his love and wants Louisa to meet with him somewhere. He wants to be her lover. She agrees to meet him later that night in town but pushes him to leave now.
When Louisa heads into Coketown, Mrs. Sparsit follows her, but loses her along the way. All the while she is gleefully imagining Louisa falling off the end of that staircase. But, instead of meeting James, Louisa goes to her father. She runs into his study, drenched with rain and tells him that the way he raised her, on facts alone, ruined her. Now, she is so unhappy. She is stuck in a marriage with a man she doesn’t love, and maybe falling in love with James who wants her to become his lover. Then she collapses on the floor in sobs. Gradgrind is shocked and reproachful of himself. “he saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system lying, an insensible heap, at his feet.”
Book 3 – Garnering
July 22, 1854
Louisa stays at her father’s home. She is recuperating in her old bed. Her father says he wants to help her, but has never learned the “wisdom of the heart.” Finally, it is Sissy that helps her. She promises to help Louisa learn to use her emotions and to feel love and find happiness. Then Sissy meets with James. He is frantic because Louisa has not arrived. When Sissy sees him she tells him that he will never see Louisa again and he should leave town. Her kindness and honest beauty convince him to agree, and he leaves. Though ill with a bad cold she caught while following Louisa, Mrs. Sparsit manages to tell Bounderly that she saw Louisa with James. He is furious and drags her out of her sick bed to confront his wife at her father’s home. Mr. Gradgrind says he made mistakes in raising Louisa and wants Bounderly to leave her with him, so he can help her. He tells him, that as her husband, he should want what is best for her. Bounderly tells him that if she is not home by noon the next day, he will return all her things. He goes through with his threat, and begins to live his life as a bachelor, again.
Meanwhile, Bounderby has found an outlet for his rage. Stephen. He wants to track the ‘thief’ down. Even Stephen’s former friends suspect him as does the union leader. Only, Rachael remains trusting. She takes her beliefs to Mr. Bounderby and when she tells him that his wife and her brother, met with Stephen, Mr. Bounderby drags her and Tom over to see Louisa. Louisa confirms her story and hopes that Stephen can clear his name. As Bounderby and Tom leave, her brother gives Louisa a scowl. Rachael is sure that Stephen will return any day, but as weeks pass and he doesn’t, he begins to look more and more guilty.
Every night, Sissy visits Rachael while they wait for Stephen. One night, they see Mrs. Sparsit pulling the old lady who was watching Mr. Bounderly’s house inside, so he can accuse her of being an accomplice in the bank robbery. But, Bounderly is furious. The old woman is his mother. The story he has told over and over is a lie. She never abandoned him. She supported him and paid for him to go to the best schools, then he ran away and made up a different history for himself. He refused to allow her to visit him after he became wealthy. Bounderly is exposed in front of all his associates and refuses an explanation.
August 5, 1854.
Still wondering what could have happened to Stephen, Sissy persuades Rachael to take a walk with her. They find Stephens hat in the woods. Fearing an accident, the two women begin to search. The finally find him in an old mining shaft. He is alive but just barely. They run to get help. When Stephen is finally pulled to safety, a doctor is summoned. But, Stephen dies anyway. With his dying words, he tells Rachael that he loves her, and asks Louisa to have her father speak to her brother in order to clear his name.
Tom is missing. Louisa and her father discover that Sissy told Tom he could escape wit the circus. When they find him, he is still sullen and blames Louisa because she wouldn’t pay his gambling debts. She says she still loves him and they try to give him money so he can escape. But, before he can, Blitzer shows up and demands some of the circus people grab him so he can take him back to stand trial. Instead of helping Blitzer, the circus people help Tom, for Sissy’s sake. He escapes and leaves on a boat. Also, Sissy finds out that her father did not come back for her, because he is dead.
The final chapter wraps up with a look into the future. Mr. Bounderby fires Mrs. Sparsit, who must spend the rest of her days living with quarrelsome relatives. Mr. Bounderby will die in five years in the street of Coketown after a fit. Mr. Gradgrind will not teach facts anymore, but will devote his energies to religion and charity. Louisa will never marry, but will be an aunt to Sissy’s many children, and experience childhood with them. Tom will die abroad with the last thought on his mind a desire to see his sister’s face. And, Rachael will continue to spread her kindness and goodwill to everyone she meets.
Thomas Gradgrind – wealthy. Retired wholesale hardware merchant. He has settled his family in Coketown, England, a small industrial town. He becomes a member of Parliament. Mr. Gradgrind establishes a modern school to teach philosophy he has raised his children on. His philosophy is on cold, hard facts. No emotions, no imagination, just realistic facts. He is a very practical man and is proud when his children show no emotion. By the end of the book, he completely changes and sees the error of his philosophy, realizing the importance of love.
Louisa Gradgrind – a lovely sixteen-year-old girl. She is confused. Because of the way she was raised, she doesn’t understand emotions. She has trouble touching her own emotions and has trouble connecting with people. When she marries her father’s fifty-year-old friend, she has no feelings about it. She only does it to make her father happy and to make her brother happy. The only person she feels love for is her younger brother. But, he is often heartless and cruel to her.
Thomas Gradgrind, Jr. – his reaction to his father’s strict upbringing is to rebel with gambling and drunkenness. If he could feel love, it would be for his sister, but, he is too self – centered. When he is given a job at the bank, he is lazy. He wants his sister to marry his boss, so she can pay his gambling debts and make his boss look over his mistakes. When she won’t help him with his debts, he robs the bank and pins it on Stephen.
Josiah Bounderby – he starts out the story as a friend of Mr. Gradgrind. But, we soon learn a lot of the friendship is based on his desire to marry the man’s young daughter. Mr. Bounderby professes to be a self – made man who rose from abject poverty. He tells the story of being abandoned by his mother, but later in the book, it is revealed that the whole story is a lie. He did not come from poverty, he is well educated and his mother did not abandon him, he abandoned her, and refuses to acknowledge her.
Cecelia Jupe – a beautiful young girl who was raised in the circus. Her father was a clown in the circus and her mother died when she was born. Cecelia (Sissy) is feminine and warm. She helps Louisa to find her emotions.
Mrs. Sparsit – a manipulative old woman. She considers herself better than those around her because of her late husband’s family connections. She tries to break up Mr. Bounderby’s marriage because she feels threatened.
Stephen Blackpool – a forty-year-old man, that looks much older because of the hardships life has given him. His labor is long and hard for little pay. He can’t be with the woman he loves because he is already married to a slatternly drunk. He maintains his integrity against all obstacles.
Rachael – a warm, and kind woman. She is almost angelic. She is in love with Stephen and stays unmarried because of her love for him. When she finds out about his wife, she is kind and helpful.
James Hearthouse – wealthy young man that comes into to town to stir things up. He is bored and thinks to try his hand at politics. But, mostly, he tries to alleviate his boredom by having an affair with Louisa.
Charles Dickens Biography
Charles Dickens (1812-70) was born in Portsmouth, England. He is one of the most popular writers in the history of literature. Dickens was pulled from school at a young age when his father was put in prison for debts. He was forced to take a job in a blacking warehouse, which influenced his writing later in life.
When his father left prison, Dickens returned to school but was mostly self-taught.After finishing school, he became a legal clerk then went on to work as a reporter in the courts and parliament. In 1833 he began to publish humorous descriptive sketches of daily life in London under the pseudonym, Boz. The series of articles, accompanied by artistic sketches became very popular and led to his publication of The Pickwick Papers. It also led to a new way of writing in London; the serial story.
Dickens maintained his fame with a series of popular novels, editing magazines, and charitable work pressing for social reforms. He also managed a theatrical company who performed for Queen Victoria and did public readings of his works. But, success in business did not mean success in his home life. After an affair with a young actress and citing incompatibility with his wife, they separated in 1858 even though the marriage had produced 10 children.
He suffered a fatal stroke on June 9, 1870, and was buried in Westminster Abbey five days later.