Summary of Hard Times
By Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Full Title: Hard Times for These Times
Composing date: 1854
Published date: 1854
Genre: Realist novel based on satire and dystopia
Point Of View: Third person point of view
Place setting: A fictional city of northern England called Coketown
Time setting: Mid-nineteenth century
Protagonist: Louisa Gradgrind
As there are a number of characters in the novel, it is no required to remember all the characters to grasp the main content of the novel. That is why here are the major characters;
Thomas Gradgrind is the father of Tom and Louisa. His motives are good because he raises his students and his children to embrace factual analysis and reasoning to ensure long-term success and prosperity.
She is the protagonist of the novel. As a child, Luisa Gradgrind exploits her father’s teachings about factual analysis and the value of pure reasoning, completely rejecting imagination and sensation. At the age of twenty, she marries 40-year-old Josiah Bounderby, because she believes it is of little importance to whom she marries. But when she meets young teacher James Harthouse she falls into a crisis of conscience. Eventually, she has to re-evaluate his perceptions of herself and her world.
He is the younger brother of Luisa. He feels resentful of his father’s philosophies from his childhood. He is often irresponsible, entitled, selfish, disreputable, and dishonest. He is just a bohemian in his lifestyle, drinks heavily and increases massive gambling debts. When Louisa can no longer be able to help him, he robs the bank and tries to trap Stephen Blackpool for the crime. His family helps him flee from England when the truth is openly exposed. Finally, he dies abroad alone realizing the value of family bondage.
He proudly, loudly, and frequently declares that he is a self-made man because he was left by his mother in his infancy. The reason of his proud is that he owns a bank and a number of factories, that is that he is a rich man of the fictional city called Coketown. He is also an intimate friend of Grandgrid. He exploits his workers. He shamelessly marries Louisa and his marriage collapses because of age and mental differences. Basically, he is a man of early forty.
Sissy Jupe is the favorite student of Grangrind though she does not understand factual analysis. She is a daughter of a circus entertainer and remains in Gradgrind’s home where she plays role of housekeeper along with her education. She is kind and benevolent.
Stephen Blackpool works in a factory of Mr. Bounderby. He is married to an alcoholic woman who has been out of the house for a long time and returns home unable to do her work due to illness. His married life is not happy at all.
She was born and married into a higher class than her profession, as Mr. Bounderby’s housekeeper suggests. She took the job in the bank of Bounderby after her husband died. She conspires against Louisa and later accidentally reveals Mr. Bounderby’s fraudulent life story.
Charles Dickens is known for criticizing the social class system of the Victorian era in which the poor were exploited. The novel “Hard Times” is no exception to this rule. Dickens has attacked utilitarian education, the arrogance of the middle and upper classes, and the Industrial Revolution. He has praised the morality of the working class and their ability to live an honest life. “Hard Times” is the title of the book and a theme. Each character in the novel is faced with a difficult time. The major themes of the novel are;
Imagination and industrialization
Two important themes of Dickens’s “Hard Times” center on the importance of imagination and the dangers of industrialization. Living during the Romantic literature of England, Dickens shared the belief that imagination was the strongest and most transformative of all mental abilities. Indeed, according to Romantics, the only stimulus of the imagination was the experience of feeling, a passage of rational thought for the attainment of the ideal, which exists spiritually rather than in the logical state.
In addition to the theme of imagination in Hard Times, Dickens created a theme focusing on unchecked industrialization. The industrial revolution played an important role in changing dramatically familiar landscapes during Dickens’ life. Like other writers of his time, Dickens feared that industrialization would not only destroy much of the natural world but also over-mechanize human life, including mental processes. A mechanical mind would obviously lack creativity and so Dickens’s themes about imagination and industrialization are strongly intertwined.
The significance of love and bondage
The bonds of family love transcend the forces of truth and the fantasies of the imagination. Just as family bonds present any fact as real, these bonds deny reason. Louisa Gradgrind considers herself emotionally numb, but she is loyal to her brother Tom, even beyond reason. She pays him to pay off the gambling debts, although the logical reasoning is that such financial support is only the work of a useless fool. Mr. Gradgrind’s devotion to Louise leads him to make a radical change in the driving philosophy of his life when she falls in crisis, and this change later costs him his seat in Parliament. He also risks his reputation when he ignores the law and saves Tom from prison. Thus, throughout the novel, Dickens shows the significance of love in human life, ranging from romantic love to devotional love.
Unhappy married life
There are many unhappy marriages in hard times and none of them are resolved happily in the end. Mr. Gradgrind’s marriage to his frail wife is not exactly a cause of sadness for both of them, but the source of the restless life for their children. The Gradgrind family is not a loving or affectionate family. The main unhappy marriage portrayed by the novel is between Louisa Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby. Louisa marries him not out of love but out of a sense of duty to her brother Tom. Although Bounderby’s intentions towards Luisa seem a bit daunting at first, he does not express any intention of harming her.
Stephen Blackpool has also been made unhappy in his life as a result of his marriage. Gradually through the process of marriage, the girl who seemed very sweet to him when he married the girl many years ago, becomes the source of frustration. So, the fact is that love, affection, care, and expression are the soul of happy conjugal life, not the fact of financial security and infatuation.
The importance of the female role
In the Victorian era, women were usually associated with perceived feminine traits such as feeling, moral purity, and sensitivity. The Hard Times suggests that women can resist the effects of mechanization of industrialization because they possess these characteristics. For instance, when Stephen is frustrated with the monotony of his life as a factory worker, Rachael’s mild sympathy inspires him to continue. He enhances her qualities by referring to her as his guiding angel. Similarly, Sissy introduces love to the Gradgrind family, eventually teaching Louisa how to recognize her emotions. Indeed, Dickens suggests that Mr. Gradgrind’s philosophy of interest and rational calculations prevent Louisa from developing her natural feminine traits. Perhaps Mrs. Gradgrind’s inability to practice her femininity allows Gradgrind to increase the importance of truth in raising her children. However, through the various female characters in the novel, Dickens suggests that a sense of femininity is needed to restore social harmony.
Surveillance and knowledge
One of Dickens’ main themes in the novel “Hard Times” is surveillance and the concept of knowledge. There are some characters who spend time protecting privacy and hiding their history, and there is another character who devotes himself to researching, analyzing, and listening to the lives of others. Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Gradegrind are both masters of surveillance but Sparsit is more gossipy, Gradgrind more scientific. Another operator is James Harthouse, who devotes himself to understanding and “knowing” Louisa. From these three characters, we get the idea that the knowledge of another person is a form of authority and power over them. In addition to Luisa, another victim of surveillance is Josiah Bounderby. So, the fact is that without research, knowledge cannot be gained and without rational thinking from an imaginative point of view, knowledge cannot be perfect.
Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy, retired merchant from Coketown, a fictional city in northern England, devotes his life to rationalism, self-interest, and the pursuit of fact or realism. He raises his oldest children Louisa and Tom according to this philosophy and never allows them to engage in imaginary pursuits. He has founded a school where he charitably teaches students.
However, the story of the novel gets started in such a way that one day Mr. Gradgrind sees that Tom and Louisa are peeping into the circus tent on their way home from school. Their father Mr. Gradgrind and their father’s friend, Mr. Josiah Bounderby, a banker and factory owner rebuke them for wasting time in “fancy”. Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby later notice that Sissy Jupe is running through the streets, trying to escape from Bitzer’s taunts. When they escort her back to the circus, they can learn that Sissy’s father has abandoned her in the hope that she will get an education so that she can live a better life without him and of course away from the circus. That is why Mr. Gradgrind agrees to take charge of Sissy’s schooling and allow her to live in his home so that Sissy can assist his wife, Mrs. Gradgrind. Sissy agrees to go with Mr. Gradgrind to make her father happy.
As Gradgrind’s children grow up, Tom becomes a frustrated, selfish hedonist, and Louisa struggles with deep inner confusion as if she’s missing something important in her life. To overcome this situation, Mr. Gradgrind persuades Louisa to marry his friend Mr. Bounderby so that Tom could have a better future. Eventually, Louisa marries her father’s friend Josiah Bounderby, who is more than twice her age. Bounderby constantly proclaims that he is a self-made man because he was thrown into the gutter by his mother in his infancy. This attitude torments Louisa very much. Tom is being trained at Bounderby’s Bank, Sissy stays at Gradgrind’s house to play the role of a housekeeper and to complete her education.
In the meantime, an impoverished “Hand” that means a worker of Bounderby’s factory named Stephen Blackpool struggles with his love for Rachael who is a female poor factory worker. Stephen comes to Bounderby to be guided on how he can divorce his drunken wife because he is unable to marry Rachael without divorcing his first wife. Bounderby tells him that only the wealthy can get divorced because it is a matter of spending a lot of money. With full of frustration, Stephen returns but while returning, outside Bounderby’s home, he meets Mrs. Pegler, a strange old woman who has an inexplicable devotion to Bounderby.
James Harthouse is a wealthy young sophisticate from London. He comes to Coketown to begin a political career as a disciple of Gradgrind, who has by this time been a Member of Parliament. while staying at Coketown, He meets Louisa and immediately takes an interest in her, and decides to try to seduce her. With the untold aid of Mrs. Sparsit, he starts his journey to allure Louisa in infidelity.
The workers of Bounderby’s factory try to form a union. They are exhorted by a hypocritical union leader named Slackbridge to do this. The only worker is Stephen who refuses to join because he feels that a union strike would only increase tensions between employers and employees. He is rejected by the labor union. He is also fired by Bounderby when he refuses to spy on them. Louisa has been impressed with Stephen’s integrity and visits him before he leaves Coketown and helps him with some money. Tom goes with Louisa to Stephen and tells Stephen that if he waits outside the bank for several consecutive nights, he will be given more money. Without understanding properly, Stephen does so, but Tom does not come to him. Eventually, he leaves Coketown to find agricultural work in the village. Shortly after, the bank is robbed, and Stephen is the suspect because he was seen roaming outside the bank for several nights just before disappearing from the city.
Mrs. Sparsit tells Harthouse that Louisa has accepted his love, and Louisa agrees to meet with him the next night. However, Louisa flees to her father’s house instead of meeting with Harthouse. She confesses to Gradgrind that her father has given marriage her to a man, whom she does not love. She also indicates that she has been emotionally disconnected, deeply unhappy from the moment of her marriage, and she has fallen in love with Harthouse. Then she falls down on the floor, and Gradgrind becomes wordless with self-rebuke and realizes the drawbacks of his philosophy of rational self-interest.
Sissy meets Harthouse and convinces him to leave Coketown forever. Bounderby becomes furious because his wife has left him and concentrates starkly to capture Stephen. On the other hand, Mrs. Sparsit has built up a romantic relationship with Bounderby but their relationship does not last long. Knowing that he has been accused of bank robbery, Stephen tries to come to Coketown to make it clear that he is innocent but he, unfortunately, falls into a coal pit called Old Hell Shaft. Sissy and Rachael search for Stephen and find that he has fallen into a coal pit while walking back to Coketown to defend himself. Stephen is pulled from the pit by a large rescue effort. Although Stephen is badly hurt, he is able to tell the world that he is innocent and bids Rachael a sad goodbye before death. Tom now realizes that his role in the robbery is about to be exposed. Besides, Gradgrind and Louisa realize that Tom has robbed the bank, and they help Tom to escape from England with the help of the circus performers.
Thus, Tom escapes from England with the help of circus performers. Mr. Gradgrind’s change of philosophy, from facts to emotion, has cost him his seat in Parliament, but he does not think so. The ending of the novel is like Tom tries to return to Coketown to see Louisa but falls ill and dies during his returning journey. Louisa does not remarry and devotes her life to spreading happiness and imagination among the people of Coketown. Thus, Dickens has been successful to scatter the message that without imagination and happiness, the philosophy of facts is nothing because imagination and happiness are indeed facts.
Key words of the story
- Philosophy of Gradgrind
- Childhood Louisa
- Marriage of Louisa
- Unhappy married life of Stephen
- Attraction of Louisa for Harthouse
- Formation of labor union
- Louisa’s leaving of her husband
- Bank robbery
- Romantic relationship between Sparsit and Bounderby
- Collapsing of Gradgrind’s philosophy
- Determination of Louisa for spreading happiness and imagination