Hard Times

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Hard Times

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading

Charles Dickens


Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, was first published in serial form in the weekly magazine Household Words, from April to August of 1854. Set in fictional Coketown in the industrial north of England, the novel follows the fortunes of a variety of characters, including Thomas Gradgrind, who believes only in the utilitarian, "hard facts" school of thought; his dishonest son, Thomas; and his emotionally stifled daughter, Louisa. Other central characters are the boastful manufacturer, Josiah Bounderby; the manipulative idler, James Harthouse; and the virtuous but persecuted worker, Stephen Blackpool; and his saintly friend, Rachel.

Dickens's purpose in Hard Times was to satirize the utilitarian philosophy that recognized only the value of human reason, neglecting not only what Dickens calls in the novel "fancy" but also the values of the human heart. Dickens also wanted to highlight the harsh, monotonous lives of factory workers and to criticize the laissez-faire economic philosophy of the marketplace.

Hard Times has not usually been regarded as one of Dickens's finest novels. While some critics do regard it highly, others argue that the characters do not fully come to life. According to this view, Dickens's didactic purpose stifled his comic genius and his ability to tell an entertaining story. Be that as it may, Hard Times remains a powerful exposure of the ills of nineteenth-century industrialism and the philosophy that turned a blind eye to its inadequacies and injustices.

Author Biography

One of England's greatest novelists, Charles Dickens was born in Landport, Hampshire, on February 7, 1812, the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens. In 1814, the family moved to London and then to Chatham, in Kent. John Dickens, a clerk in the Naval Pay Office, was imprisoned for debt in 1824, and Charles was sent to work in a shoe-blacking warehouse for five months.

After attending Wellington House Academy in London from 1824 to 1827, Dickens became a solicitor's clerk and studied shorthand. Within a few years he had become a freelance newspaper reporter, and he published his first short story in 1833. Sketches by Boz, his sketches of London life, was published in 1836, the same year he became editor of a new monthly magazine, Bentley's Miscellany, a post he held for three years. Dickens also married Catherine Hogarth in 1836. They were to produce ten children, but the couple separated in 1858.

Dickens then began publishing novels, all in serial form, at a prolific rate. His first novel was The Pickwick Papers (1836–1837), followed between 1837 and 1839 by Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. Next were The Old Curiosity Shop (1840–1841) and Barnaby Rudge (1841).

In 1842, Dickens toured the United States and Canada giving lectures in which he advocated the abolition of slavery. He published American Notes in October 1842. Over the remainder of the decade, Dickens wrote Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–1844), A Christmas Carol (1843), Dombey and Son (1846–1848), and David Copperfield (1849–1850).

In 1850, Dickens established the weekly magazine Household Words, which he edited and contributed to until it ceased publication in 1859. During the 1850s, Dickens published Bleak House (1852–1853), Hard Times (1854), and Little Dorrit (1855–1857). A Tale of Two Cities (1859) appeared in All the Year Round, a new weekly edited by Dickens.

In 1858, Dickens gave a series of public readings from his works in London and elsewhere. Public readings became a feature of Dickens's life throughout the 1860s, including a reading in Paris in 1863 and a tour of America, which began in December 1867, in Boston. That tour continued through to April 1868, in East Coast cities, in spite of the fact that Dickens was in poor health.

During the 1860s, Dickens published Great Expectations (1860–1861) and Our Mutual Friend (1864–1865). His last book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, had begun publication but remained unfinished at the time of his death at Gadshill, near Rochester, Kent, on June 9, 1870, of a stroke.

Plot Summary

Book the First—Sowing

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.

Media Adaptations

  • Hard Times has been recorded on audiotape by The Audio Partners. The unabridged edition (2003) is read by Martin Jarvis.

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.



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 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.


See Cecilia Jupe


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.


Fact versus Fancy

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.

Topics for Further Study

  • Should all students today receive an education in the arts as well as the sciences? How does cultivation of the imagination help a person succeed in life?
  • How do the circus folk differ from Gradgrind and Bounderby? What are their values? Are they characters to be admired and emulated?
  • Write a character sketch of Mrs. Sparsit. How does Dickens make her into a witchlike figure?
  • Critics often argue that Stephen Blackpool and Rachel are not believable characters because they are too good to be true and that Bounderby is not believable because he is too bad to be true. Is there any truth in these views? How do you react to these characters? Why do you think Dickens created them the way he did?

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 save 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.

Historical Context

Industrial Conditions

During the early nineteenth century, the use of the power loom, which had been patented in 1785, rapidly became more widespread. This had a deleterious effect on the hand loom weavers, who could not compete with the power loom and could no longer find sufficient work. By the time Dickens wrote Hard Times, power looms were the norm and hand weaving was almost extinct. Because of this development, weavers were gradually driven from their home-based weaving to the factories in the towns, which grew rapidly in population. The new factory workers put in ten-hour days. Conditions were often dangerous, and industrial accidents were common. This subject gave rise to a heated article written by Henry Morley and published in Dickens's own magazine, Household Words, in April 1854. Morley claimed that over the previous three years, there had been a hundred deaths and nearly twelve thousand accidents in factories in England. These figures were disputed by other contemporary commentators, but there is no doubt that many serious accidents did occur, often caused by unguarded machinery. In Hard Times, there is a reference to people being "chopped up" by machinery (Book 2, chapter 1).

Factory workers sought to protect their own interests by joining trade unions, which were growing in power in the 1850s. But the unions often faced fierce opposition from employers. A notorious example of industrial conflict took place in Preston, a textile-manufacturing town in northwest England, not far from Dickens's fictional Coketown. In October 1853, between fifteen and sixteen thousand weavers went on strike for better pay. The mill owners responded by closing the mills. A bitter struggle ensued, in which the strikers were sustained only by contributions from union members in other manufacturing towns. Union leaders were arrested and charged with conspiracy. (This recalls Bounderby's threat in Hard Times to have Slack-bridge and other union delegates arrested on felony charges and shipped off to penal settlements.)

Compare & Contrast

  • 1850s: The groundwork is laid for universal compulsory education. In 1858, the British government appoints a commission to inquire into the state of education. The commission recommends an increase of state grants to schools, as long as the schools pass an inspection test regarding teaching standards.
    Today: All children in Britain up to the age of sixteen must, by law, receive full-time schooling. Over 90 percent of pupils receive state-funded education; the rest choose independent schooling. National targets are set for raising literacy and numeracy standards.
  • 1850s: Workers in textile mills are so poorly paid that they are forced to send their children to work in the factories as well. Government legislation reduces working hours to ten a day; weekly work hours amount to sixty.
    Today: The British government introduces a statutory minimum wage in April 1999 to reduce exploitation of low-paid workers and to ensure greater fairness in the workplace. The maximum working week is fixed by the European Union at forty-eight hours.
  • 1850s: The laissez-faire economic philosophy advocated by the utilitarians puts faith solely in the market forces of supply and demand, believing that this will deliver the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people. Utilitarians therefore oppose government regulation of economic and industrial conditions, although this does not prevent the passing of the Factory Acts in 1844, 1847, 1850, and 1867, regulating such things as the length of the working day.
    Today: Like all modern industrial nations, Britain has long ago abandoned laissez-faire economic principles. Instead, the economy is guided by government fiscal policy, which aims to produce economic stability that cannot be produced by relying solely on market forces.

Dickens took an interest in the conflict and visited Preston to get an idea of the mood and the conditions of life there. He attended a union delegate meeting, which gave him material for the Slackbridge episodes in Hard Times, and in general he gained a favorable impression of the workers and their representatives, as he recorded in his article, "On Strike," which was published in Household Words in February, 1854. Dickens wrote in conclusion:

[T]his strike and lock-out is a deplorable calamity. In its waste of time, in its waste of a great people's energy, in its waste of wages, in its waste of wealth that seeks to be employed, in its encroachment on the means of many thousands who are laboring from day to day… it is a great national affliction.

The Preston strikers found it increasingly difficult to survive on what they were receiving in contributions from other unions, and when the contributions began to fall off in April 1854, the strike collapsed. The strike leader was thrown into jail for debts he incurred during the strike.


In 1854, there was no system of compulsory schooling in England. This was not to be established until the Elementary Education Act of 1870, the year of Dickens's death. However, there was at the time a large number of schools, differing widely in quality, methods of funding and organization, and the type of pupil who attended. The school that Gradgrind is so proud of was a non-fee-paying school for students of the lower classes, of which there were many. There was a general feeling among the educated classes that universal literacy should be achieved and that the poor should be better educated. Recognizing that teachers were often incompetent and untrained, the government had set out in the 1840s to improve teaching standards. Teacher training colleges were set up, and the first graduates emerged in 1853. In Hard Times, M'Choakumchild is one such newly trained teacher, although from Dickens's satirical treatment of him it is apparent that Dickens was not impressed with the results of the training program.

A review of Hard Times, published in the Westminster Review in 1854, questioned whether any school like Mr. Gradgrind's actually existed anywhere in England. The reviewer claimed that the English educational system gave as free a rein to the imagination and the study of the arts as any in the world. Dickens, as might be expected, claimed otherwise. In a speech given in 1857, he claimed to have seen too many schools in which the imagination of the children was discouraged and the pupils trained as "little parrots and small calculating machines" ("Schools I Do Not Like"). In Dickens and Education, Philip Collins shows that many educators at the time expressed views similar to those of Dickens. They believed there was too much emphasis on cramming the children full of names, dates, and facts but not allowing enough time for them to digest the information. There was also plenty of complaint that the schools were failing to develop the whole child and that the teacher-training curriculum was too mechanical and tried to achieve too much in too short a period of time.

Critical Overview

When first published in 1854, Hard Times did not receive the same praise that was customary for Dickens's other novels. Reviewers, with a few exceptions, were reluctant to hail it as an example of his best work. Some reviewers thought the book too didactic, too intent on conveying the evils of industrialism, and lacking Dickens's customary humor. Richard Simpson, in the Rambler, described it as a "mere dull melodrama, in which character is caricature, sentiment tinsel, and moral (if any) unsound." On the other hand, the novel did have its defenders. Well-known social critic John Ruskin called it "in several respects the greatest [Dickens] has written," although he faulted it for exaggerating the characters of Bounderby and Stephen Blackpool, making the former into a monster and the latter too perfect. But Edwin P. Whipple, in the Atlantic Monthly, took issue with Ruskin's positive assessment and accused Dickens of exaggerating the evils he opposed. According to Whipple, Dickens made "rash and hasty judgments on the whole government of Great Britain…. Heoverlooked uses, in order to fasten on abuses."

The status of Hard Times in the canon of Dickens's work has been problematic ever since. For nearly a century, it was in general regarded as one of Dickens's minor and less successful novels (although it was championed by no less a critic than Bernard Shaw). In the mid-twentieth century, however, the novel underwent a reevaluation. This was stimulated by one of the century's most influential critics, F. R. Leavis, who claimed in 1948 that Hard Times was a "masterpiece" and Dickens's finest novel. According to Leavis, Hard Times was different from other Dickens novels in the sense that Dickens's social criticisms are casual and incidental. But in Hard Times, "he is for once possessed by a comprehensive vision, one in which the inhumanities of Victorian civilization are seen as fostered and sanctioned by a hard philosophy, the aggressive formulation of an inhumane spirit."

This reassessment generated some controversy, and a number of critics attempted to refute Leavis's claims. Since then, Hard Times has had its share of detractors and defenders. It is fair to state that the novel will probably never be most readers' favorite work by Dickens. However, it seems unlikely also that the novel will fall into the neglect it had suffered before Leavis. As Paul Edward Gray states in his "Introduction" to Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Hard Times": A Collection of Critical Essays, "If… Hard Times is a limited success, it is also an endlessly fascinating work, fascinating both despite and because of Dickens's ambivalence toward the demands of art and argument."


Bryan Aubrey

Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on nineteenth-century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses Dickens's attack, in Hard Times, on the restrictive divorce laws in England.

In the midst of his satiric attack on the philosophy of the utilitarians, Dickens found space in Hard Times to take aim at another target: the highly restrictive divorce laws that operated in England at the time.

The institution of marriage does not emerge from Hard Times with any credit. Three marriages are presented: the Gradgrinds, the Bounderbys, and Stephen Blackpool and his unnamed wife. Not one of these marriages is a good one (and that is not even to mention the allusions to the disastrous marriage of Mrs. Sparsit many years earlier). The worst marriage by far is between Stephen and his drunken wife. They have been married nearly twenty years, but the wife, as Stephen puts it, though he was not unkind to her, "went bad—soon." She became a drunkard, sold all the furniture, and pawned their clothes, presumably so she could get the money to keep buying alcohol. This happened again and again, in spite of Stephen's best efforts to help her. She keeps leaving him, only to return, since she knows that he must take her in. He has even tried paying her to stay away, without success. Stephen's bad marriage has turned his life into a nightmare; he has even contemplated suicide. The situation is made worse by the fact that he has a long-term friendship with Rachel, who appears to be everything his wife is not: loving, loyal, saintly. They appear to be perfectly suited, but there is no future for them, which means that Rachel's life is wasted as well as Stephen's. It is, as Stephen might say, a "muddle," and a tragic one at that.

The matter of the divorce laws was a highly topical one at the time Dickens was writing Hard Times. There was widespread agreement amongst the educated classes that the divorce laws were badly in need of reform. In 1853, a Royal Commission had been appointed to investigate the matter, and the following year the commission recommended that divorce be made a matter for the civil courts rather than the ecclesiastical courts. A bill incorporating the recommended changes was introduced into the House of Lords in 1854, but it faced powerful opposition and was quickly withdrawn.

Dickens's own magazine, Household Words, published several articles on the subject of the divorce laws, including one by Dickens himself. This was entitled "The Murdered Person" and appeared in October 1856. It was a comment on the trial, a few months earlier, of a working-class man who was convicted and hanged for murdering his wife. Dickens used the case to attack the divorce laws. He pointed out that there was no escape from a bad marriage except in certain very restricted circumstances and then "only on payment of an enormous sum of money." He cited drunkenness (the besetting sin of Stephen's wife) as one of the ills that was considered insufficient to "break the chain" that bound a man and a woman together in marriage. He continued as follows:

The most profligate of women, an intolerable torment, torture and shame to her husband, may nevertheless, unless he be a very rich man, insist on remaining handcuffed to him, and dragging him away from any happier alliance, from youth to old age and death.

This, of course, is exactly the position that Stephen Blackpool is in. Dickens went on to point out that this kind of situation was harder on the working classes than on the wealthy. A wealthy couple trapped in a bad marriage could arrange to inhabit separate quarters in a large house and live virtually independent lives (a point that Stephen makes to Bounderby in the novel). But this was not possible for working-class couples who lived in cramped conditions, often a single room, as Stephen and his wife do. It was this situation, Dickens argued, that produced the sort of crime that, in the case he was discussing, cost two lives: the murdered wife and the executed husband.

Traditionally in England, divorce was a matter for the ecclesiastical courts. These courts would grant an absolute divorce (as opposed to a judicial separation, without the right to remarry) only in cases in which the marriage was found to be invalid due to age, mental incompetence, sexual impotence, or fraud. The only other way a complete divorce might be obtained was through a private act of Parliament. During the nineteenth century, there were usually about ten such acts passed each year, but they were not for the likes of Stephen Blackpool, because the procedure was extremely expensive. Only the wealthy could afford it. There was a case in 1845 (reported in Mary Lyndon Shanley's Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England, 1850–1895) in which a working-class man was convicted of bigamy. He said in his own defense that his wife had robbed him and run away with another man. He had therefore decided to take another wife. But this argument did not influence Mr. Justice Maule, who presided over the case. He told the unfortunate defendant that he should have first brought a suit in an ecclesiastical court and then petitioned the House of Lords for a complete dissolution of the marriage bond, which would have enabled him legally to remarry. The procedure, said the judge, would not have cost the man more than £1,000. The man replied, "Ah, my Lord, I never was worth a thousand pence in all my life," to which the judge responded, "That is the law, and you must submit to it."

This interesting exchange was widely reported at the time, and Dickens would surely have known about it. This perhaps explains why Justice Maule sounds rather like that other defender and upholder of the status quo, Mr. Bounderby, who tells Stephen Blackpool that "There's a sanctity in this relation of life [marriage]… and—it must be kept up."

When Dickens devoted a whole chapter (Book 1, chapter 11) to Stephen's interview with Bounderby, in which Stephen seeks a way of divorcing his wife, he was making an important contribution to the contemporary debate about divorce.

Stephen reads the newspapers and is well informed. He is fully aware that in matters of divorce (as in many other matters) there is one law for the rich and another for the poor, and he points this out to Bounderby with almost the exact argument that Dickens would make two years later in his article in Household Words. And when Bounderby explains to Stephen that if he wants a divorce he will have to file suit with two different courts, then go to the House of Lords, and then get an act of Parliament to enable him to remarry, he is again echoing the words of Justice Maule, although Bounderby's estimate of costs is somewhat higher than that of the justice: "[I]t would cost you (if it was a case of very plain sailing), I suppose from a thousand to fifteen hundred pound…. Perhapstwice the money."

Dickens leaves his reader in no doubt that Stephen's marital situation is one of the chief causes of his despair. A short time after his unsuccessful interview with Bounderby, he reflects mournfully on how different things might have been, both for him and for Rachel, had he been able to marry the woman he truly loves. He thinks of how his bad marriage, in which he is "bound hand and foot, to a dead woman, and tormented by a demon in her shape," has forced him to waste the best part of his life. It changes his character for the worse every single day.

In 1857, three years after the publication of Hard Times, the clamor for reform of the divorce laws bore fruit in the passing of the Divorce Act. A civil court with jurisdiction over divorce was established, and the number of reasons for which a divorce might be obtained was increased. There was little comfort for the working classes, however. Although one of the stated aims of the reformers was to remove the perception that there was one law for the rich and another for the poor, the new act made it no easier for people from the lower classes to divorce, since there was only one court, in London, authorized to deal with such matters.

The refusal to ease the situation of the lower classes was deliberate on the part of the framers of the Divorce Act. Members of the House of Lords that debated the issue expressed widespread fear that easier divorce for the lower classes would unleash rampant sexual immorality. The Bishop of Oxford, for example, (quoted in Shanley) believed that such a measure would endanger "the moral purity of married life." No doubt Stephen Blackpool, had he survived his unfortunate encounter with an unused mine shaft, would have had some interesting reflections about the moral purity of married life. It was Dickens's achievement in Hard Times to show the realities that lay underneath the bland pieties of the ruling classes and their ignorant prejudice against the men and women on whose labor their wealth was built.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Hard Times, in Novels for Students, Thomson Gale, 2005.

Anne Humpherys

In the following essay, Humpherys explores Louisa's role as daughter, wife, and single woman in Hard Times.

"Is it possible, I wonder, that there was any analogy between the case of the Coketown population and the case of the little Gradgrinds?" Charles Dickens, Hard Times

In Nathaniel Hawthorne's gothic story "Rappacini's Daughter" (1844), a brilliant scientist "instruct[s his daughter] deeply in his science, [so] that, as young and beautiful as fame reports her, she is already qualified to fill a professor's chair" as her would-be lover Giovanni learns. But the father has done more: in a diabolical experiment he has had his daughter tend poisonous flowers through which she, Beatrice, becomes literally lethal: her kiss, her very breath kills. Though he has also arranged to give her a lover by infecting Giovanni with the poison, Beatrice, knowing that the antidote will be fatal to her, both sacrifices herself for her unworthy lover and rejects her father's gifts by killing herself.

The parallel between Hawthorne's gothic story and Dickens' most ungothic novel of hard facts is close. Louisa Gradgrind, like Beatrice, is the victim of a terrible fatherly experiment that the fathers justify in the same way: they intend to make their daughters more powerful. The experiments, however, are fatal both to the women and to others. Louisa's equally insufficient lover Harthouse is humiliated by his contact with her and disappears into Egypt, and though the sudden and untimely deaths of her husband and her brother are not her doing directly, they are at least metaphorically the result of their relationship with her. And in the most resonant connection, the innocent and idealized working-class hero, Stephen Blackpool, dies painfully as a result of two brief encounters with her. In a further parallel, Louisa's failure to remarry after Bounderby's death is a kind of death; like Beatrice's suicidal rejection of her father's gifts, Louisa, though she had accepted the husband her father gave her, lives out her life in the shadow of other people's happiness and fulfillment.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Dickens's Great Expectations (first published in serial form in 1860–1861) tells the story of young Pip and his mysterious benefactor. It has always been one of Dickens's most popular and critically acclaimed novels.
  • What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist, The Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England (1994), by Daniel Pool, is a guide to Victorian life. The first part covers topics such as marriage, law, class, and Parliament; the second part is a dictionary of terms that commonly occur in Victorian novels and need to be explained to the modern reader.
  • Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life, the first novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, is based on a real event, the murder in 1831 of a progressive mill owner in Manchester, England. The story follows the life of Mary Barton through adolescence, love, and marriage. Set in Manchester (which was Dickens's model for Coketown) from 1837 to 1842, it presents a sympathetic portrait of working-class people as they struggle through the period known as the "hungry forties."
  • The World of Charles Dickens (1970), by Angus Wilson, is regarded by many as the finest one-volume study of Dickens's life and work. Wilson is a novelist, and he writes with vigor, penetration, and astute judgment. The book is illustrated with a large number of engravings and color reproductions.

The father-daughter plot in these two works is archetypal—present in Western culture from the Old Testament Jeptha, Lot, and Dinah to Iphigenia in Aulis to King Lear to Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. There is a conflict in all these stories between social needs and private desires that usually surface—indeed usually generate narrative—at the point of the daughter's marriage. Daughters must move out of the family and make new alliances through marriage to keep the biological, political, and economic health of the community, but the dynamics, particularly the sexual dynamics, within the family itself resist the moving out of the daughter. Sometimes the desire to keep the daughter grows out of the father's romantic attachment to her as she supplants the woman he first loved, who has dwindled into a wife, a fictional pattern seen in Oedipus at Colonus, in King Lear, and in "Rappacini's Daughter" and Hard Times (Louisa is her father's "favorite child" and "the pride of his heart"). The father of Western father-daughter narratives frequently tries to negotiate his desire to keep the daughter by selecting the man she marries (not uncommonly she is given to his relative or friend), thus giving an additional turn to Eve Sedgwick's thesis of homosocial desire. But there is another reason the daughter needs to stay within the family in these narratives. She is also needed to serve, save, redeem, ultimately to sacrifice herself for the father, as does Iphigenia, Cordelia, Florence Dombey, or Louisa Gradgrind. To the degree that the Western narrative of the father-daughter concerns the redemption of the patriarch, the daughter's continued presence in the family is essential. So, as Fred Kaplan in his biography of Dickens states, Louisa's return to her father's house is the means of redeeming him even as the patriarchy in general in that novel is redeemed by sisterhood.

This benign thesis places the center of interest in Hard Times, as in most Western narrative, in the development of the father's story. But there is another story possible, that of the daughter. From her point of view, the sacrifice that might redeem the father can be fatal, as with Iphigenia or Cordelia. The daughter's story is not frequent in Western narrative, but "Rappacini's Daughter" suggests where we might find it, that is, in the gothic. For though Hawthorne's gothic story is centered on a representation of male abuse of knowledge and power, the daughter's story—the conflict between her desire for her father's love and her desire for self-fulfillment and autonomy—vies for center stage with the father's, particularly at closure, as it does in many gothic novels. In that most ungothic novel, Hard Times, Louisa's story is less visible and more problematic, but it is present intermittently, injected into the narrative not through the gothic but through the 1860s version of the gothic, the sensation novel and its interrogation of the institution of marriage.

The sensation novel in Hard Times is similar to the under-narrated sensation novel at the heart of Bleak House (the illicit affair of Honoria and Captain Hawden) and the undeveloped sensation novel at the bottom of Great Expectations (the story of Estella's mother Molly) in that, like these other marginalized women's stories in Dickens' novels, Louisa's story of the explosive potential of a woman's repressed desires generates the narrative and powers its development. Even though the novel's overt interest is in the father's story and his need for redemption, Louisa's repressed feelings about her father, her marriage, her husband, and her lover, and the actions she takes as a result of these repressions cause the reversals of fortune for both Bounderby and Gradgrind that make up both the plot and the overt themes of Hard Times. That is, through her self-assertive action Stephen is suspected of robbing the bank which ultimately leads to the unmasking and humiliation of Bounderby, and also through her return to her father's house, Gradgrind experiences doubt about his life's work and is turned into a "wiser man, and a better man." It is important to note that these changes in the fortunes of Bounderby and Gradgrind are not the result of the essentially passive ministering affections of a "good daughter" such as Florence Dombey or Little Dorrit. This version of the father's story in Hard Times is represented by Sissy, not only by her nursing presence in the Gradgrind house but also by her unquestioned forgiveness of her own father's abandonment of her. On the other hand, Bounderby and Gradgrind's fortunes change because of Louisa's subversive self-assertion—in other words, because of her similarity to a sensation novel heroine.

Louisa's repressed feelings and self-assertion not only cause havoc among the men in her life (not to mention her own life), but they cause a little havoc in the text as well. From the point of Louisa's marriage, there are a number of puzzling gaps in the story. One such gap, though a common one in Victorian fiction, is the configuration of the sexual nature of Louisa's marriage. There has been vigorous critical controversy over this subject. Louisa's physical repugnance for Bounderby (as in the scene where she tells Tom she wouldn't mind if he cut out the place on her cheek where Bounderby kissed her) and the clear sexual desire that motivates him suggests there might be some sexual trouble between them from the start. But when we meet them months after the honeymoon, Louisa and her husband appear to live calmly together, which suggests to me that, however unsatisfactory, there has been conjugal sex.

Does it matter? We know that no Victorian novel could directly depict the sexual nature of human experience even in marriage. Why should we care whether or not Louisa and Bounderby have had sex? It matters because the uncertainty about Louisa's sexual knowledge is one of a number of puzzling elements about her marriage. Her sexual experience or lack of it certainly would help us understand her feelings for Harthouse, which are rather mystified in the text. Why do her feelings for Harthouse result in her leaving her husband and returning to her father? Further, what does she have in mind in that return, and what does her father intend when he asks Bounderby to permit her to stay in her father's house "on a visit"? Finally, why does Louisa not remarry after Bounderby's death, that is, why does Bounderby die if by that Louisa is not freed to find happiness and fulfillment?

Of course, there are explanations for these events in the father's story. Louisa has to return and stay in her father's house to save him through her sell-sacrifice. But in order for that story to dominate, questions about what Louisa might want must be suppressed. However, Louisa's story is not totally absent because it is part of another concern in the novel—that of marriage and divorce.

Though the introduction of the issue of divorce into Hard Times is as much the result of personal and political forces as narrative ones, once in the novel, it takes on a life of its own, as it were, and begins to disrupt the coherence of the narrative. Through the issue of divorce, parts of Louisa's story enter the narrative and vie for center stage with her father's story.

It is a critical truism that Dickens expressed his own boredom with his wife and marriage through Stephen Blackpool's desire for a divorce. Kaplan says that in the portrayal of Stephen's wife, Dickens gives vent to his feelings about his wife Catherine's "incompetence, clumsiness, withdrawal from responsibility." But there was also considerable contemporary interest in the subject, for the first divorce reform bill was being debated in Parliament at the same time that Dickens was writing Hard Times. (The actual bill was not passed until three years later.)

The need for some reform was widely felt. As Bounderby makes clear to Stephen, divorce in 1854 was difficult, complicated, and costly. The only "cause" for divorce was adultery, which for women suing had to be "aggravated" by incest or bigamy, though, in fact, legal separations were granted women for abandonment and cruelty. (There were only four full divorces granted women prior to 1857.) Three separate legal actions, including a bill in the House of Lords, were necessary. Legal separation "from bed and board" was possible, but women in that position had no legal rights, nor a right to their own earnings, nor to custody of their children, nor could either party remarry.

But even though part of the stated motivation for reform was to protect women and increase access to divorce, the debates over the Matrimonial Causes Bill, as it was officially called, had a large element of bad faith in them. For example, efforts to scuttle the Bill entirely were cynically based on arguments that it did nothing for the poor or to equalize the position of women. In the end, divorce law reform essentially continued the status of divorce as an instrument primarily for well-off men to assure that, as Lord Cranworth put it, women not be able to "palm spurious offspring upon their husbands."

Nonetheless, given his personal situation and the current debates about divorce reform, there is nothing surprising in Dickens introducing the issue of divorce through Stephen. But once in the text, the issue of divorce, like the debates in Parliament, threatens to shift the discussion of a man's issue to women's issues. That is, in Parliament the desire to make it easier for men to get divorces opened the door to a vigorous campaign for changes in the Married Women's Property Law, while in Hard Times Stephen's desire to get out of a bad marriage invites us to look at all the marriages in the text and to see that, in fact, nearly all are abusive not to husbands but to wives.

Take Mrs. Sparsit, for example. The novel's plot would work as well, in fact better because more consistently, if she had been a social-climbing, money-grubbing husband hunter. Such bad behavior would justify Bounderby's humiliating treatment of her. But in fact, she was manipulated into a marriage with a boy fifteen years her junior by Lady Scadgers, probably because she thought he was a good match. In the event he is a very bad husband: he spent all his money and "when he died, at twenty-four… he did not leave his widow, from whom he had been separated after the honeymoon, in affluent circumstances." If Mrs. Sparsit were not so much in Bounderby's camp and so hostile to Louisa, we might notice how badly she has been treated.

More troubling, however, is Mrs. Gradgrind. Though she is generally represented dismissively throughout the novel (the list of characters refers to her as "feeble-minded"), it takes very little to see that she is in a terrible marriage. Her imbecility in fact appears to be a product of her marriage. Gradgrind chose her because "she was most satisfactory as a question of figures" and "she had 'no nonsense' about her." Though she may have been weak-minded to start with, she was presumably not at the time of her marriage an "absolute idiot." When we meet her later in her life with five children, she is close to being one. How did that happen? She herself describes the process by which she has been turned into an idiot as "never hearing the last of it," that is, when she ventures to say anything she is instantly and abruptly put down. So that "the simple circumstance of being left alone with her husband and Mr. Bounderby, was sufficient to stun this admirable lady… so, she once more died away, and nobody minded her." The repeated use of the word "died" in connection with Mrs. Gradgrind's ceasing to talk throughout the novel indicates the brutality of her suppression. When she is literally dying she tells Louisa "'You want to hear of me, my dear? That's something new, I am sure, when anybody wants to hear of me'" and later "'You must remember, my dear, that whenever I have said anything, on any subject, I have never heard the last of it; and consequently, that I have long left off saying anything.'"

Mrs. Gradgrind is a particularly troubling character because her brutalization is articulated (if never actually represented), but her story, like Mrs. Sparsit's, is systematically undercut by laughter, and both are meted out punishment: Mrs. Sparsit has to go live with the woman who made her marriage, Mrs. Gradgrind dies without even a claim to her own pain. While for the most part we think Mrs. Sparsit more than deserves her blighted life, the discomfort in our responses to Mrs. Gradgrind is a sign of a disruption in the narrative that is the result, I would argue, of the interrogation of marriage introduced by the divorce plot.

But Mrs. Sparsit and Mrs. Gradgrind are minor figures. The most serious gaps in the narrative introduced by the issue of divorce concern Louisa. Most of Louisa's story is unnarrated, but one possible version is suggested, nonetheless, through the systematic analogy drawn between her and Stephen. In the structure of the novel her story alternates and contrasts with Stephen's. Louisa's questions to Sissy about Sissy's parents and their marriage were answered not only by the young girl's description of their compatible and happy marriage but also both by contrast and repetition in the two following chapters in which Stephen tells Bounderby about his own miserable marriage and wish for a divorce and then fantasizes about an ideal marriage with Rachael. More metaphorically, Stephen's subsequent murderous thoughts about his wife are followed by Louisa's capitulation to Bounderby's "criminal" proposal. Another contrast represents the emotions that bring both Louisa and Stephen to the brink of disaster: Louisa's assertion of herself in intimate, dangerous, but under-represented conversations with Harthouse are followed by Stephen's equally dangerous self-assertions to Slackbridge and Bounderby. Louisa has two important scenes with her father; Stephen has two with his "father" Bounderby. Louisa's aborted "fall" from the bottom of Mrs. Sparsit's staircase into "a dark pit" is completed by Stephen's fall into the dark Old Hell Mine shaft. Finally, Louisa's leaving her husband and "dying" to the story is followed by Stephen's actual death.

Louisa and Stephen are further linked to Tom's betrayal of them both, while Tom's robbery of the bank acts out retribution on Bounderby for him, his sister, and Stephen (and also substitutes for Harthouse's intent to "rob" Bounderby of his wife). However, in a crucial scene in which the three are brought together by Louisa, Tom displaces his guilt and perhaps his sister's, too, onto Stephen. (Certainly both Stephen and Rachael initially think that Louisa is as guilty of using Stephen as Tom is.)

The most telling connection between Stephen and Louisa is in their equally dreadful if quite different marriages. Stephen and Louisa's responses to their bad marriages are similar: both turn to sympathetic others though they both resist acting on the needs and desires released in them by these others. The four illustrations for the novel reflect this linking of Louisa and Stephen in their responses to their marriages: two are of Harthouse, Louisa's would be lover; a third is of Stephen and Rachael with Stephen's wife, who is reaching out from the bed curtains for the poison. The fourth is of Stephen rescued from the Old Hell Mine Shaft, Rachel's hand in his while he delivers his unlikely speech on class relations. The first three point to Louisa's and Stephen's failed marriages; only the fourth relates to the industrial theme, though as we shall see, that theme is integrated with the marriage question as well.

But this parallelism between Louisa and Stephen is broken at a crucial point; Stephen's desire to end his marriage is sympathetically treated, but not achieved. On the other hand, Louisa's marital situation, while it is never narrated directly and poses a number of unanswered questions, actually ends in a permanent separation.

The steps leading to this outcome show the imbrication of the divorce plot with the father/daughter plot. Tom tells Harthouse that Louisa married Bounderby to do her brother a service, but Louisa also accepted Bounderby's proposal to please her father, whose heart was set upon it, as her mother tells her. Gradgrind for his part has given Louisa to a man "as near being [his] bosom friend" as possible, an exchange that is in the process of being repeated by Tom "giving" Louisa to his bosom friend Harthouse. But though the second exchange negates the first, it ultimately leads to the fulfillment of both Louisa's need for a "divorce" and the archtypal fatherly desire expressed in Gradgrind giving Louisa to Bounderby in the first place—to keep the daughter for himself.

Because the two narrative forces have the same drive—to separate Louisa from her marriage—they work together and climax in a single scene—that between Gradgrind and Bounderby that achieves the separation and makes Louisa's return to her father permanent. In that scene, Gradgrind tells Bounderby that he wants Louisa to remain with him "on a visit," a request he justifies by suggesting that Louisa, like Lady Audley, is mentally unbalanced, thus offering the strongest reason he can for the unorthodox arrangement he desires. But Louisa has never behaved in a selfish or improper way—not to Stephen to whom she gave money, not to Tom who from the very beginning recognized that he did not "miss anything in [her]," not to her father or mother, nor to her husband, and in fact she has been the soul of kindness and propriety to all (in this she resembles Oliver Twist or Florence Dombey more than Esther Summerson or Tom Gradgrind). During her courtship by Harthouse, the narrator as much as admits that she has an incorruptible good heart: "in her mind—implanted there before her eminently practical father began to form it—a struggling disposition to believe in a wider and nobler humanity than she had ever heard of, constantly (my italics), strove with doubts and resentments."

But in spite of all this, her father in his justification to Bounderby says she has qualities that are "harshly neglected, and—and a little perverted." Gradgrind has to assert Louisa's mental imbalance because the separation between her and Bounderby is entirely contrary to legal definitions of separation and the attitudes that underlay the law, as articulated in this London Times comment on the aborted 1854 Matrimonial Causes Act: "Beyond all doubt, it is for the general public interest that marriage should be practically considered an immutable condition of life, to the end that it should not be hastily contracted, and that those placed in it should be stimulated by the pressure of necessity to accommodate themselves to one another" (15 July 1854).

Bounderby, thus, is quite correct to refuse the separation. In fact, in his response he actually uses a key word from the divorce debates. "I gather from all this" he says to Gradgrind, "that you are of the opinion that there's what people call some incompatibility between Loo Bounderby and myself," a sentiment frequently used derisively as in this London Times comment that "Society would be unhinged, and the next generation would be strangely educated if mere incompatibility of temper were a ground for divorce" (27 January 1857).

Nonetheless the main effect of Bounderby's ultimatum that Louisa be home by noon the next day is that Gradgrind is saved from having to explain what he means by her "perverted" qualities or to expand on his "visiting proposition" as Bounderby puts it. Louisa returns permanently to her father. It is if she never left her father's house, a situation forshadowed by both Mrs. Sparsit and her husband Bounderby's insistence on continuing to call her Miss Gradgrind and Tom Gradgrind's daughter after she is married. She thereby fulfills the father's plot of redemption, even as she acts out Stephen's desire "to be ridded" of his spouse—and perhaps Dickens' desire for the same thing as well.

But it is a hollow victory for her; she suffers a kind of narrative death, essentially disappearing from the narrative, dissolving into her father's story. What her feelings about her marriage and her husband and her return might be are unnarrated, though they have been vaguely suggested in the fire symbol and in her earlier conversation with her father about Bounderby's proposal (a chapter tellingly entitled "Father and Daughter"). Even in the climactic scene when she confronts her father and appears to speak her heart and mind, she still cannot name her own desire. In this Louisa is perhaps closer to Dickens' inner turmoil about marriage and divorce than Stephen ever is.

Even so, in this climactic confrontation between father and daughter, the daughter's story, released by the divorce plot, is the closest it ever comes in the novel to breaking through the father's story and entering fully into the text. Though Louisa does not voice her feelings about Bounderby nor her thoughts about her marriage, she admits her strong feelings for Harthouse: "There seemed to be a near affinity between us… If you ask me whether I have loved him, or do love him, I tell you plainly, father, that it may be so. I don't know!" she says, but "I have not disgraced you" (my italics).

The confrontation between a forgiving father and a sinning daughter was a familiar trope in Victorian popular literature, particularly in melodrama. Dickens' use of it here, while it keeps the titillating possibility of the daughter's "fall," significantly revises the scene. Instead of the erring daughter begging for forgiveness from the father, the almost-erring daughter accuses the father of responsibility for her faults. By this revision, the daughter's story for a moment overpowers the father's story. The emergence of the daughter's story is further strengthened by the way in which the final tableau is aborted. Catherine Gallagher, who first pointed out the melodramatic reversals in this scene, says that the conventional melodramatic father/daughter scene ends in a tableau in which the father forgives the daughter with a full embrace between them, in other words a visualization of the dynamic of the father's plot in which the daughter returns to his arms. But as Gallagher also points out, in Hard Times this resolution is violently disrupted; rather than seeking a forgiving embrace, Louisa begins to fall to the floor; as her father "tightened his hold in time to prevent her sinking on the floor… she cried out in a terrible voice, 'I shall die if you hold me! Let me fall upon the ground!'" Like Beatrice Rappacini, Louisa rejects the conventional relationship and insists on controlling her own story.

Finally though, I differ from Gallagher's reading of this scene. She sees in the failure of the confrontation to end in the loving embrace a sign that Gradgrind saves Louisa by letting her go. That certainly would be the way the daughter's story should develop. But unfortunately it does not really happen that way in the novel. It is true that Gradgrind does not embrace Louisa; instead he passes her off to Sissy, who puts her to bed, and after a subdued exchange in which the daughter forgives her father, the two women act out the melodramatic trope precisely. Louisa "fell upon her knees" and cries "Forgive me, pity me, help me! Have compassion on my great need, and let me lay this head of mine upon a loving heart." Sissy acts for the father by reintegrating Louisa into the paternal sphere through her embrace: "O lay it here!… Lay it here, my dear." Sissy then somewhat astonishingly continues to act for the father by sending Louisa's lover away. (Gradgrind is willing to play the father's role to the husband he has chosen for her, but not to the lover she has picked for herself, showing perhaps once again the power of Eve Sedgwick's model of homosocial desire.) One reason the scene between Sissy and Harthouse has struck most readers as unbelievable—even ridiculous—is because this melodramatic confrontation is conventionally acted out by either the father or the brother. As the good daughter, Sissy's assumption of the father's role here cannot really work.

Daniel Deneau has argued that Louisa must have had no real feelings for Harthouse because he is never referred to again after Sissy sends him away. But Sissy's "second object" in her conversation with Harthouse suggests something different, for there seems little reason to make him leave immediately and forever if Louisa, who has given Sissy "her confidence," is not still in some danger from her own heart and Harthouse's presence. The fact is, we have no idea what is on Louisa's mind; from the point she returns to her father's house, her story remains untold. Not only is Louisa not "saved," her story essentially disappears from the text.

With the return of Louisa to her father and the disappearance of Stephen, the father's story emerges as the only story and the issue of marriage and divorce is also erased from the text. This narrative move is achieved more or less seamlessly because of the imbrication of Stephen and Louisa—he representing the industrial theme, she the education theme and the divorce theme moving between them. In fact, issues of class and gender frequently were substituted for issues of marriage and divorce in the divorce reform debates. The reason for making divorce more difficult for the poor and for wives, members of Parliament argued, was that "the poor and women [are] particularly susceptible to moral lapses," as Mary Lyndon Shanley says. "Parliament's fear of the disruptive potential of female sexuality was as great as its distrust of the unrestrained passions of the poor." However, the debates on divorce reform achieved precisely what Parliament feared; they inevitably opened the way for women's issues and working-class issues to enter the arena of public concern.

The sensation novel worked in a similar way, though the development is reversed. These novels examine women's desires and the inadequacy of middle-class marriages to fulfill them, but in the conclusion they reinscribe the "heroine" into conventional roles. Lady Audley, who dared to make her own destiny, is declared even by herself to be "mad" and thrust out to die in a lunatic asylum; the self-reliant and adventurous Magdalen Vanstone in Collins's No Name falls into a death-like illness to be reborn as the passive wife of a sea captain.

The ending of Hard Times resembles in a general way these sensation novel's endings. Both Louisa and Stephen end badly, arguably Stephen worse than Louisa though her brother Tom's rejection of her compounds her lonely future. Louisa, even though she has not fully acted on her desires—she has not run away with Harthouse—lives unpartnered, a guest at the banquet of Sissy's domestic happiness, doing her father's work, atoning for his sins. Stephen dies painfully by falling down a mine-shaft.

The gratuitousness of Stephen's death and the underexplained events that lead up to it suggest how difficult it is in the end to integrate the gender and class issues involved in the divorce plot into the conventional father's story which dominates the last pages of Hard Times. In his final words, Stephen seems to lay the blame for his death on the misunderstandings between capital and labor—fathers and children—but actually his death has come about because of his terrible marriage and frustrated relationship with Rachael. The focal point for both this relationship and his death is his promise to Rachael. As many critics have pointed out, this promise is inexplicable, but even more puzzling is why Rachael does not release him from it when she sees what the result of his adhering to it is. And why does Stephen, whose refusal to join his fellow workers is based on this promise to Rachael to avoid trouble with the masters, then insist on justifying his colleagues to Bounderby, thereby essentially provoking his master into dismissing him, thus achieving precisely what Rachael made him promise to avoid? And most importantly, why are these actions followed by such a painful and gratuitous death?

Stephen's death has been justified as Dickens' recognition that there is no way out of the class war. Nicholas Coles says "Stephen is killed off by the combined forces of both classes… and there is no manner of hope in either of them." However, if we think of Stephen's story as it connects to Louisa's through the marriage and divorce plot, we may see an additional reason for his death. Though overtly Stephen is the only one whose miserable marriage seems to call for divorce, the linking of Louisa and Stephen has opened a crack through which we see that for women much less dramatic situations than Stephen's make marriage a repressive institution. Though intermittently in evidence, this insight has been downplayed through laughter at Mrs. Sparsit and Mrs. Gradgrind and through narrative silence about Louisa. But in order to completely erase this story so the father's story can dominate the closure, the divorce issue must be killed in Stephen, who has been its overt spokesman.

This is Louisa Gradgrind's secret: she killed Stephen Blackpool, though unlike Lady Audley she did not personally push him down the well. Louisa's action of seeking Stephen out in his home, accompanied by her brother as an escort, has led to the suspicion of Stephen's robbing the bank, his hurried return, and ultimately his death. Further, Louisa also narratively necessitates Stephen's death. Though she is the embodiment of the sensation heroine's story of repression and lack of fulfillment in marriage, Stephen has carried the weight of her story. So even as she cannot remarry, though the healthy Bounderby dies five years after the separation, Stephen cannot live to marry Rachael. The sick Mrs. Blackpool survives, the healthy Stephen dies, thereby removing the last vestige of the divorce plot. The novel ends where it began—with the now-chastened father and sacrificed daughter together again, and for all time.

Dickens' letters emphasized what a strain the writing of Hard Times was for him, and when he finished he remarked "Why I found myself so 'used up' after Hard Times I scarcely know." Usually this is understood in terms of his struggle with the weekly number format. But I think that there are other tensions at work as well: the introduction of divorce into the novel (for whatever reasons Dickens did so) is a disintegrating force. Perhaps the struggle to contain and ultimately eliminate that force also contributed to Dickens' creative exhaustion. (Of course, Dickens had personal reasons for not wanting to concentrate on divorce from the woman's point of view.)

Kaplan remarks that the subject of divorce was still on the novelist's mind even after he finished Hard Times when he made an entry in his notebook about a proposed story of "a misplaced and mismarried man." While the "mismarried" is perfectly understandable to us in terms of Dickens' own situation, the "misplaced" is a more curious expression. It suggests a helplessness in the unfolding of one's life, a definition of life as one of accidental placement and lost possibilities rather than fatal choices or actions, a sense that life's miseries as well as its happinesses are the result of where one is placed and not of what one is. And even as the word "misplaced" perhaps gives poignant insight into Dickens' state of mind, it can also serve as a kind of coda to the glimpses of another "misplaced" person—Louisa. Thinking of himself perhaps but speaking for Louisa even as she has spoken for him, Dickens says, as he develops the idea for his story of the "misplaced and mismarried man," that he—or she—is "Always, as it were, playing hide and seek with the world and never finding what Fortune seems to have hidden when he was born."

Source: Anne Humpherys, "Louisa Gradgrind's Secret: Marriage and Divorce in Hard Times," in Dickens Studies Annual, Vol. 25, 1996, pp. 177–95.

Stanley Friedman

In the following essay, Friedman explores the many connections between Stephen Blackpool and Louisa Gradgrind in Hard Times, focusing especially on their emotional states and the inability of society to support them.

In Hard Times, the initial eight chapters, originally published as the first four of twenty weekly installments, start a narrative that seems as though it will be primarily concerned with Mr. Gradgrind, the apostle of facts. Moreover, a number of the titles originally considered for this novel definitely imply such an emphasis: for example, "Thomas Gradgrind's facts," "Hard-headed Gradgrind," "Mr. Gradgrind's grindstone," and "Our hard-headed friend." But Gradgrind, despite the importance of his eventual conversion, is not the focal center of Hard Times. In the fifth installment, two shifts of interest occur: the ninth chapter suggests that Sissy Jupe, the abandoned daughter of a circus clown, may become the main figure, and Chapter 10 introduces a new character who strongly commands our attention, Stephen Blackpool. Sissy, however, quickly fades from view and returns to prominence only late in the narrative. During the last fifteen of the original twenty installments, the role of protagonist appears to be divided between Stephen and Louisa, Gradgrind's restless oldest child, two persons whom Dickens connects in a truly extraordinary number of ways, their differences in age, sex, class status, and temperament notwithstanding. An odd couple, "Old Stephen," the forty-year-old mill-worker who has led "a hard life," and young Louisa, the pretty daughter of the wealthy Mr. Gradgrind and later the wife of the even more affluent Mr. Bounderby, Stephen's employer, serve as paired protagonists, alike in some respects, complementary in others, victims of an ethos that cherishes facts, statistics, and reason, while showing a concomitant disregard for imagination and feeling. As the fates of both Stephen and Louisa demonstrate, men and women in diverse social strata may suffer greatly in a nation marked by an insensitivity to basic emotional needs.

Stephen's difficulties with his debased, alcoholic wife, his co-workers, and Bounderby, as well as his falling under suspicion of bank theft and his accidental death, make up a story that Dickens interweaves with an account of the perils faced by Louisa because of her upbringing and the actions of her brother Tom, Bounderby, and James Hart-house. Although the narrator gives much more attention to Louisa than to Stephen, the latter's death-scene seems to be the novel's main climax. Furthermore, throughout most of Hard Times both of these characters are very closely linked, not only by the obvious fact that each is caught in a disastrous marriage, but also by many other parallels in situations and in relationships, as well as by similar details in settings and imagery. A reader may not consciously note each connection, but the cumulative effect of these numerous ties helps to unify the story. While Dickens wishes to make Hard Times an attack on some features of utilitarianism, he seems not wholly comfortable writing a "thesis-novel." Consequently, he seeks to give his narrative coherence and impetus by inducing us to care about the interwoven destinies of Stephen and Louisa.

* * *

Just as David Copperfield is susceptible to the antithetical influences of a "good angel" and a "bad" one—Anges and Steerforth—so each of the two protagonists in Hard Times is menaced by a diabolical character and assisted by a saintly one. Stephen, contemplating his marital plight, thinks that he is "bound hand and foot, to a dead woman, and tormented by a demon in her shape," and the narrator later calls this person Stephen's "evil spirit." Similarly, when James Harthouse, the man who will try to seduce Louisa, first appears to Bitzer and Mrs. Sparsit, we are told "that he was a thorough gentleman, made to the model of the time; weary of everything and putting no more faith in anything than Lucifer." After meeting Tom, Hart-house behaves "as if he knew himself to be a kind of agreeable demon who had only to hover over him, and he must give up his whole soul if required." The narrator refers to this character as Tom's "tempter" and "powerful Familiar," but the diabolic qualities are given even more emphasis in the account of the ways in which Harthouse approaches Louisa: "When the Devil goeth about like a roaring lion, he goeth about in a shape by which few but savages and hunters are attracted. But, when he is trimmed, smoothed, and varnished, according to the mode;… then, whether he take to the serving out of red tape, or to the kindling of red fire, he is the very Devil." When subsequently reproached by Sissy, Harthouse concedes, "I… have glided on from one step to another with a smoothness… perfectly diabolical."

Stephen is tortured by his "evil spirit," a woman who suddenly just "went bad," as the weaver expresses it. In the original installment version of the novel in Household Words, Bounderby opens a very brief description of her decline with the statement that she "found other companions," but later editions omit this detail, the only semblance of an explanation for the great change (Ford and Monod 250). As Stephen's "long, troubled dream" indicates, his anguish over this abusive woman tempts him to violate the divine commandment against murder. Soon after, when his wife is about to make the fatal error of drinking a poisonous liniment, the weaver finds himself powerless to speak or move.

Stephen is, of course, saved from the guilt of his inaction by Rachael, whom he twice tells, "Thou art an Angel," and then adds, "it may be, thou hast saved my soul alive." Earlier, the narrator has mentioned that, to Stephen, Rachael "looked as if she had a glory shining round her head." Later, speaking to Luisa in his room, the weaver once more calls Rachael "th' Angel" of his life.

Rachael, at a time before she prevents Stephen's wife from drinking the poison, had ministered to the ailing woman and then remarked, "When she gets better, Stephen, 'tis to be hoped she'll leave thee to thyself again, and do thee no more hurt," a hope that is later evidently fulfilled. In a sense, therefore, the good angel tends to the bad one and then dismisses her.

While Stephen's "evil spirit" tempts by tormenting, Louisa's devil torments by tempting. Harthouse, learning from Tom of her strange upbringing and marital discontent, uses her affection for her brother in trying to lead her to break the commandment against adultery. Although Louisa has the strength to resist and flee to her father's home, the prospect of love brings her to a mental crisis. Telling Gradgrind for the first time that she grew up with "a hunger and thirst… which have never been for a moment appeased," she refers to the conflict his system created by requiring her to struggle to suppress her instincts: "In this strife I have almost repulsed and crushed my better angel into a demon." This remark refers to her own inner qualities rather than to persons—to her angelic desire for emotion and imagination and to the demonic traits of doubt and aloofness—but the comment seems to recall the very recent escape from Harthouse, a diabolical seducer, and to anticipate the renewal of Louisa's relationship with the saintly character who will assist in her recovery, Sissy.

Although Sissy is not explicitly called an angel, she clearly deserves this appellation. An early review of Hard Times, after noting that Rachael, "a fellow 'hand' of pattern goodness," is Stephen's "guiding star," adds, "A star of the same kind is supplied to poor Louisa, in her trouble, by Sissy Jupe." Gradgrind himself senses Sissy's mysterious power: "Somehow or other, he had become possessed by an idea that there was something in this girl which could hardly be set forth in a tabular form." When Sissy subsequently comes to offer comfort to the remorseful, distraught Louisa, the latter "fall upon her knees, and clinging to this stroller's child looked up at her almost with veneration," before making a prayer-like request: "Forgive me, pity me, help me! Have compassion on my great need, and let me lay this head of mine upon a loving heart!" Significantly, just as Rachael, Stephen's good angel, handles his problem with his "evil spirit," so Sissy, Louisa's good angel, performs the task of persuading the devil, Harthouse, to retreat. Sissy's angelic status is again emphasized when Louisa, seeking to comfort Gradgrind after Tom's crime has become known to him, promises that his three younger children "will be different," then adds, "I will be different yet, with Heaven's help," and gives "her hand to Sissy, as if she meant with her help too." Upon later learning that Sissy has found a means of saving Tom from arrest, Gradgrind "raised his eyes to where she stood, like a good fairy in his house."

Of course, the two good angels—Rachael and Sissy—eventually join forces to find Stephen and to seek assistance for him. After the mortally injured Blackpool is brought up from the mine-shaft, Sissy induces Sleary's troupe to shield Tom, whose attempt to cast blame for the bank theft on Stephen caused the weaver to embark on the trip leading to the fatal accident. Being victimized by Tom further ties Stephen to Louisa, since she has also been betrayed by this "whelp," who induced her to marry Bounderby, extracted money from her, and then made Harthouse aware of her marital unhappiness.

Stephen and Louisa are additionally linked in that each is caused anguish by an outsider who comes to Coketown, the ugly Slackbridge and the handsome Harthouse. In the chapter in which Harthouse first appears, he is referred to only as a "stranger." Although we are meant to laugh at Bounderby's later attempt to attribute the workers' unrest to Slackbridge, whom the employer calls one of "the mischievous strangers who are always about," the organizer ironically is a mischievous stranger, and he encourages the ostracism of Stephen, a punishment that leads directly to the weaver's second interview with Bounderby, his dismissal from the mill, the visit to his room by Louisa, the plot concocted by Tom, whom Louisa took as an escort, and Blackpool's subsequent death. When Stephen is suspected of complicity in the bank theft, belief in his guilt is expressed by both Harthouse and Slackbridge. Both outsiders also leave Coketown suddenly, Harthouse being persuaded to depart by Sissy and Slackbridge seeming simply to disappear from the scene after convincing the union members to condemn the missing Stephen as a "proscribed fugitive."

Just as Stephen's close escape from committing murder occurs soon after he has a nightmare about being on the executioner's scaffold, so Louisa's avoidance of adultery is preceded by descriptions of Mrs. Sparsit's frequent daydreams expressing a desire for the younger woman's sexual disgrace. The narrator observes that Mrs. Sparsit, although "not a poetical woman," develops "an allegorical fancy": "She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming." This figurative "dark pit," towards which Louisa gradually descends, is analogous to the "black ragged chasm," the abandoned mine-shaft, into which Stephen suddenly drops. Even though Louisa avoids a "fall," which would have made her an outcast like Blackpool, she does collapse, "an insensible heap," at Gradgrind's feet, and Stephen is later brought up from the pit "a poor, crushed, human creature," a "form, almost without forth."

Other parallels also connect Stephen and Louisa. The watchful Mrs. Sparsit first sees Black-pool lurking near the bank, an observation that leads to his unjustly falling under suspicion of theft, and Mrs. Sparsit subsequently, after extensive spying on Louisa, wrongly accuses her of adultery. During the rainstorm, Louisa has fled to her father and avoided misconduct, and we may recall the earlier rainstorm during which Stephen, with Rachael's assistance, escapes from the temptation to commit murder.

When the distressed Louisa asks Gradgrind to shelter her, the meeting provides an ironic contrast with the prior scene between father and daughter in the same room, at the time that they discussed Bounderby's marriage proposal. These two highly significant interviews between Louisa and her father seem balanced by the two climatic confrontations between Stephen and his employer: during the first meeting Blackpool is told there is no help for his marital problems, and during the second he is dismissed from his job. Although Stephen requests the first meeting, he is summoned to the second, a pattern that is reversed in Louisa's two interviews with her father. For each protagonist—Stephen and Louisa—the second meeting leads to a separation from Bounderby. During Stephen's first interview, Bounderby's callous indication that the law cannot help a poor man seeking divorce leads the weaver to remark several times "'tis a muddle," an assessment that he restates during the second meeting with Bounderby and reiterates when dying. Louisa's first long discussion with her father leads the young woman to a comparable expression of moral confusion, her repeated query, "What does it matter?" a question to which she returns when she afterwards wonders how to respond to Hart-house's overtures. Of course, Blackpool's view of life as a "muddle" gives way to his dying affirmation of faith in a guiding star, while Louisa eventually finds strength and comfort in the love offered by Sissy.

These two sets of interviews are also connected by a few other features. Stephen's initial meeting with Bounderby takes place during a rainstorm, as does Louisa's second interview with her father. Stephen's temptation to murder occurs on a night soon after the first discussion with his employer, while Louisa's near-seduction directly precedes her second climactic scene with Gradgrind.

During this second meeting, Gradgrind experiences a conversion, a change that leads him to acknowledge the inadequacy of his prior philosophy. Shaken and sorrowful, he seeks to offer reparation to Louisa, beseeching her, "What can I do, child? Ask me what you will," and then arranging for her to stay in his home and be cared for by Sissy. Similarly, Gradgrind is later the one to whom the dying Stephen turns for reparation: "Sir, yo will clear me an' mak my name good wi' aw men. This I leave to yo."

The vulnerability of each protagonist—Stephen and Louisa—is increased because of affection for another person. Since Stephen adores Rachael, he promises her not rejoin the union, a promise that results in his being ostracized, while Louisa's love for her brother Tom induces her to marry Bounderby. To underscore the resemblance, the narrator ends one of the two chapters in the seventh weekly installment with a night scene in which Stephen, in the road outside the building where he dwells, watches Rachael walk away, while the other chapter in the installment concludes its Louisa stands at night outside the door of her father's home and listens to Tom's "departing steps."

* * *

Nearly all of the dramatic intensity in the tenth through the nineteenth of the twenty original weekly installments is created by two immoral schemes: Harthouse's attempt to seduce Louisa and Tom's plot to have Stephen blamed for the theft from the bank. Although both plans ultimately fail. Tom's leads, as we have noticed, to Stephen's death, while Harthouse's ironically produces a beneficent result, since the crisis it creates for Louisa brings about her reconciliation with Sissy and her separation from Bounderby. But although Louisa then proceeds to cultivate the emotional life that she was previously trained to suppress, Dickens stresses the fact that her future happiness remains limited.

Both Stephen and Louisa can be seen as victims of the "Facts" philosophy's effects on the nation and on individuals. Blackpool suffers because a political system made insensitive by excessive enthusiasm for rationality, statistics, and the doctrine of laissez-faire fails to assist him in three important areas: Parliament tolerates unfair divorce laws that can be used only by the very wealthy but offer no redress to the poor; it does not provide adequate supervision of working conditions, a neglect exemplified by the lack of legislation requiring proper fencing in of dangerous machines (like the one that maimed Rachael's younger sister); and it does not compel owners of coal mines to close up abandoned pits. In addition, Stephen is betrayed by the callous cruelty of Bounderby and the calculating treachery of Tom, two coldly selfish men who also do great harm to Louisa.

Nevertheless, while the sufferings of Stephen and Louisa support the validity of Dickens' views about the danger of Gradgrind's philosophy, these two victims also make us notice some of the limitations of this thesis. Although Louisa has been damaged by her father's destructive system of education, she nevertheless shows notable kindness in her early relations with Sissy. When the latter, speaking of her father's recent deterioration, starts to sob, Louisa "kissed her, took her hand, and sat down beside her." Later, when the young child asks Gradgrind if he has received information about her missing father, Louisa's eyes "follow Sissy with compassion." Louisa's subsequent withdrawal from Sissy seems prompted mainly by shame at having accepted Bounderby's proposal. Moreover, despite the change in behavior towards Sissy, Louisa continues to display generous impulses. Stephen Blackpool, harassed during his second interview with Bounderby, begins "instinctively addressing himself to Louisa, after glancing at her face," for he correctly senses her sympathy.

Stephen himself is also kind and considerate. Despite his "instinctive propensity to dislike" Mrs. Pegler, an impulse undoubtedly attributable to his unwitting recognition of some physical resemblance to Bounderby, her son, Stephen treats this strange old woman with great gentleness and tact, apologizing when his question, "Onny children?," seems to cause distress. Very soon after—in the same chapter—Louisa, after asking Stephen whether Rachael is his wife, blushes and states reassuringly, "it was not my meaning to ask a question that would give pain to any one here," another minor detail tying the two protagonists together. Even though Stephen has not, as far as we know, been oppressed by an education like Louisa's, we may wonder if his upbringing included any specific nourishment of his fancy, the kind of instruction that Dickens believes will lead to compassion and unselfish concern for others. Bluntly denying that Stephen is "a particularly intelligent man," the narrator nonetheless notices that the weaver's room includes a "few books and writings… on an old bureau in a corner," but we never learn what these texts are. Certainly, the daily environment of Coketown is not responsible for Stephen's unselfishness and sensitivity.

As Blackpool is dying, he mentions his prayer "that aw th' world may on'y coom toogether more, an' get a better understan'in' o' one another," a reference to the need to close the rift between classes in mid-Victorian England. In responding, Louisa affirms, "your prayer is mine," as the novel's two main victims join in hoping for national redemption.

* * *

The account of Stephen's final comments and of his death may be regarded as the major climax of Hard Times, for most of the one remaining weekly installment (the novel's last three chapters) seems somewhat perfunctory, despite the excitement of Bitzer's last-minute apprehension of Tom, the amusement provided by Sleary's story of the ensuing escape, and the pathos in the ringmaster's speculation that the reappearance and demise of the dog Merrylegs are an almost certain sign of the death of Sissy's father. In Dickens's brief concluding chapter, the dismissal of Mrs. Sparsit is followed by a short survey of the subsequent lives of this woman, Bitzer, Bounderby, and Gradgrind. We then are asked to contemplate Louisa, "watching the fire as in days of yore, though with a gentler and a humbler face." Asking what she sees of the future, the narrator notes the broadsides and the tombstone epitaph exonerating Stephen, the continued saintly serenity of Rachael, and the remorseful death of Tom. But the three final paragraphs in Hard Times are strangely unsettling. First, we are teased by a possible prospect for Louisa: "Herself again a wife—a mother—lovingly watchful of her children, ever careful that they should have a childhood of the mind no less than a childhood of the body…?" We are soon surprised, however, by the stern, severe words, "Such a thing was never to be."

The fate then described—the view of Louisa winning the love of "happy Sissy's happy children" and of "all children" through her dutiful efforts to foster "imaginative graces and delights"—reminds us not of the future awarded to Esther Summerson, the protagonist of Dickens's immediately preceding novel, Bleak House, a heroine who gains happiness despite her dismal childhood, but of the lot assigned to Em'ly, the tarnished fallen woman in the yet earlier David Copperfield, a character whose life in Australia is celibate and saintly, a model of penance.

Both Stephen and Louisa remain victims, characters whose destinies are lamentable, since the emphasis is on loss, not fulfillment, even though the narrator provides religious consolation for Stephen and some degree of secular solace for Louisa in the redemptive satisfactions of her vicarious maternal role. The sad life and premature death of one figure, as well as the unfortunate youth and limited later happiness of the other, illustrate the shortcomings of a society that hinders instead of assisting the search of men and women for emotional nourishment. By skillfully keeping our attention fixed on these two examples of suffering humanity, Dickens seeks to win for them a sympathy that will induce us to stand against the forces that diminish sensitivity and compassion. As Stephen and Louisa confront nearly simultaneous crises, their fates are intricately interwoven, for Hard Times finally stresses not the differences that divide the social classes but the kinship that unites.

Source: Stanley Friedman, "Sad Stephen and Troubled Louisa: Paired Protagonists in Hard Times," in Dickens Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 2, June 1990, pp. 254–62.

Lewis B. Horne

In the following essay, Horne seeks to define "the quality of the special period and place" in Hard Times and exposes Dickens's deep-rooted criticism of utilitarianism.

Although the Times referred to in the title Hard Times for These Times apply to a special period and place, the term also suggests Time in the sense of continuous duration—through past, present, and future. Recent studies point up the extent to which a consideration of Time can bear on Dickens's work, as well as some of the problems involved. George Ford, for example, suggests that Dickens shares with George Orwell a sense of 'divided allegiance toward past and future,' but goes on to demonstrate most forcefully how this divided allegiance—through Dickens's changing attitude toward the past—contributed so powerfully to his art. Such a contribution can be seen, I believe, in Hard Times. To demonstrate this I would like to apply to the novel one of the ideas Carlyle presents in 'Natural Supernaturalism,' probably the climatic chapter of Sartor Resartus. Here through the character of Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle discusses those obstacles that block man's sense of the miraculous and wonderful, pointing among other hindrances to Space and Time. These 'two grand fundamental world-enveloping Appearances' blind 'our celestial ME,' he writes. It is the impact of the second of these Appearances on the world of Hard Times that I wish to investigate here. I wish to define further the quality of the special period and place described in the novel and to clarify certain features of character, and in doing so to point out in another way how deeply Dickens's criticism of utilitarian belief runs.

In Hard Times both city and citizen are bound by Time. Coketown with its 'interminable serpents of smoke' and its elephant-machines moving 'in a state of melancholy madness' is fettered by Time. It is inhabited by people 'who all 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 same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.' Many of its effects are apparent. In Coketown, like its machines, 'Time, with his innumerable horse-power, worked away,… and presently turned out young Thomas a foot taller than when his father had last taken particular notice of him.' After passing 'Thomas on in the mill,' Time 'passed him on into Bounderby's Bank, made him an inmate of Bounderby's house….' Likewise,'the same great manufacturer… passed Sissy onward in his mill, and worked her up into a very pretty article indeed.'

A second force in the novel, more frequently noted and dramatically more powerful than Time, is that which views life as governed by Fact. This force, too, is connected with Time.

Fact exists in the present. Once it acquires being, once it is fully verified, Fact does not require its past. As statement, Fact is not concerned with how things were or how things will or ought to be. A fact is a result, a conclusion, an end—finished with its past, without need of its future. 'Two plus two equals four': the Fact exists. A statement dependent upon the future for proof is not Fact but speculation. A statement looking to the future for fulfillment is not fact but Wish. For Gradgrind, Fact is immediately verifiable: 'Why, then, you are not to see anywhere, what you don't see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don't have in fact.' To see, to have: the activities exist in the present tense and nullify what a person 'would' do with carpets and flowers and wallpaper and horses. Like the titles of the first two chapters of Bleak House—'In Chancery' and 'In Fashion'—the phrase 'in fact' comes to denote a state of being. Consider Mr Gradgrind's statement:

You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact. You don't walk upon flowers in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don't find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery; you cannot be permitted to paint foreign birds and butterflies upon your crockery. You never meet with quadrupeds going up and down walls; you must not have quadrupeds represented upon walls.

In Hard Times to act as one would in (according to) Fact is—of necessity—to bind one's self to the present, to be one of those 'to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.'

If one is fettered by Time, he is without the great Time-piercers, Memory and Hope, that Teufelsdröckh describes in Sartor Resartus: 'already through those mystic avenues' of Memory and Hope, Carlyle writes, in a statement more striking in expression than originality, 'thou the Earthblinded summonest both Past and Future, and communest with them, though as yet darkly, and with mute beckonings.' In this state of Fact, noting the relationship of characters to Time—whether they are people of the Present or people for whom the curtains of Past and Future open through the workings of Memory and Hope—becomes another way of describing their positions between the two poles that set the thematic borders of the novel. A person with a sustaining memory of the past or a consoling hope for the future will hold out in a stronger manner against the imprisoning present than one without them. Concordant with this, one weaned on Fact, without some taste of romance or fancy, will have trouble holding his place in the sun, will be trapped in the narrowness of his own vision. A reader sees this readily in the examples of the children raised in the Gradgrind system.

Two of the children who offer illustrative contrast are Sissy and Louisa. In Chapter 9 of Book the First, whose title 'Sissy's Progress' connotes movement and change, the narrator suggests that, even though Sissy grows and develops through the years, life at Stone Lodge, going 'monotonously round like a piece of machinery which discouraged human interference,' is not in its essentials changed by Time. Positions shift—Gradgrind, for example, becomes a member of Parliament—but Time in Stone Lodge remains benumbed in the Present, turning seldom backward or forward. What sustains Sissy Jupe is a belief that amounts to religious faith, and a hope that keeps open the curtains of the Future: 'the girl believed that her father had not deserted her; she lived in the hope that he would come back, and in the faith that he would be made the happier by her remaining where she was.' Sissy's belief keeps her from running away. Her memories of her father and Merrylegs, though not exclusively happy ones, fortify her affection for him and strengthen her hope. She tells Louisa: 'I keep the nine oils ready for him, and I know he will come back. Every letter that I see in Mr Gradgrind's hand takes my breath away and blinds my eyes, for I think it comes from father, or from Mr Sleary about father.' Although Mr Gradgrind does not approve of such 'fantastic hopes,' the narrator comments that 'it did seem… as if fantastic hope could take as strong a hold as Fact.'

Louisa has no such sustenance. Others look to her future—her father with a well-intentioned but matter-of-fact plan for her marriage, her brother with his own selfish plan for helping his situation with Bounderby. Louisa has little to hope for. She cannot imagine ways of doing for Tom what other girls might do for those they love. 'I can't play to you, or sing to you,' she says, 'I can't talk to you so as to lighten your mind, for I never see any amusing sights or read any amusing books that it would be a pleasure or a relief to you to talk about, when you are tired.' Such feelings of helplessness are not expressed only to Tom. In talking to her father Louisa says, 'Father, I have often thought that life is very short'; she wishes 'to do the little I can, and the little I am fit for.' If the second statement expresses a hope, it is a short-term, highly limited one, so hesitant a step along that avenue to the future as scarcely to offer any glimpse at all. Indeed, her statement, 'What does it matter!' repeated twice during the conversation, suggests more of despair than hope, of drawing in than moving out.

When she sits before her fire watching the dying sparks, Louisa embodies the situation of the person closed solely within the present, the person without hope. The red sparks 'made me think… how short my life would be,' she tells her mother, 'and how little I could hope to do in it.' Although a personal outburst appears to threaten when she later tells her father that 'when the night comes, Fire bursts out,' her own bursting-out—i.e., the temptation to run away with Harthouse—is severely contained. As a rebellion against her restrictive background, it appears weak because she overcomes it without significant difficulty (although it does bring her and her father to an important point of conciliation and understanding); as a moral victory, it appears weak because Harthouse is too much of a dandy to be a very strong temptation for a woman of her temperament and (presumed) intelligence—whatever kind of husband Bounderby is. But even more, by this time the fires of Louisa's spirit have faded and are not to be stoked by a shabby and illicit romance. When she stood at the door of Stone Lodge earlier as her father listened to Mr Bounderby's offer of marriage to his daughter, Louisa found little to look forward to. References to Time and fire come together:

It seemed as if, first in her own fire within the house, and then in the fiery haze without she tried to discover what kind of wool Old Time, that greatest and longest-established Spinner of all, would weave from the threads he had already spun into a woman. But his factory is a secret place, his work is noiseless, and his Hands are mutes.

Louisa does not look toward the future with hope, but simply speculates, quietly and passively.

With his wishes grayed, Stephen Blackpool is Louisa's counterpart among the Hands, reflective individually of the mindless and mechanical treadmill of Time followed by all the Hands in the Coketown factories. Sometimes alone, sometimes with Rachael, he paces that treadmill without ever approaching the fulfilment of love or of fortune. He is without the opportunity for 'play' that Ruskin found 'necessary' for workmen—'this stretching of the mental limbs as their fetters fall away,—this leaping and dancing of the heart and intellect, when they are restored to the fresh air of heaven, yet half paralyzed by their captivity, and unable to turn themselves to any earnest purpose.' He is without the capacity to hope strongly. He can only dream. In his enlightening article, 'A Missing Childhood in Hard Times,' Edward Hurley considers Stephen's blacked-out childhood wishes, focusing on the dream Stephen has the night he sits in the same room with both his wife and Rachael. Dickens describes the dream this way:

He thought that he, and some one on whom his heart had long been set—but she was not Rachael, and that surprised him, even in the midst of his imaginary happiness—stood in the church being married. While the ceremony was performing, and while he recognized among the witnesses some whom he knew to be living, and many whom he knew to be dead, darkness came on, succeeded by the shining of a tremendous light. It broke from one line in the table of commandments at the altar, and illuminated the building with the words. They were sounded through the church, too, as if there were voices in the fiery letters. Upon this, the whole appearance before him and around him changed, and nothing was left as it had been, but himself and the clergyman. They stood in the daylight before a crowd so vast, that if all the people in the world could have been brought together into one space, they could not have looked, he thought, more numerous; and they all abhorred him, and there was not one pitying or friendly eye among the millions that were fastened on his face. He stood on a raised stage, under his own loom; and, looking up at the shape the loom took, and hearing the burial service distinctly read, he knew that he was there to suffer death. In an instant what he stood on fell below him, and he was gone.

Hurley's analysis of the dream is detailed and probing and connects the details of the dream with the theme of his article—'childhood's confrontation with adult reality.' What is important for our purpose, however, is the dream's manifestation of a buried but living hope in Stephen Blackpool, a dreadful hope in many ways, one that cannot find strong outward expression in act or words or art but can come only out of the subconscious, in an event ridden with desire and taboo. Such a variety of hope, though, cannot part the curtains of the Future. Stephen's major expression of hope is the one connected with the star and imparted as he dies—'that aw th' world may on'y coom together more'—but as many readers have felt, the circumstances and message are so strongly sentimental, so operatic in staging, that the idea scarcely seems to belong to Stephen Blackpool. The curtains of eternity presumably part for him at this point, but he observes them from the same point in time where he has always stood.

Failure to cope with the movement of time, the effort to freeze time, to render existence static, results in a kind of life-in-death—an existence 'which does not allow anything whatever of novelty or change to come in from the outside'—and finds embodiment in Dickens's comic-grotesque figures. But if these characters are active and deliberate in their proceedings—as Miss Havisham, for example, is deliberate—characters like Louisa or Stephen Blackpool scarcely have enough selfdrive, generated either by memory or hope, to invigorate their lives. Louisa lapses into the single long moment, while Stephen's history is simply a repetition of old events as steady and dreary as his drunken wife's cry: 'And back agen. Back agen ever and ever so often.'

A more active awareness of Time is shown by two other key figures of the novel—Bounderby and Harthouse. Both men misuse Time. By falsifying his past Bounderby misrepresents himself, puts on in Carlylean terms, a false vesture; both body and vesture work upon each other, one distorting the other. As Hurley puts it: 'Bounderby has tried to destroy his own childhood and thus made himself the most flagrant public hypocrite in the novel. In the eyes of the reader he is almost no one, since the childhood and history out of which he has created himself do not exist.' Nothing from the past can support him. He is unable to project himself into 'much of futurity.' Aside from Mrs Sparsit's sparring existence both with Lady Scadgers and with exigency, he 'probably' has little 'prescience,' as we hear in the final chapter, of the things to come.

Like Bounderby Harthouse professes his worst. He does not so much live for the moment as take advantage of it, unanchored, drifting with it in his world-weary manner. His philosophy is expressed in the repeated phrase, 'What will be, will be,' while he acknowledges to Louisa that 'the only difference between us and the professors of virtue or benevolence, or philanthropy… is, that we Know it is all meaningless…' Although reminiscent of Carlyle's Dilettante, as William Oddie has pointed out, his name from which one can coin—among other things—the phrase 'House of Art' reminds one of Carlyle's description of the Dandy. The obtuse Editor of Sartor Resartus calls the Dandy 'a poet'—an artist, one might say—and asks, 'Is not his body the (stuffed) parchment-skin whereon he writes, with cunning Huddersfield dyes, a Sonnet to his mistress' eyebrow? Dandy, an example of the artist Ruskin describes as indulging in 'unnecessary play,' Harthouse lacks the energy or will to burn with that hard gem-like flame of the late nineteenth-century aesthete. In the world of Hard Times, the moment is too numbing and deadening, drained of its vital qualities.

All of these characters and others—Gradgrind with the 'deadly statistical' clock in his study, his son Tom, the unpleasant Bitzer to name only three—are victims of Fact in one way or another and the limitations such a system imposes on a view of Time. Or if they are not victims, those—aside from Sissy Jupe—who evade the moment do it not through either Memory or Hope; rather, they evade the moment through indifference or through deliberate falsification. What such an observation means is that Dickens's criticism of a thoroughly Factoriented view of life runs more deeply than it might at first appear to do. If fancy is important to Memory and Hope and hence is a means of escaping Time, it is also a means of resisting Time. Using the term Imagination rather than Fancy, Samuel Johnson noted that 'time is, of all modes of existence, most obsequious to the imagination; a lapse of years is as easily conceived as a pasage of hours.' To show how deeply Dickens's criticism runs we might turn to a statement deriving from the 1960s. It is drawn from a series of lectures delivered by Peter Hughes for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In the first of these, entitled 'The Moment,' Hughes says:

By resisting time, poetry gives its meaning. And by apparently defying time, as [Samuel] Johnson noticed, the imagination gives it existence. The memory in its turn, through history, philosophy, and religion, gives time an order and sequence it would otherwise lack. A trained memory strikes people nowadays as an oldfashioned, even primitive possession: 'Why write it down?' as the Watusi said to the anthropologist, 'can't you remember?'… But the decay of memory leads to the fading of those mental images that are necessary for thought. The decay of memory—which we tend to encourage—leads quickly to the decay of both the historical and poetic imagination, which we say we prize. The decay of memory also makes us forget that time is not the tyranny of clocks, schedules, and calendars; but rather our perception of duration, of the effects of duration on persons and things, especially living things.

Although his references in the passage are largely contemporary, Hughes's description of what is lost when the faculty of memory deteriorates describes what we see in Hard Times—that is, a situation in which many of his characters stand in solitude, separate from each other, however much they may speak to one another, single figures inhabiting a single space with narrow, heavily shrouded horizons. They see nothing beyond. A sense of the past enriches the present, a fact of which Bounderby is fraudulently aware. But aside from Mrs Sparsit and Sissy, different as they are, the space inhabited by other characters in the novel is temporally impoverished, and even for these two figures barren.

When finally the power of Time penetrates, it does so with all the force of Aristotelian discovery, as the example of Gradgrind shows when he faces his runaway and unhappy daughter. In such a shattering event, the legacy of his past provides no enrichment through memory. Consequence directs his gaze backward over deed to show him the present he has created for himself. By restricting his vision of Time, he has made for himself a greater prison; for even though the curtains on Past and Future have for him been torn apart, as it were, the vision is of small comfort. Abused, Memory and Hope get back their own.

Dickens was gentler with another of his characters, though in a different work. A letter in which he explains his intention in The Christmas Carol can be used to summarize the importance of Time in Hard Times: 'I converted Mr Scrooge by teaching him that a Christian heart cannot be shut up in itself, but must live in the Past, the Present, and the Future, and must be a link of this great human chain, and must have sympathy with everything.'

Source: Lewis B. Horne, "Hope and Memory in Hard Times," in Dickensian, Vol. 75, No. 3, Autumn 1979, pp. 167–74.


Collins, Philip, Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971, pp. 300–21.

——, Dickens and Education, Macmillan, 1963, pp. 144–59.

Dickens, Charles, Hard Times, Norton Critical Edition, edited by George Ford and Sylvàre Monod, W. W. Norton, 1966.

——, "The Murdered Person," in "Gone Astray" and Other Papers from "Household Words," 1851–59, The Dent Uniform Edition of Dickens's Journalism, edited by Michael Slater, Vol. 3, Ohio State University Press, 1999, pp. 396–402.

——, "On Strike," in Hard Times, Norton Critical Edition, edited by George Ford and Sylvàre Monod, W. W. Norton, 1966, pp. 286–99, originally published in Household Words, February 11, 1854.

——, "Schools I Do Not Like," in Hard Times, Norton Critical Edition, edited by George Ford and Sylvàre Monod, W. W. Norton, 1966, pp. 310–11, originally given as a speech, November 5, 1857.

Gray, Paul Edward, ed., Twentieth Century Interpretations of "Hard Times": A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1969.

House, Humphry, and John House, Dickens World, 2d ed., Oxford University Press, 1965, pp. 203–11.

Leavis, F. R., "Hard Times—An Analytic Note," in Hard Times, Norton Critical Edition, edited by George Ford and Sylvàre Monod, W. W. Norton, 1966, pp. 339–59, originally published in The Great Tradition, 1948, pp. 227–48.

Morley, Henry, "Ground in the Mill," in Hard Times, Norton Critical Edition, edited by George Ford and Sylvàre Monod, W. W. Norton, 1966, pp. 299–301, originally published in Household Words, April 22, 1854.

Review of Hard Times, in Hard Times, Norton Critical Edition, edited by George Ford and Sylvàre Monod, W. W. Norton, 1966, pp. 286–99, originally published in Westminster Review, 1854.

Ruskin, John, Review of Hard Times, in Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, edited by Philip Collins, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971, pp. 303–04, originally published in Cornhill Magazine, August 1860.

Shanley, Mary Lyndon, Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England, 1850–1895, Princeton University Press, 1989, pp. 22–48.

Simpson, Richard, Review of Hard Times, in Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, edited by Philip Collins, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971, pp. 303–04, originally published in Rambler, October 1854.

Whipple, Edwin P., Review of Hard Times, in Charles Dickens: The Critical Heritage, edited by Philip Collins, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971, pp. 351–21, originally published in Atlantic Monthly, March 1877.

Further Reading

Dyson, A. E., The Inimitable Dickens: A Reading of the Novels, Macmillan, 1970, pp. 183–202.

Dyson argues that Hard Times, Dickens's "angriest" novel, differs from his other novels because it is devoid of hope. There is no happy ending for any of the characters.

Monod, Sylvàre, Dickens the Novelist, University of Oklahoma Press, 1968, pp. 440–52, 456–65.

Monod discusses Hard Times and A Tale of Two Cities as examples of the least Dickensian of Dickens's novels. Monod faults Dickens for not providing a positive element in his social criticism and for the inconsistency in his thinking.

Nelson, Harland S., Charles Dickens, Twayne's English Authors Series, No. 314 Twayne, 1981, pp. 197–201.

Nelson discusses Hard Times in the context of the limitations of reason and intellect, namely that reason excludes love, which is needed for any solution to the world's problems.

Spector, Stephen J., "Monsters of Metonymy: Hard Times and Knowing the Working Class," in Charles Dickens, edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House, 1987, pp. 229–44.

Spector examines what he calls Dickens's failure to create a convincing portrayal of industrial workers, which he attributes to Dickens's faith in the power of language. While analyzing the novel's failings, Spector also praises its moral and intellectual honesty.