Hard Times

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Wordsworth edition cover

Hard Times is a novel by Charles Dickens, published in 1854. It is significant for being the shortest of his full novels. The book is one of a number of state-of-the-nation novels published around the same time, another being North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, which aimed to highlight the social and economic pressures some people were under. The novel is unusual, in that it is not set in London, as is Dickens' usual wont, but the fictitious Victorian industrial town of Coketown. It has met mixed critical response from a diverse range of critics, such F.R. Leavis, George Bernard Shaw, and Thomas Macaulay. This was usually for Dickens' treatment of Trade unions, and the pessimism about the division between capitalistic millowners and the undervalued workers, after the Industrial Revolution, set in the Victorian era of Great Britain.


Background and publication

The reasons for writing Hard Times were commercial and educational. Appertaining to the commercial impetus, sales of his weekly periodical, Household Words, were dropping. Conversely, pertaining to the educational reason, Dickens wished to satirize radical Utilitarians whom Dickens thought to be 'those who see figures and averages, and nothing else'. He also wished to campaign for reform of working conditions. Dickens had visited factories in Manchester, as early as 1839, and was made aghast and appalled by the environment in which workers toiled. Drawing upon his own childhood experiences, Dickens resolved himself to 'strike the heaviest blow in my power' for those who laboured in horrific conditions.

J.S. Mill is thought to be an influence for the character of Louisa Gradgrind.
J.S. Mill is thought to be an influence for the character of Louisa Gradgrind.

Prevalence of utilitarianism

One of the targets of Dicken's uncharacteristic mordancy is this novel are Utilitarians. In the novelist's time, this philosophy was a particularly prevalent school of thought, and its main representative was John Stuart Mill. Theoretical Utilitarian ethics hold that self-interest is to what one should appeal. This is expressed in the novel, in Bitzer's response, in the plot untying, to Gradgrind's appeal for compassion. Dickens was appalled by this selfish philosophy, which was combined with materialist laissez-faire capitalism, in the education of some children at the time, and industry. This is because it seemed to create contempt between the millowners and workers, and, in terms of education, it created young adults whose imaginations had been neglected, due to an emphasis on facts.

John Stuart Mill had a similar, rigorous education to the one that Louisa Gradgrind has, which consisted of analytical, logical, mathematical, statistical exercises. In his twenties, Mill had a nervous breakdown, believing his capacity for emotion had been enervated by his father's stringent emphasis on analysis and mathematics in his education. Relating to the book, Louisa herself follows a parallel course, being unable to express herself, and falling into a temporary depression as a result of her desiccating education.


The spurious usage of statistics is a subject about which Dickens expresses great anger. It is worth noting that, in his lifetime, Dickens did not decry the wholesale usage of statistics, per se, such as for reformative and sanitary purposes. But Dickens demonstrates how this information can be subjected to perversion and abuse, for purposes of subjugation and creating statistics that are class-biased. Nicholas Coles, an essayist, points out in his work The Politics of Hard Times: Dickens the Novelist versus Dickens the Reformer, that Dickens critique was:

"against statistics as a form of social knowledge, a way of knowing which necessarily constitutes the object of its knowledge - in this case the working class and their conditions of life - in particular ways and which thereby dictates particular approaches to it. It is statistics as what Michel Foucault would call a disciplinary technology of knowledge, as a mechanism for moral and political surveillance and restraint."

Additionally Dickens also exprobrates the deleterious use of statistics to justify the distribution of wealth. There is an instance of this in the opening chapters. Asked for the basic principle of Political economics, Sissy, a young student, responds 'To do unto others, as they would do unto me', which is the opposite of the expected answer (self-interest and statistical proof, not compassion). Dickens is implying the feelings of compassion and sympathy override the calculation of percentages and statistics.


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Dickens' weekly magazine featured Hard Times

The novel was published as a serial in his weekly publication, Household Words. Sales were highly responsive and encouraging for Dickens who remarked that he was 'Three parts mad, and the fourth delirious, with perpetual rushing at Hard Times '. The novel was serialised, every week, between April 1 and August 12 1854. It sold well, and a complete volume was published in August, totalling 110,000 words. Another related novel, North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell was also published in this magazine.

Although extremely popular when first written—it doubled the circulation of Household Words, the journal in which it was serialized—the book is now almost a forgotten part of the Dickens canon. Part of the reason for its lack of popularity now is that it is a political polemic with little of the characterisation or humour for which Dickens is famed. One reason it is not highly regarded is that it was written in weekly installments. Even for the prolific Dickens this is a hectic pace to produce fiction.


Major characters

In Hard Times it can be affirmed that there is no main protagonist. A criticism of Dickens novels is that the intricate plots and eventual denouement, mean that several characters are involved only to represent ideas of Dickens, usually at the expense of their development as human beings. Ergo, representing straw men and women.

Mr. Thomas Gradgrind

Tom Gradgrind is a utilitarian who is the founder of the educational system in Coketown. 'Eminently practical' is Gradgrind's recurring description throughout the novel, and practicality is something he zealously aspires to. He represents the stringency of 'Fact', statistics and other materialistic pursuits. Only after his daughter's breakdown does he come to a realisation that things such as poetry, fiction and other pursuits are not 'destructive nonsense'.

Josiah Bounderby

Josiah Bounderby is a business associate of Mr. Gradgrind. He is a bombastic, yet thunderous merchant given to peroration. He employs many of the other central characters of the novel, and his rise to prosperity is shown to be an example of social mobility. He marries Mr. Gradgrind's daughter Louisa, some 25 years his junior, in what turns out to be a soulless matrimony. Bounderby is the main target of Dickens' attack on the supposed moral superiority of the wealthy, and is revealed to be an utter hypocrite in his sensational comeuppance at the end of the novel.

Louisa Gradgrind/Bounderby

Louisa is the unemotional, distant and eldest child of the Gradgrind family. She has been taught to abnegate her emotions, and finds it hard to express herself clearly, saying as a child she has 'unmanageable thoughts'. She is married to Josiah Bounderby, in a very logical and businesslike manner, representing the emphasis on factuality and business ethos of her education. Her marriage is a disaster and is tempted into adultery by James Harthouse, yet, she manages to resist this temptation.

Stephen Blackpool

'Old Stephen' as he is referred to by his fellow 'Hands' is an improvident, indigent worker at one of Bounderby's mills. His life is immensely strenuous, and he is married to a constantly inebriated wife who comes and goes throughout the novel. He forms a close bond with Rachael, a female worker. After a dispute with Bounderby, he is dismissed from his work at the Coketown mills and is forced to find work elsewhere. Whilst absent from Coketown he is accused of complicity in a crime he did not commit, and tragically, on his way back to vindicate himself he falls into a pit, and seriously injures himself. He is rescued, but dies.

Other characters

As with the major characters, the other existing characters play the role, in the novel, of representing Dickens' ideas. Sissy (Cecilia Jupe), is the embodiment of the theme of imagination and hope, which is suppressed by the Gradgrind school. She is a working-class circus performer who is abandoned by her father, who has to leave the circus and is partially 'educated' by Thomas Gradgrind, and the delightfully, ludicrously named Mr. M'Choakumchild. Bitzer is a classmate of Sissy's and brought up on facts and is taught to operate according to self-interest. He takes up a job in Bounderby's bank, later on in the novel. Mrs. Sparsit, is a 'classical' widow who has fallen upon despairing circumstances, she is employed by Bounderby, yet her officiousness and prying get her fired in a humorous send-off by Bounderby. James Harthouse who enters the novel in the 2nd book, is an indolent, languid, upper-class gentleman who agrees to educating some pupils at the Gradgrind school. Other characters include Tom Gradgrind, Louisa's brother, Signor Jupe, Sissy's father, Mrs. Pegler, a 'mysterious old woman', Slackbridge, a dishonourable union leader, Mr. Sleary, the manager of a circus, who speaks with a lisp, and Mrs. Gradgrind, the wife of Mr. Gradgrind who is an invalid.


Dickens' novel follows the classical tripartite structure of novels, and the titles of each book are related to the proverbial aphorism, 'As you sow, so shall you reap'. The interpretation of this quote being, what ever is effected upon or done in the present will have a direct effect on what happens later. Book I is entitled 'Sowing', Book II is entitled 'Reaping', and the third is 'Garnering'. These titles are a deliberate motif used, and have to be bared in mind when reading the book and analysing its narrative and content.

Book I: Sowing

Mr. Gradgrind, whose voice is 'dictatorial', opens the novel by stating, 'Now, what I want, is facts', at his school in Coketown. He is an eminently practical man of 'facts and calculations. He interrogates one of his pupils, Sissy, whose father is involved with the circus, who are 'Fancy' in comparison to Gradgrind's espousal of 'Fact'. Since her father rides and tends to horses, Gradgrind offers her the definition of 'veterinary surgeon'. She is objurgated for not being able to define a horse factually; her compatriot Bitzer does, however, provide a factual definition. She does not learn easily, and is furthermore censured for suggesting that she would wallpaper a room with pictures of horses. She is taught to disregard 'Fancy altogether'.

Louisa and Thomas, Mr. Gradgrind's children, after school, pay a visit to the touring circus, ran by Mr. Sleary, only to find their father, turn up, disconcerted by their trip, since the circus is thought to be the bastion of Fancy and conceit. With their father Louisa and Tom, trudge off, in a despondent mood.

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Gradgrind apprehends Louisa and Tom, his children, at the circus.

Josiah Bounderby, 'a man perfectly devoid of sentiment', is revealed as being Gradgrind's closest friend. Bounderby is a manufacturer and millowner who is affluent as a result of his enterprise and capital. Bounderby is what one might call, a 'self-made man' who has risen from the 'gutter'. He is not averse to giving dramatic summaries of his childhood, which terrify Mr. Gradgrinds' wife who is often rendered insensate by these horrific stories. He is described, in an acerbic manner as being 'the Bully of Humility'.

Mr. Gradgrind and Bounderby, visit the public-house where Sissy resides, to inform her that she cannot attend the school anymore, due to the risk of her ideas propagating in the class. Sissy meets the two collaborators, informing them her father has abandoned her not out of malice, but out of desire for Sissy to lead a better life without him. This was the reasoning behind him enlisting her at Gradgrind's school, and Gradgrind is outraged at this desertion. At this point members of the circus appear, fronted by their manager Mr. Sleary. Mr. Gradgrind gives Sissy a dichotomy, to return to the circus and surfeit her education, or to continue her education only never to return to the circus. Sleary and Gradgrind both have their say on the matter, and at the behest of Josephine Sleary, she decides to leave the circus, and bid all her close friends she formed adieu.

Back at the Gradgrind house, Tom and Louisa are sat down discussing their feelings, however repressed they seem to be. Tom, already at this present stage of education finds himself in a state of dissatisfaction, and Louisa also expresses her discontent at her childhood, whilst staring into the fire. Louisa's ability to wonder however has not been entirely distinguished by her rigorous education of Fact.

We are introduced to the workers at the mills, known depreciatively as the 'Hands', and amongst these is a man named Stephen Blackpool or 'Old Stephen' who has led a strenuous and laborious life. He is described as a 'man of perfect integrity'. He has ended his day's work and his close companion, Rachael is about somewhere. He eventually meets up with her, and they walk home discussing their day. On entering his house he finds that his drunken wretch of a wife, who has been in exile from Coketown, has made an unwelcome return to his house. She is unwell, and mumbles inebriated remarks to Stephen, who is greatly perturbed by this event.

The next day, Stephen determines to make a visit to Bounderby to try and solve his dilemma of his woeful, childless marriage by divorce. Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Bounderby's paid companion, is 'dejected by the impiety' of Stephen, and Bounderby explains that he could not afford to effect an annulment anyway. Stephen is very bewildered, and dejected by this verdict given by Bounderby.

Meanwhile, Mr. Gradgrind prepares a discourse for his daughter, who is seemingly apathetic in his company, and this seems to frustrate Mr. Gradgrind's efforts. A proposal of marriage is made to Louisa by Josiah Bounderby, who is some 30 years her senior. Gradgrind uses statistics to prove that an age inequity in marriage does not prove an unhappy or short marriage however. Louisa, insouciantly accepts this offer. Bounderby is rendered ecstatic by the news, as is Louisa's mother, who again is so overwhelmed that she becomes incapacitated yet again. Sissy is confounded but piteous of Louisa.

Book 2: Reaping

Book Two opens with the attention focused on Bounderby's new bank in Coketown, of which Bitzer alongside the austere Mrs. Sparsit keep watch at night for intruders or burglars. A dashing gentleman enters, asking for directions to Gradgrind's house, as he has been hired to teach in his school. It is James Harthouse is a languid fellow, who has failed to find his calling in life, and idly gallivants from task to task we are told.

Harthouse is introduced to Bounderby, who again reverts to almost improbable stories of his childhood to entertain Gradgrind, who is utterly bored by the blusterous millowner, yet is astounded by his wife, Louisa and observes her reserve and lugubrious nature. Louisa's brother Tom works for Bounderby, and he has become reckless and wayward in his conduct, despite his meticulous education. Tom decides to take a liking to James Harthouse, on the basis of his clothes, showing his belief in superficiality. Tom is later debased to animal status, as he comes to be referred to as the 'whelp', a denunciatory term for a young man. Tom is very forthcoming in his contempt for Bounderby in the presence of Harthouse, who soaks up all these secretive revelations.

Stephen journeys to Bounderby's retreat in the country to inform him his abstention from joining the union led by the orator Slackbridge, and Bounderby accuses Stephen of fealty and of pledging an oath of secrecy to the union. Stephen denies this, and states that he avoided the Union because of a promise he'd made earlier to Rachael. Bounderby is bedevilled by this conflict of interest and accuses Stephen of being 'waspish'. He dismisses him on the spot, on the extenuation that he has betrayed both employer and union. Later on a bank theft takes place at the Bounderby bank, and Stephen Blackpool is inculpated in the crime, due to him loitering around the bank, coincidentally, the night before the robbery.

Sparsit observes that the relationship between James Harthouse and Louisa is moving towards a near tryst. She sees Louisa as moving down her 'staircase', metaphorically speaking. She sets off from the bank to spy upon them, and catches them at what seems to be a propitious moment. However, despite Harthouse confessing his love to Louisa, Louisa is restrained, and refuses an assignation. Sparsit is infatuated with the idea that the two do not know they are being observed. Harthouse departs as does Louisa, and Mrs. Sparsit tries to stay in pursuit, thinking that Louisa is going to assent to the affair, Louisa has not though. She follows Louisa Louisa to the train station assuming that Louisa has hired a coachman to dispatch her to Coketown. Sparsit however, misses the fact that Louisa has instead boarded a train to her father's house. Sparsit relinquishes defeat and proclaims 'I have lost her!' When Louisa arrives at her father's house, she is revealed to be in an extreme state of disconsolate grief. She accuses her father of allowing her the opportunity to have an innocent childhood, and that her rigorous education has stifled her ability to express her emotions. Louisa collapses at her father's feet, into an insensible torpor.

Book 3: Garnering

Mrs. Sparsit arrives at Mr. Bounderby's house, and reveals to him the news her surveillance has brought. Mr. Bounderby, who is rendered irate by this news, journeys to Stone Lodge, where Louisa is resting. Mr. Gradgrind, tries to disperse calm upon the scene, and reveals that Louisa resisted the temptation of adultery. Bounderby is inconsolable and he is immensely indignant and ill-mannered towards everyone present, including Mrs. Sparsit, for her falsehood. Bounderby finishes by offering the ultimatum to Louisa of returning to Bounderby, by 12 o'clock the next morning, else the marriage is surfeited. Suffice to say, Mr. Bounderby resumes his bachelorhood, when the request is not met.

The erstwhile Harthouse leaves Coketown, on an admonition from Sissy Jupe, never to return. He submits. Meanwhile, Mr. Gradgrind and Louisa cast suspicions that Tom, the 'whelp', may have committed the bank robbery. Stephen Blackpool who has been absent from Coketown, trying to find mill work under a pseudonym, tries to exculpate himself from the robbery. On walking back to Coketown, he falls down the 'Old Hell Shaft', an old pit, completing his terminal bad luck in life. He is rescued by villagers, but after speaking to Rachael for the last time, he dies.

Louisa suspects that Tom had a word with Stephen, making a false offerance to him, therefore urging him to loiter outside of the bank. Mr. Gradgrind and Sissy concur with this theory and resolve themselves to find Tom, since he is in danger. Sissy makes a plan for rescue and escape however, and she reveals that she suspected Tom early on during the proceedings. She sends Tom off to the circus that she used to be a part of namely, Mr. Sleary's. Louisa and Sissy travel to the circus, to see how Tom is. Remorselessly, Tom says that he had little money, and that robbery has the only solution to his dilemma. Mr. Sleary is not aware of this and agrees to help him reach Liverpool, and Mr. Gradgrind, prays that his son is able to board a ship that will send him to the faraway Americas. The party is stopped, however, by Bitzer, who is anxious to claim his reward for the misdemeanour. The 'excellent young man' is entreated to show compassion and questions whether he has a heart, to which Bitzer, cynically responds, that of course he has a heart, and that the 'circulation could not be carried on without one'. Sleary is dismayed by this revelation, and agrees to take Bitzer and Tom to the bank without any further delays. However, he sees that Mr. Gradgrind has been kind to Sissy, and agrees to detain and divert Bitzer whilst Tom leaves for Liverpool.

Returning to Coketown, Mrs. Sparsit is relieved of her duty to Bounderby who has no qualms about firing a lady, however 'highly connected' she may be. The final chapter of the book details the fates of the characters. Mrs. Sparsit returns to live with her aunt, Lady Scadgers, who have feelings of acrimony towards each other, whilst Bounderby dies of a fit in a street one way, having squandered his fortune on speculation. Tom, dies in the Americas, having begged for penitence in a half-wrote letter to his sister, Louisa. Louisa herself grows to be old and never remarries. Mr. Gradgrind abolishes his Utilitarian stance, but as a result is made a figure of contempt by his fellow MP's, who give him a hard time. Rachael, continues to labour, and still exercises her work ethic and honesty always. Sissy is the moral victor of the story having children who grow learned in 'childish lore', who have also escaped the exsiccative education of the Gradgrind school.

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The author, Charles Dickens


Relating back to Dickens aim to, 'strike the heaviest blow in my power', he wished to educate readers about the working conditions of some of the factories in the industrial towns of Manchester, and Preston. Relating to this also, Dickens wished to expose the assumption that prosperity runs parallel to morality, something which is cruelly shattered in this novel, due to his portrayal of the moral monster, Mr. Bounderby, and James Harthouse, the cynical aristocrat. Dickens was also campaigning for the importance of imagination in life, and not for people's life to be reduced to a collection of material facts and statistical analysis. Dickens' favourable portrayal of the Circus, who he describes as caring so 'little for Plain Fact', is an example of this.

Imagination vs. fact

This theme is developed early on in the novel the bastion of 'Fact' being the 'eminently practical' Mr. Gradgrind, and his 'model' school, which teaches nothing but Facts. Any imaginative or aesthetic subjects are eradicated from the curriculum, but analysis, deduction and mathematics are emphasized. Conversely, Fancy is the opposite of Fact, encompassing, fiction, music, poetry, and novelty shows such as Sleary's circus. It is interesting that Mr. Sleary is reckoned to be a fool by the Fact men, but it is Sleary who realises people must be 'amuthed'. This is made cognisant by Tom's sybaritic gambling and Louisa, who is virtually soulless as a young child, and as a married woman. Bitzer, who has adhered to Gradgrind's teachings as a child, turns out to be an uncompassionate egotist.

Officiousness, spying and knowledge

Prying and knowledge proves to be the undoing of several characters, namely Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby. Mr. Bounderby, spends his whole time, fabricating stories about his childhood, covering up the real nature of his upbringing, which is solemnly revealed at the end of the novel. While not a snooper himself, he is undone by Sparsit unwittingly revealing the mysterious old woman to be his own mother, and she unravels Josiah's secrets about his upbringing and fictitious stories. Mr. Gradgrind himself, superintends through calculating tabular statements and statistics, and it always secretly rebuking the people of Coketown for indulging in conceitful activities. This gives Gradgrind a sense of superiority, as it does with Mrs. Sparsit, who prides herself on her salacious knowledge gained from spying on others. All 'superintendents' of the novel are undone in one way, or another.


This is closely related to Dickens' typical social commentary, which is a theme he uses throughout his entire oeuvre. Dickens' portrays the wealthy in this novel, as being morally corrupt. Bounderby has no moral scruples, and this is evidenced when he fires Blackpool 'for a novelty', he also conducts himself without any shred of decency, frequently losing his temper. He is cynically false about his childhood. Harthouse, a leisured gent, is compared to an 'iceberg' who will cause a wreck unwittingly, due to him being 'not a moral sort of fellow', as he states himself. On the opposite spectrum, Stephen Blackpool, a destitute worker, is equipped with perfect morals, always abiding by his promises, and he is always thoughtful and considerate of others, as is Sissy Jupe.

Critical response

George Orwell praised Dickens' for his 'generous anger'
George Orwell praised Dickens' for his 'generous anger'

Despite being a bestselling novel, critics have been found to have a diverse range of opinions on Dickens' novel. Renowned critic John Ruskin declared Hard Times to be his favourite Dickens work due to its exploration of important social questions. However, Thomas Macaulay branded it "sullen socialism" but it is clear that Dickens did not fully comprehend the politics of the time. Some have stated this may be related to Dickens' predisposition to sentimentality, but there is no doubt that he masterfully demonstrates the possible perversions of money, even if they reach extreme points in the novel.

George Bernard Shaw, decreed Hard Times to be a novel of 'passionate revolt against the whole industrial order of the modern world'. Shaw criticized the novel for its failure to provide an accurate account of trade unionism of the time deeming Dickens' character of Slackbridge, the poisonous orator as 'a mere figment of middle-class imagination'.

The prominent literary critic F. R. Leavis, in his controversial book, The Great Tradition, described the book as essentially being a 'moral fable', and awarded it the distinction of being a 'work of art', decreeing it the only significant novel of Dickens worth scrutinizing.

Walter Allen, in an introduction to an alternative edition, characterised Hard Times as being an unsurpassed 'critique of industrial society', which was later superseded by works of D. H. Lawrence. Other writers described the novel as being as G. K. Chesterton commented on the book in his work Appreciations and Criticisms, 'the harshest of his stories', whereas George Orwell praised the novel and Dickens' himself, for its 'generous anger'.


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