Thou art an Angel. Bless thee, bless thee!
When Stephen finally returns to his room, he is shocked to find Rachael sitting next to his bedridden wife, tending to what appears to be a serious illness. Rachael tells Stephen to go to sleep in the chair. Stephen falls asleep, but wakes up just in time to see his wife about to swallow a lethal amount of one of her medicines. Stephen is unable to act, but Rachael awakens suddenly and seizes the bottle from the sick woman, thereby preventing her death. Ashamed of his inability to bring himself to stop his wife’s attempted suicide, Stephen looks upon Rachael as an angel.
Time passes, moving relentlessly like the machinery of a factory. Mr. Gradgrind tells Sissy that she is hopeless at the school but that she may continue to live at Stone Lodge and care for Mrs. Gradgrind. Gradgrind has become a Member of Parliament, and he spends much of his time in London. Tom, now a dissipated, hedonistic young man, tells Louisa that her father intends to arrange a marriage between her and Mr. Bounderby, with whom Tom, as an apprentice in the bank, now lives. He encourages Louisa to accept, so that they might live together again, and tells her that she is his best defense against Mr. Bounderby’s authority.
When her father raises the prospect of marriage, Louisa seems puzzled—she does not understand why she is being asked to love the fifty-year-old Bounderby. Although she is sure that she does not love him, she agrees to marry him, asking, “What does it matter?” Louisa realizes that she does not, in fact, know how to love, but she is anxious to please her father by marrying his friend.
Bounderby tentatively mentions his marriage to Mrs. Sparsit, suggesting that she should take a position keeping the apartments at Bounderby’s bank after he and Louisa get married. Mrs. Sparsit evidently disapproves of the marriage, stating ambiguously that she hopes Bounderby is as happy as he deserves to be. Bounderby attempts to show his affection for his bride-to-be by showering her with jewels and fine clothes, but she remains impassive. At the last moment, however, Louisa clings to Tom in fear, feeling that she is taking a drastic and perhaps irrevocable step. Nevertheless, Bounderby and Louisa are united in matrimony, and they set out on a -honeymoon trip to Lyons, as Bounderby wants to observe the operations of some factories there.
The question of how women, marriage, and the home fit into an industrialized, mechanized society now comes to the forefront. During the Victorian Era, the home was widely regarded as a place of relaxation and pleasure and as an escape from the moral corruption of the business world and from the grinding monotony of factory life—in short, as a refuge from the working world. In Hard Times, however, the distinction between home and workplace begins to dissolve. For instance, the Gradgrind household is almost as mechanized as a factory. Similarly, when Stephen’s drunken wife suddenly returns, his home no longer provides a refuge from the misery of his factory work, so he resorts to wandering the streets rather than returning home after work. In both of these instances, the home fails to serve as a refuge from the working world.
The homes presented in Hard Times derive their tone from whatever female inhabits them. For instance, Gradgrind’s wife, who is too complacent to argue with her husband over his mechanistic ways, allows him to determine the fact-heavy tone of the home. Stephen’s wife, the lascivious drunk, makes their home a wanton den to which Stephen is reluctant to return. In contrast to Stephen’s wife, Rachael embodies the qualities that make home a happy place—she is compassionate, honest, sensitive, morally pure, and generous. She represents the Victorian ideal of femininity. Because of these qualities, Stephen frequently refers to her as his angel. Through her own virtues, Rachael inspires him to maintain his personal integrity, and when she cares for his ailing wife, Rachael lightens the tone of the previously dismal residence.
The other women in the novel also play an important role in the quality of the home. Mrs. Sparsit, in contrast to Rachael, is proud and manipulative—because she is motivated solely by self-interest, she has no desire to waste her time bringing happiness to others. Although Louisa loves her brother Tom, her education prevents her from developing the qualities that Rachael embodies. Only Sissy shares Rachael’s compassionate, loving nature. For most of the nineteenth century, a woman’s job was to care for the home and children, and to make home a happy, relaxing place. By depicting women who not only deviate from the Victorian ideal of femininity, but also fail in their jobs as homemakers, Dickens suggests that industrialization threatens to dissolve the boundaries between workplace and home, without the stabilizing force of femininity.
This section of Hard Times depicts two marriages that are unhappy because the couples are badly matched. Stephen’s hardworking integrity contrasts sharply with his wife’s dissolute drunkenness, but despite realizing that his marriage was a mistake, Stephen has no alternative but to put up with his wife. Louisa and Bounderby’s marriage threatens to be unhappy because they are separated not only by an age difference of about thirty years, but by their inability to communicate with each other. While Louisa does not know how to recognize and express her feelings, Bounderby is only interested in his own feelings and does not really care about hers. Through these mismatched couples, Dickens suggests that a happy marriage must be founded upon mutual love and respect. Mr. Gradgrind, however, tries to reduce marriage, and indeed love itself, to a question of logic. When Louisa asks his advice about whether she should marry Bounderby, her father tells her “to consider this question as you have been accustomed to consider every other question, simply as one of Fact.” Gradgrind believes that the question of whether marrying Bounderby would be the best course of action for Louisa can be decided by looking at empirical evidence. Thus, he cites some statistics about the relative ages of husbands and wives to show that a young wife and an older husband can have a happy marriage. Based on these statistics, and on the fact that she has received no other proposals of marriage, Gradgrind calculates that it would be in Louisa’s best interest to marry Bounderby. The fact that Bounderby takes Louisa to observe the factories in Lyon for their honeymoon further emphasizes the lack of romance in their relationship, which is purely a marriage of convenience and practicality. Through Louisa’s marriage, Dickens again depicts the mechanization of family life. By negating the importance of love, Gradgrind’s philosophy of fact turns humans into machines and the home into a veritable factory.