Thomas Gradgrind Jr., also referred to as “Tom” or “the whelp,” is the second-oldest of the Gradgrind children, and he represents the worst possible outcome of his father’s fact-based way of life. Unlike his sister, who seeks redemption at the novel’s end, Tom remains committed to protecting his self-interests despite the obvious pain his actions bring to others. He allows greed to take over his life, and this choice destroys the once-meaningful relationship he had with Louisa. With this loss, Tom becomes completely devoid of his humanity, signifying the costs of a world solely focused on power, wealth, and the individual. Tom, however, does not develop this self-serving attitude on his own. Between the stifling education he receives from his father and the mentorship of the ever-selfish Mr. Bounderby, Tom has no one to teach him the virtues of compassion and service. The lack of a meaningful social education also implies that he received very little love from those around him as a young child, and this emptiness initially manifests itself through his sulkiness and desire to reject his fact-based upbringing. By highlighting Tom’s disgruntled point of view early in the novel, Dickens foreshadows his final moral downfall and suggests that such an act is the culmination of a lifetime’s worth of poor influences.

The turning point in Tom’s behavior comes when Louisa marries Mr. Bounderby, an event which fails to produce the outcome he desires and emboldens him to act even more selfishly. While Louisa attempts to support her brother by selling her personal belongings to alleviate his gambling debts, her timid sense of generosity eventually runs out, and Tom perceives this as a betrayal without considering her unique situation. He rejects their relationship as a result and, with no source of compassion to prevent him from acting out, he robs Mr. Bounderby’s bank and frames Stephen Blackpool to cover his tracks. Tom takes advantage of his position in the bank, the influence he has over working-class individuals like Stephen, and manipulates his sister in order to maintain his social standing. While Tom is certainly not the only morally corrupt character in Hard Times, his trajectory throughout the novel highlights the capacity for evil that Dickens senses within a rapidly industrializing London. He may eventually lament his actions in the final days of his life, but Tom’s inability to meaningfully repair his relationship with Louisa before he dies emphasizes that, for a man as selfish as he is, no amount of repentance can fully redeem him.