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Thomas Gradgrind is the first character we meet in Hard
Times, and one of the central figures through whom Dickens
weaves a web of intricately connected plotlines and characters.
Dickens introduces us to this character with a description of his
most central feature: his mechanized, monotone attitude and appearance.
The opening scene in the novel describes Mr. Gradgrind’s speech
to a group of young students, and it is appropriate that Gradgrind
physically embodies the dry, hard facts that he crams into his students’
heads. The narrator calls attention to Gradgrind’s “square coat,
square legs, square shoulders,” all of which suggest Gradgrind’s
In the first few chapters of the novel, Mr. Gradgrind
expounds his philosophy of calculating, rational self-interest.
He believes that human nature can be governed by completely rational
rules, and he is “ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human
nature, and tell you what it comes to.” This philosophy has brought
Mr. Gradgrind much financial and social success. He has made his
fortune as a hardware merchant, a trade that, appropriately, deals
in hard, material reality. Later, he becomes a Member of Parliament,
a position that allows him to indulge his interest in tabulating
data about the people of England. Although he is not a factory owner,
Mr. Gradgrind evinces the spirit of the Industrial Revolution insofar
as he treats people like machines that can be reduced to a number
of scientific principles.
While the narrator’s tone toward him is initially mocking
and ironic, Gradgrind undergoes a significant change in the course
of the novel, thereby earning the narrator’s sympathy. When Louisa
confesses that she feels something important is missing in her life
and that she is desperately unhappy with her marriage, Gradgrind begins
to realize that his system of education may not be perfect. This
intuition is confirmed when he learns that Tom has robbed Bounderby’s
bank. Faced with these failures of his system, Gradgrind admits,
“The ground on which I stand has ceased to be solid under my feet.”
His children’s problems teach him to feel love and sorrow, and Gradgrind
becomes a wiser and humbler man, ultimately “making his facts and
figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity.”
Ace your assignments with our guide to Hard Times!