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 unrelenting rigidity.
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.”