A wealthy, retired merchant in Coketown, England; he later becomes a Member of Parliament. Mr. Gradgrind espouses a philosophy of rationalism, self-interest, and cold, hard fact. He describes himself as an “eminently practical” man, and he tries to raise his children—Louisa, Tom, Jane, Adam Smith, and Malthus—to be equally practical by forbidding the development of their imaginations and emotions.
Gradgrind’s daughter, later Bounderby’s wife. Confused by her coldhearted upbringing, Louisa feels disconnected from her emotions and alienated from other people. While she vaguely recognizes that her father’s system of education has deprived her childhood of all joy, Louisa cannot actively invoke her emotions or connect with others. Thus she marries Bounderby to please her father, even though she does not love her husband. Indeed, the only person she loves completely is her brother Tom.
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. Gradgrind’s eldest son and an apprentice at Bounderby’s bank, who is generally called Tom. Tom reacts to his strict upbringing by becoming a dissipated, hedonistic, hypocritical young man. Although he appreciates his sister’s affection, Tom cannot return it entirely—he loves money and gambling even more than he loves Louisa. These vices lead him to rob Bounderby’s bank and implicate Stephen as the robbery’s prime suspect.
Gradgrind’s friend and later Louisa’s husband. Bounderby claims to be a self-made man and boastfully describes being abandoned by his mother as a young boy. From his childhood poverty he has risen to become a banker and factory owner in Coketown, known by everyone for his wealth and power. His true upbringing, by caring and devoted parents, indicates that his social mobility is a hoax and calls into question the whole notion of social mobility in nineteenth-century England.
The daughter of a clown in Sleary’s circus. Sissy is taken in by Gradgrind when her father disappears. Sissy serves as a foil, or contrast, to Louisa: while Sissy is imaginative and compassionate, Louisa is rational and, for the most part, unfeeling. Sissy embodies the Victorian femininity that counterbalances mechanization and industry. Through Sissy’s interaction with her, Louisa is able to explore her more sensitive, feminine sides.
Bounderby’s housekeeper, who goes to live at the bank apartments when Bounderby marries Louisa. Once a member of the aristocratic elite, Mrs. Sparsit fell on hard times after the collapse of her marriage. A selfish, manipulative, dishonest woman, Mrs. Sparsit cherishes secret hopes of ruining Bounderby’s marriage so that she can marry him herself. Mrs. Sparsit’s aristocratic background is emphasized by the narrator’s frequent allusions to her “Roman” and “Coriolanian” appearance.
A Hand in Bounderby’s factory. Stephen loves Rachael but is unable to marry her because he is already married, albeit to a horrible, drunken woman. A man of great honesty, compassion, and integrity, Stephen maintains his moral ideals even when he is shunned by his fellow workers and fired by Bounderby. Stephen’s values are similar to those endorsed by the narrator.
A simple, honest Hand who loves Stephen Blackpool. To Stephen, she represents domestic happiness and moral purity.
A sophisticated and manipulative young London gentleman who comes to Coketown to enter politics as a disciple of Gradgrind, simply because he thinks it might alleviate his boredom. In his constant search for a new form of amusement, Harthouse quickly becomes attracted to Louisa and resolves to seduce her.
The lisping proprietor of the circus where Sissy’s father was an entertainer. Later, Mr. Sleary hides Tom Gradgrind and helps him flee the country. Mr. Sleary and his troop of entertainers value laughter and fantasy whereas Mr. Gradgrind values rationality and fact.
Bitzer is one of the successes produced by Gradgrind’s rationalistic system of education. Initially a bully at Gradgrind’s school, Bitzer later becomes an employee and a spy at Bounderby’s bank. An uncharacteristically pale character and unrelenting disciple of fact, Bitzer almost stops Tom from fleeing after it is discovered that Tom is the true bank robber.
The unpleasant teacher at Gradgrind’s school. As his name suggests, McChoakumchild is not overly fond of children, and stifles or chokes their imaginations and feelings.
Bounderby’s mother, unbeknownst as such to all except herself and Bounderby. Mrs. Pegler makes an annual visit to Coketown in order to admire her son’s prosperity from a safe distance. Mrs. Pegler’s appearance uncovers the hoax that her son Bounderby has been attesting throughout the story, which is that he is a self-made man who was abandoned as a child.
Gradgrind’s whiny, anemic wife, who constantly tells her children to study their “ologies” and complains that she’ll “never hear the end” of any complaint. Although Mrs. Gradgrind does not share her husband’s interest in facts, she lacks the energy and the imagination to oppose his system of education.
The crooked orator who convinces the Hands to unionize and turns them against Stephen Blackpool when he refuses to join the union.
Gradgrind’s younger daughter; Louisa and Tom’s sister. Because Sissy largely raises her, Jane is a happier little girl than her sister, Louisa.