As a whole, Hard Times allows Dickens to critique the cold, heartless nature of industrialism in 19th-century London and highlight the detrimental effects that such an environment can have on future generations. This kind of social commentary is a defining characteristic of Dickens’s writings, but Hard Times pays particular attention to the ways in which capitalistic greed causes individuals of all backgrounds to lose their sense of humanity. Dickens explores the wide-reaching effects of this phenomenon by featuring multiple narrative threads that ultimately come together at the novel’s end. The inability to recognize and understand human emotion is the first consequence of industrialism that Dickens highlights, and he does so by emphasizing the misery that a fact-based way of life brings to the young Gradgrind children. Mr. Gradgrind, who achieved success by being “eminently practical,” imposes his strict worldview onto his children without considering their unique identities. The second major component of the novel’s plot involves Stephen Blackpool and the exploitation he endures as a “Hand,” or laborer, in Mr. Bounderby’s factory. This dynamic adds a layer of class struggle to Dickens’s depiction of industrialism’s failings, and, given Stephen’s earnestness, invites the reader to sympathize with his plight. Louisa, who becomes Mrs. Bounderby, is the character who brings these various aspects of Dickens’s critique together, and this position makes her personal journey the central conflict of the novel. Her struggle to navigate between her instinctive sense of compassion and the heartless attitude that she has adopted drives the plot forward and calls attention to the morally corrupt nature of unchecked industrialism. 

In order to illuminate the harsh realities of 19th-century London, Dickens spends a considerable amount of Book One establishing the exceedingly harsh world of Coketown and emphasizing the dehumanizing attitudes of those who live there. Mr. Gradgrind’s teaching philosophy, which leads him to treat children as if they are mere “vessels,” leaves no room for imagination or emotion, and this attitude serves as the first hint as to how bleak life in Coketown truly is. The number of times that Mr. Gradgrind emphasizes the importance of “Facts” within the first chapter alone borders on absurd, further illustrating the unrelenting hold that industrialism’s matter-of-factness has on those exposed to it. Another extreme example of Coketown’s moral failings is Mr. Bounderby, a man who selfishly creates a mythical aura around himself by emphasizing his status as a self-made man over and over again. He is an influential businessman who, like Mr. Gradgrind, is deeply committed to maintaining a strict and self-serving way of life. Louisa grows up in this heartless environment and, although she lacks the ability to understand her emotions, she yearns to fill her world with more than facts and figures. Her attempt to sneak a glimpse of the circus serves as the novel’s inciting incident as it allows her to admit to her father that she is tired “of everything,” or is unsatisfied with her emotionless lifestyle. 

As the rising action of the novel progresses, each of the primary characters find themselves sinking deeper into their unhappiness with no clear answer as to how they can remedy their situations. Dickens introduces the reader to Stephen Blackpool and his struggle to escape his loveless marriage in order to be with the caring and angelic Rachael. Mr. Bounderby, who refuses to help Stephen divorce his drunkard wife, ironically enters into a loveless marriage of his own when Louisa accepts his proposal. This relationship eventually brings misery to both husband and wife as James Harthouse attempts to seduce Louisa and Tom seeks to take his personal dissatisfaction out on the Bounderbys. Despite this overall downward trend in the characters’ moral and emotional states, a spark of goodness emerges when Louisa, having watched as Mr. Bounderby fired Stephen for refusing to spy on the workers’ union, sympathizes with Stephen and offers him financial support. This key moment of the rising action highlights Louisa’s character development and suggests that, for her, moral redemption is still possible. Louisa’s understanding of who she truly is faces even more tests, however, as Mr. Bounderby accuses Stephen of robbing his bank, Tom becomes increasingly harsh, and Mr. Harthouse begins to win her over. The structure that once characterized Louisa’s life falls away, and this shift allows her to realize how little she truly knows about the people around her. 

The final chapter of the novel’s second book, which serves as the climax, and the novel’s third book, which contains the falling action, work together to suggest that industrialism’s most serious consequences are inescapable even if certain individuals are capable of change. Rather than eloping with Mr. Harthouse, Louisa returns home at the end of Book Two and rebukes her father for the loveless and rigid way in which he raised her. She expresses shame for being unable to understand her emotions and anger toward the emptiness of her life. The fact that she collapses at her father’s feet, a moment which represents the height of this climactic scene, suggests that her restrictive lifestyle is unsustainable. In the novel’s falling action, both Louisa and Mr. Gradgrind attempt to right their wrongs and allow themselves to let emotion into their lives. Mr. Gradgrind helps his daughter separate from Mr. Bounderby, and she resolves to help bring Tom, the true bank robber, to justice. These actions, however, are not enough to fully restore a sense of morality to Coketown. Stephen dies as a result of his attempts to escape Mr. Bounderby’s unjust wrath, and Sissy and the Gradgrinds help Tom avoid punishment by ensuring that he can flee the country. Between these events and the bleak fates that befall novel’s most morally corrupt characters in the final chapter, Dickens emphasizes the long-term effects of living in a heartless world. In response to these failings, Dickens ultimately implores his readers to fight for joy and compassion as Louisa does, suggesting that understanding the humanity of others is the key to slowing industrialism’s vicious cycle.