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Thomas Gradgrind, a wealthy, retired
merchant in the industrial city of Coketown, England,
devotes his life to a philosophy of rationalism, self-interest,
and fact. He raises his oldest children, Louisa and Tom, according to
this philosophy and never allows them to engage in fanciful or imaginative
pursuits. He founds a school and charitably takes in one of the
students, the kindly and imaginative Sissy Jupe, after the disappearance
of her father, a circus entertainer.
As the Gradgrind children grow older, Tom becomes a dissipated,
self-interested hedonist, and Louisa struggles with deep inner confusion,
feeling as though she is missing something important in her life.
Eventually Louisa marries Gradgrind’s friend Josiah Bounderby, a
wealthy factory owner and banker more than twice her age. Bounderby
continually trumpets his role as a self-made man who was abandoned
in the gutter by his mother as an infant. Tom is apprenticed at
the Bounderby bank, and Sissy remains at the Gradgrind home to care
for the younger children.
In the meantime, an impoverished “Hand”—Dickens’s term
for the lowest laborers in Coketown’s factories—named Stephen Blackpool
struggles with his love for Rachael, another poor factory worker.
He is unable to marry her because he is already married to a horrible,
drunken woman who disappears for months and even years at a time.
Stephen visits Bounderby to ask about a divorce but learns that
only the wealthy can obtain them. Outside Bounderby’s home, he meets
Mrs. Pegler, a strange old woman with an inexplicable devotion to
James Harthouse, a wealthy young sophisticate from London, arrives
in Coketown to begin a political career as a disciple of Gradgrind,
who is now a Member of Parliament. He immediately takes an interest
in Louisa and decides to try to seduce her. With the unspoken aid
of Mrs. Sparsit, a former aristocrat who has fallen on hard times
and now works for Bounderby, he sets about trying to corrupt Louisa.
The Hands, exhorted by a crooked union spokesman named Slackbridge,
try to form a union. Only Stephen refuses to join because he feels
that a union strike would only increase tensions between employers
and employees. He is cast out by the other Hands and fired by Bounderby
when he refuses to spy on them. Louisa, impressed with Stephen’s
integrity, visits him before he leaves Coketown and helps him with
some money. Tom accompanies her and tells Stephen that if he waits
outside the bank for several consecutive nights, help will come
to him. Stephen does so, but no help arrives. Eventually he packs
up and leaves Coketown, hoping to find agricultural work in the
country. Not long after that, the bank is robbed, and the lone suspect
is Stephen, the vanished Hand who was seen loitering outside the
bank for several nights just before disappearing from the city.
Mrs. Sparsit witnesses Harthouse declaring his love for
Louisa, and Louisa agrees to meet him in Coketown later that night.
However, Louisa instead flees to her father’s house, where she miserably confides
to Gradgrind that her upbringing has left her married to a man she
does not love, disconnected from her feelings, deeply unhappy, and
possibly in love with Harthouse. She collapses to the floor, and
Gradgrind, struck dumb with self-reproach, begins to realize the
imperfections in his philosophy of rational self-interest.
Sissy, who loves Louisa deeply, visits Harthouse and
convinces him to leave Coketown forever. Bounderby, furious that
his wife has left him, redoubles his efforts to capture Stephen.
When Stephen tries to return to clear his good name, he falls into
a mining pit called Old Hell Shaft. Rachael and Louisa discover
him, but he dies soon after an emotional farewell to Rachael. Gradgrind
and Louisa realize that Tom is really responsible for robbing the
bank, and they arrange to sneak him out of England with the help
of the circus performers with whom Sissy spent her early childhood.
They are nearly successful, but are stopped by Bitzer, a young man
who went to Gradgrind’s school and who embodies all the qualities
of the detached rationalism that Gradgrind once espoused, but who
now sees its limits. Sleary, the lisping circus proprietor, arranges
for Tom to slip out of Bitzer’s grasp, and the young robber escapes
from England after all.
Mrs. Sparsit, anxious to help Bounderby find the robbers,
drags Mrs. Pegler—a known associate of Stephen Blackpool—in to see Bounderby,
thinking Mrs. Pegler is a potential witness. Bounderby recoils,
and it is revealed that Mrs. Pegler is really his loving mother, whom
he has forbidden to visit him: Bounderby is not a self-made man
after all. Angrily, Bounderby fires Mrs. Sparsit and sends her away
to her hostile relatives. Five years later, he will die alone in
the streets of Coketown. Gradgrind gives up his philosophy of fact
and devotes his political power to helping the poor. Tom realizes
the error of his ways but dies without ever seeing his family again.
While Sissy marries and has a large and loving family, Louisa never
again marries and never has children. Nevertheless, Louisa is loved
by Sissy’s family and learns at last how to feel sympathy for her
fellow human beings.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Hard Times!