Hard Times – 1854 – a weekly serialised novel
The novel first appeared in Dickens’s weekly periodical, Household Words.
Hard Times was published in instalments that began in Apr 1854 and ran through Aug 1854.
Hard Times takes an unsympathetic look at Utilitarianism. This no-nonsense movement relied heavily on statistics, rules and regulations.
Thomas Gradgrind runs a school in Coketown, an industrial city. His approach is that he teach only hard facts and profitable enterprise.
Gradgrind browbeats the circus child, Sissy, about the definition of horse. Then after school he finds two of his eldest children, Louisa and Tom, going to see the circus, and he orders them home. He has three younger children named Adam Smith, Malthus and Jane.
We meet affluent Josiah Bounderby, a mill owner and friend of Gradgrind. He provides dramatic and false tales of his impecunious childhood.
Gradgrind and Bounderby go to meet Sissy’s father because they see her as a bad influence. They meet up with the circus manager, Mr Sleary, and learn Sissy’s father has left her, believing she will have a better life without him. Gradgrind gives Sissy a choice, return to the circus and leave the school, or to continue her education, while working for Mrs Gradgrind. She chooses education in the hope that she will later catch up with her father.
Stephen Blackpool is a gloomy character, a power-loom weaver. After work he meets with a co-worker, Rachael. But when they get back to his house they find his drunken wife, who had left him, has returned.
He goes to see Bounderby and asks how he can end his marriages. Mrs Sparsit, Bounderby’s housekeeper, is offended by the question. Bounderby suggests divorce would be complex and very expensive. When Stephen says that is unfair, Bounderby says he has ideas above his station.
He returns home and encounters an old woman, who is later identified as Mrs Pegler, she explains she visits Coketown once a year.
Stephen finds Rachael at his home caring for his wife. She eventually falls asleep and his wife wakes, mistaking medicine for alcohol. He does nothing to stop her drinking it all, which would kill her. But Rachael wakes and stops his wife. He is so shocked by his inaction that he decides to bear his situation stoically.
Time passes and Sissy is now Gradgrind’s housekeeper. Gradgrind statistically justifies his daughter Louisa’s marriage to Bounderby, thirty years her senior. They marry, her hoping it will assist Tom, and go to Lyons where Bounderby wants to look at factory procedures there.
Book Two commences at the Bounderby Bank. James Harthouse, a gentleman who has tried and failed at a number of occupations has been directed by Gradgrind to seek out Bounderby.
Harthouse shows interest in Louisa, and when he works at the Bank understands that Tom, who Louisa dotes upon, had been happy that she marry Bounderby, because he hoped this would improve his lot.
A union agitator stirs up feelings at the mill and accuses Stephen of treachery because he will not join the union. Bounderby summons Stephen and asks what is happening Stephen’s inadequate description leads Bounderby to fire him, considering him a trouble-maker.
Louisa and Tom visit Stephen to express their regret and Louisa gives him some money. Tom tells him to wait outside the bank at the end of the day. A robbery takes place at the bank, and as Stephen has loitered by the bank before leaving the town, suspicion therefore falls upon him.
Mrs Sparsit suspects a relationship between James and Louisa but cannot hear what they are saying. In face Stephen does confess his love for Louisa, but she rejects him, Louisa goes to her father’s house and declares that her form of education did not allow her to express her emotions. She collapses.
Mrs Sparsit tells Bounderby of the ‘relationship’, he goes to see Gradgrind and does not accept Gradgrind’s description that Louisa had rejected James. He demands she return in the next day or their marriage is over, Louisa does not return to him, she is instead looked after by Sissy. Sissy advises James Harthouse to leave the town.
Rachael intervenes at the bank on Stephen’s behalf and says she knows where he is and will write to tell him to come back. Bounderby’s suspicions are raised when she tells him that Louisa and Tom had visited Stephen after he was fired. He challenges Louisa who confirms Rachael’s account. But Stephen does not show up.
Mrs Sparsit tracks down Mrs Pegler and learns she is Bounderby’s mother. She had given him a good upbringing, but had agreed not to visit, thus revealing his claims to be self-made man to be a ridiculous lie.
Rachael and Sissy discover Stephen’s hat and realise he has fallen down an abandoned pit. The villagers get him out but he dies. They now suspect Tom of the robbery, he had probably asked Stephen to wait outside the bank to incriminate him. Sissy helps Tom join the circus.
Gradgrind arrives and hatches a plan to get Tom to Liverpool, from where he can go abroad. Bitzer tries to foil the plan and to win promotion if he captures Tom, but he is ambushed by Sleary and Tom makes it to a ship in Liverpool.
Bounderby has cast out Mrs Sparsit for her misinformation. He dies five years later of a fit in the street.
Gradgrind had scrapped his Utilitarian approach, replacing the pursuit of Facts, with ‘Faith, Hope and Charity’, though his fellow MPs are contemptuous of him.
Mr Gradgrind does arrange a posthumous pardon for Stephen.
Rachael continues her honest way of life. Tom dies of a fever having expressed penitence in a letter. Louisa never remarries, and has no children, but is content to have the love of Sissy’s children. She spends her life encouraging imagination in others.
Gradgrind discovers his children at the circus
Gradgrind, Thomas – a school superintendent
Bounderby, Josiah – associate of Gradgrind, ‘a self-made man’
Gradgrind, Louisa (Loo) – Gradgrind’s eldest child
Jupe, Cecilia (Sissy) – a girl who travelled with the circus
Gradgrind, Thomas (Tom) – the eldest son, robs his bank
Blackpool, Stephen – works at Bounderby Mills, drunken wife
Stephen Blackpool discovers his wife’s return
Gradgrind, Adam Smith – Gradgrind’s son, visits the circus
Gradgrind, Jane – the younger sister, spends time with Sissy
Sleary, Mr – the owner of the circus
Pegler, Mrs – old woman who visits Coketown
Rachael – Blackpool’s love interest
Sparsit, Mrs – a widow working for Bounderby
Bitzer – a classmate of Sissy, taught by Gradgrind’s system
Childers, E W B –
Gordon, Emma –
Gradgrind, Mrs – wife to Gradgrind, invalid
Harthouse, James – an unpleasant gentleman
Jupe, Signor – father of Sissy
Kidderminster, Master –
M’Choakumchild, Mr –
Scadgers, Lady –
Sleary, Josephine –