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Literature Study GuidesHard TimesBook 1 Chapter 12 Summary

Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Book 1, Chapter 12: Sowing (The Old Woman)

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Book 1, Chapter 12: Sowing (The Old Woman) from Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times.

Hard Times | Book 1, Chapter 12 : Sowing (The Old Woman) | Summary



Outside Mr. Bounderby's office Stephen one day meets an old woman who asks him questions about Bounderby. She wants to know about his general appearance, his health, his prosperity. She tells Stephen she comes to see Mr. Bounderby once a year, but she observes him from afar. Stephen gives polite but general answers to her questions about his own life and work. Before leaving, she insists on kissing Stephen's hand, one that has worked in Bounderby's factory for 12 years. Stephen as usual dreads leaving work and returning to his wife. He thinks about how he cannot escape his miserable marriage and about Rachael, who is still unmarried because of him.


The old woman outside Mr. Bounderby's house is a mystery, but her concern about his well-being implies she has a long-standing relationship with him. Mr. Bounderby has often mentioned his mother abandoned him as a child, and the questions this woman asks speak to a maternal feeling. It is highly probably, as presented here, that she is his mother or another female relative.

Stephen's assessment that he is married to a dead woman implies he did care for his wife when he married her. The woman she used to be is no longer visible in the woman she has become. Instead the years of drinking and dissolution have turned her into an abusive, hateful creature Stephen can no longer understand or relate to.

It is never clear why Stephen did not marry Rachael instead of his wife, for they have known each other for many years. The choice again implies he once loved his wife, but as she has changed, he has grown closer to Rachael in his affections. Because Rachael has not married, she may have loved Stephen for much longer than he has loved her. He feels guilty because Rachael cannot marry him, and she has likely aged beyond the opportunity to marry anyone else.

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