Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 1, Chapter 2 : Sowing (Murdering the Innocents) | Summary

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Summary

Mr. Gradgrind thinks of himself as a purely rational man oriented to the value of facts. When interacting with Sissy Jupe, first identified as "Girl number twenty," he scolds her for calling herself Sissy—and scolds her father for using a nickname instead of her given name, Cecilia. When Mr. Gradgrind learns her father works for the circus, he tells her to describe him as a horsebreaker, adding, "You mustn't tell us about the ring, here." He then tells her to call her father a veterinary surgeon because he treats the horses when they are sick. He further scolds her when she is unable to "define a horse" when asked to do so. Bitzer, however, a fact-oriented classmate does provide a definition of a horse: "Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries sheds hoofs too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth."

After this session, an unnamed "government officer" explains to the students why a room should not be decorated with pictures of horses; horses do not walk "up and down the sides of rooms in reality." He goes on to explain flowers should not appear on carpets because they do not grow on floors. Sissy Jupe, who cannot see the reasons for such attitudes, tries to argue she likes flowers, but the adults scold her for being prone to "fancy" for wanting flowered carpet or birds on her dishes. The gentleman then turns over the lesson to Mr. M'Choakumchild, the schoolmaster highly educated in all forms of facts that he begins conveying to the students.

Analysis

For a man so concerned with facts, Mr. Gradgrind plays somewhat fast and loose with the facts of Sissy's life story. Wanting to downplay the fanciful nature of Mr. Jupe's work as a circus performer, he is willing to characterize him as a veterinary surgeon rather than a performer in a horse-riding show. The reference to Sissy as "girl number twenty" and his desire to use the formal version of her name instead of the name she prefers also shows how impersonal and detached from humanity the educational process in the school is, and how injurious to the children.

For all the emphasis on factual matters in the school's curriculum, Bitzer's definition of a horse is formalized to the point of being meaningless. He rattles off a number of facts about horses, showing an impressive vocabulary, but the definition neither offers practical knowledge about horses nor describes what they actually look like. He does not explain how horses are trained or what makes them useful—information almost certainly at Sissy's disposal from her direct contact and experience with horses. Bitzer offers facts, but they are devoid of the context that would make them beneficial to someone who wants to know about horses as living creatures that are important to people in their daily lives.

The extreme nature of this educational approach culminates in the government officer's speech about eliminating representations of horses, flowers, or anything else that might be used as ornament. His explanation, that horses don't walk on walls and birds don't sit on dishes in fact, presumes an almost comic level of ignorance on the part of people who want decorative touches. The purpose of his speech is to eliminate any sign of fancy or unreality from one's surroundings, but it also presumes people are somehow unable to distinguish between representations and reality, and that it is better to live without beauty or taste or decoration since these all cost something.

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