Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 1, Chapter 4 : Sowing (Mr. Bounderby) | Summary

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Summary

Mr. Bounderby is a local "banker, merchant, manufacturer, and what not." A large, rotund man with a loud voice, who can "never sufficiently vaunt himself a self-made man," Mr. Bounderby tells the Gradgrinds, not for the first time, how he was born in a ditch and suffered from inflammation of the lungs. Because his mother abandoned him, his grandmother took him in but kept him in an egg box and abused him. He went on to be a "vagabond" and held a series of odd jobs. Sickly, "ragged and dirty" throughout his youth, he taught himself to read from shop signs and claims to have overcome these adversities though sheer determination.

Mr. Bounderby is shocked to learn Tom and Louisa were peeping at the circus, as is their mother. Both adults scold the children, even as the children protest they only wanted a break from their lives of constant study. When the matter is settled—the children will engage in no further foolishness—Mr. Bounderby kisses Louisa on the cheek and leaves for his own home. She dislikes this intensely and spends five minutes rubbing the spot on her cheek with a handkerchief.

When trying to figure out what attracted Tom and Louisa to the circus, Mr. Bounderby recalls that the child of a circus performer attends Mr. Gradgrind's school. Appalled by the dangers of exposure to such influences, and at his suggestion, both he and Mr. Gradgrind get ready to "turn this girl to the right about."

Analysis

Mr. Bounderby is something of a paradox. His self-deprecating remarks, such as his description of himself as a youthful ne'er-do-well, are actually designed as boasts about his current status, which is one of wealth and influence in Coketown. He tells these stories and repeats them throughout the novel as an illustration of his own bravery, grit, and self-reliance. The narrator's tone when describing him veers into the sarcastic, as Mr. Bounderby is painted as larger than life, both literally and figuratively. He is called a "bully of humility," in that his bragging pushes humility to the side and indicates how he uses this falsely to bully other people into admiring him. In his exaggerated, bloated persona, Mr. Bounderby illustrates the worst traits ascribed to factory owners. He is self-absorbed to the point of lacking any ability to empathize with others, and his portrayal of himself as a self-made man illustrates his belief that if he can rise from such terrible beginnings, everyone has the potential to attain wealth and better their situations. The fact that workers do not better their own lives tells Mr. Bounderby that they lack the determination and work ethic to do so, which enables him to dismiss his workers as lazy and undeserving of any sort of improvements he might provide for their working or living conditions.

Louisa's response to Mr. Bounderby's kiss takes on additional significance when viewed through the lens of her eventual marriage to him. This moment reveals Mr. Bounderby's special affection for Louisa that appears only fatherly at this point. Indeed, later in their marriage he continues to treat her more like his child than his wife. Her reaction also reveals how she has always found him repellent, to the point that she would rather rub a hole in her face than retain on her person any evidence of contact with him.

As for the Gradgrind family, Mrs. Gradgrind is revealed as a timid echo of her husband. Jane, the youngest, has shown herself literally bored to tears. Most revealing, however, are Tom and Louisa. Tom is sulking, feeling vengeful; Louisa seems devoid of feeling, passive. As chapters end with cliffhangers, these emotional responses become more significant as the story progresses.

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