Literature Study GuidesHard TimesBook 1 Chapter 7 Summary

Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 1, Chapter 7 : Sowing (Mrs. Sparsit) | Summary

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Summary

Mr. Bounderby's housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, originates from an upper-class family and married an upper-class man 15 years younger than she. He is "a Powler," an old, aristocratic family, with any number of disreputable members. After a separation immediately following the honeymoon and her husband's early death only a few years later, she came to work for Mr. Bounderby because she was feuding with her relative, Lady Scadgers, and because her husband left her with no money. Mr. Bounderby likes to brag about Mrs. Sparsit's lofty origins and insists she be treated as a "highly connected lady." He scolds Sissy Jupe harshly for forgetting to curtsey to Mrs. Sparsit when the child arrives at his home for temporary accommodations. Mr. Gradgrind says it was an oversight, but Mr. Bounderby says he does not allow oversights toward Mrs. Sparsit.

Mr. Gradgrind interviews Sissy about her reading habits and is disappointed to learn of her reading fairy tales with her father. Mr. Bounderby restates his disapproval of Sissy and his belief nothing good will come of her presence in the Gradgrind home.

Analysis

Often Mr. Bounderby's meaning is the opposite of what he says. Mr. Bounderby's reverence for Mrs. Sparsit's status as a lady of high status is not the high praise it appears to be. In truth Mr. Bounderby enjoys reminding people of Mrs. Sparsit's lofty origins because her current status as his housekeeper shows how far she has come down in the world and at the same time builds his own status to have a high-born lady as his employee. He outranks her in his own home, establishing his superiority over her. Her decline thus balances his rise from humble origins. It is unclear at this point whether Mrs. Sparsit is aware of the real intent behind this reverence, but the narrator makes it clear to readers when he compares Mr. Bounderby to a Roman conqueror and Mrs. Sparsit to his spoils of war. When Mr. Bounderby scolds Sissy Jupe for failing to curtsey to Mrs. Sparsit, he says he does not care if she shows him respect, but he insists on her showing it to Mrs. Sparsit. In fact, he does care about Sissy showing him respect because respect for Mrs. Sparsit and respect for Mr. Bounderby are one in the same in his mind. Mr. Bounderby's exaggerated deference to Mrs. Sparsit as he scolds Sissy reveals his tendency to use false humility to berate and bully those beneath him as well as those who outrank him.

Mr. Gradgrind's disappointment in Sissy Jupe's reading experience shows his rejection of all that is fanciful and imaginative. He does not focus on the positive element in her revelations of reading with her father, namely she is a proficient reader. Instead he focuses on the content of this reading, which he regards as useless because fairy tales are removed from fact. These experiences of reading with her father represent the close family bond Sissy shares with Mr. Jupe, and Mr. Gradgrind's rejection of this bond as overly sentimental is implied in his disapproval as well as his previously stated condition that Sissy never speak of her time with the circus. Mr. Gradgrind is unable to understand the importance of such a bond between Sissy and her father because, as much as he may love his children, he does not express that love by engaging in similar childhood activities, such as reading fairy tales, imagining, and playing with them.

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