Literature Study GuidesHard TimesBook 1 Chapter 8 Summary

Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 1, Chapter 8 : Sowing (Never Wonder) | Summary

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Summary

A defining event of Louisa's life occurs when she is very young and begins a conversation with her brother by saying, "Tom, I wonder—." Mr. Gradgrind overhears her and says, "Louisa, never wonder." The uselessness of wondering is a point of agreement for all logical thinkers. Mr. Gradgrind worries that Coketown workers are too prone to wondering as well. He worries they read too many novels from the public library and not enough books about mathematics.

Tom and Louisa have a long talk in which Tom tells Louisa how much he hates his life and hates everyone but her. He hates his studies and hates having so little pleasure. He plans to make up for lost time when he is apprenticed to Mr. Bounderby and counts on Bounderby's affection for Louisa to smooth his way. Louisa, too, bemoans her situation, unhappy she does not know what other young women do—how to amuse and entertain others, indeed how to interact socially. Mrs. Gradgrind overhears Louisa speculating about their future as adults and scolds her for "wondering" again.

Analysis

The pedagogical disapproval of wondering fits with Mr. Gradgrind's disapproval of fancy and imagination in all its forms. Wondering leads to imagining. Wondering is not fact based. It is actually an absence of fact because it's based on suppositions, not facts, and one cannot wonder about an actual fact. At the same time, some situations, by design, are not based in fact. Speculating about one's future is one of those situations, and it is important for children to speculate about their futures to set goals and aspirations for themselves. Facts can play a role in such speculations, of course. It is realistic for children to wonder if they will grow up to be bankers, or doctors, or teachers. Conversely, it is not realistic for children to wonder if they will grow up to be firetrucks, and they need to make that distinction. Mr. Gradgrind does not make it. He actively discourages any such thinking, and in later chapters both Tom and Louisa emerge as somewhat aimless adults without clear goals or desires for their own betterment.

This chapter in fact foreshadows their futures. Tom can think only of enjoying himself as he makes up for lost time. He will engage in such extreme rebellion that he will pile up debts and commit a crime to cover them. Louisa, ever passive and alienated, will adopt the attitude that nothing she does matters. When Louisa contemplates the fire and Tom asks if she sees the circus in it, Dickens is using the circus image to symbolize imagination and art In this chapter a sense of wonder coincides with Louisa's wondering, and with her mother's admonition against it. It is evident that Mr. Gradgrind's philosophy actually defeats its own purpose, to allow his children to grow into productive members of society. The distinction is important for the entire novel.

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