Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 1, Chapter 9 : Sowing (Sissy's Progress) | Summary

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Summary

Sissy complains to Louisa about how poorly she is doing in school and about her mistakes when Mr. M'Choakumchild asks her questions. When he asks Sissy how a number can indicate whether a country is prosperous, Sissy says she can't say if she doesn't know who has the money and if any of it is hers. When he asks her to comment on a rate of 25 people out of a million dying of starvation, she says it must be very hard on the people who starve "whether the others are a million or a million million." When asked to calculate a percentage of people killed in sea voyages, Sissy says the percentage is nothing to the friends and family of the people who are killed.

Louisa agrees these answers are factually incorrect, but she is sympathetic. She asks Sissy about her father and the circus, assuring Sissy that she won't tell anyone. Sissy is still afraid to answer but reveals her father was a clown, frustrated when his performances started going wrong. Shortly before he left, he lost his temper and severely beat the dog, Merrylegs. Then she tells of how her father sent her out to buy a bottle of nine oils to soothe his aching joints and how he was gone when she returned. She has kept the bottle of oils because she is convinced he will return. After this conversation Louisa notices when Sissy asks Mr. Gradgrind if he has received any letters about her father, and Louisa secretly shares in Sissy's disappointment when none arrive.

Analysis

Mr. M'Choakumchild's name follows a pattern, common in Dickens's work, of using names that describe characters' personalities in some way. The words in this name are choke and child, an ominous implication in the name for a schoolmaster. He does not, of course, actually choke children, but the name does reflect the restrictive nature of his approach to teaching. Although he literally does not choke the air out of children, he does indeed choke creative thinking out of them, as readers can see in his interactions with Sissy Jupe.

Sissy believes she is stupid because she never gives Mr. M'Choakumchild the answers he wants. In fact, however, her answers reveal a far greater understanding of the world, an understanding lacking in Mr. M'Choakumchild and others who think as he does. Sissy is able to comprehend instinctively that the facts and figures Mr. M'Choakumchild demands she know have meaning and implications at the human level. She knows human tragedy cannot be measured by the numbers of people who survive in comparison with those who do not. The wealth of a nation means little to Sissy if only a handful of people control that wealth. She understands the big picture. Louisa, on the other hand, has absorbed Mr. M'Choakumchild's teachings completely, so she is unable to see the validity of Sissy's assessments.

In the long run, as the chapters in Book 3 will reveal, Sissy's education appears incomplete now but will enable her to deal with crises in an infinitely more practical yet human way than Louisa or her father.

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