Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 2, Chapter 2 : Reaping (Mr. James Harthouse) | Summary

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Summary

The stranger is James Harthouse. A wealthy young man, he has come to Coketown to teach at the Gradgrind school after a series of jobs and travels, including a stint in the military, a diplomatic post, and time on a yacht. Despite his opportunities and privilege, he remains perpetually bored.

Mr. Bounderby receives the introductory letter and goes to Harthouse's hotel room to meet him. Bounderby introduces himself in typically gruff fashion, telling the newcomer about Coketown. The smoke is "meat and drink to us ... the healthiest thing in the world." He calls factory labor "the pleasantest work there is, and it's the lightest work there is," and reiterates the workers' ambition to be fed turtle soup and venison from a gold spoon. The two men shake hands, and Bounderby takes Harthouse to meet Louisa. Harthouse finds Louisa difficult to read and notices some tension in the marriage as she is visibly embarrassed by her husband's "braggart humility."

After these introductions Bounderby takes Harthouse around Coketown, and they return for dinner. Harthouse remains intrigued by Louisa, especially as he sees her smile when Tom arrives. He realizes Tom is the one person Louisa cares for. Although he thinks he recognizes Tom, Louisa says it is unlikely they have met before. Harthouse doesn't especially like Tom but becomes friendly with him to ingratiate himself with Louisa. At the end of the evening, Tom walks James Harthouse back to his hotel.

Analysis

Mr. Bounderby's comments to James Harthouse about Coketown demonstrate his distorted ideas about the conditions of the town and its factories. No sane man could look at black soot spewing from a factory chimney and believe it healthy to breathe, but the smoke is indeed metaphoric meat and drink in the sense that the goods produced under it enable Mr. Bounderby to buy his meat and drink and live well. While Bounderby probably does recognize that the polluted air is not good for people—himself included—the profits he makes from his factories overbalance any concerns he may have. He is less exposed to the pollution than workers who have no country home to escape to, and he does not care what happens to his workers as long as they don't cost him more money.

Mr. Bounderby has never worked in a factory himself, but in comparison to the hardships he claims to have faced growing up, perhaps this work seems easy and light to him. It is also possible he refuses to acknowledge the difficulties and dangers of factory work because such knowledge might compel him to spend some of his profits on safety improvements or better pay for his workers. It is much easier for Mr. Bounderby to continue seeing his workers as lazy and entitled people who want luxuries, rather than as overworked and exhausted people who want basic necessities.

Entitlement finds new meaning in James Harthouse, a political disciple of Mr. Gradgrind and a man whose boredom has propelled him from one job and location to the next. His own wealth and privilege have robbed him of the ability to enjoy activities on their own merits, and he is constantly on the lookout for something new and different. His leisure activities may be suspect as well, for the implication in his finding Tom familiar is most likely connected to gambling. Although he behaves graciously on the surface, he is bored by the people around him. But as bored as he is, he is equally observant and sees by Louisa's smile and gestures that her brother, not her husband, is the person she loves.

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