Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 3, Chapter 2 : Garnering (Very Ridiculous) | Summary

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Summary

Tom visits James Harthouse to ask why he never appeared at the station the night before. Harthouse replies only that he was "detained." Tom complains of his own long wait; before he leaves, he says he has not seen Louisa.

Harthouse considers his chances against Mr. Bounderby in a physical confrontation, but his only other visitor is Sissy. He immediately notices how pretty she is. She tells him Louisa will not see him again, and there is no hope of changing this situation. He argues he knows her marriage is unhappy, and he understands her. Sissy counters she knows Louisa even better than he does. She tells him his only course of action now is to leave Coketown and never return. He dismisses the suggestion as ridiculous, and Sissy quietly repeats herself. He must go. When he asks who Sissy is, she tells him her name and that she lives in the Gradgrind house. Her father "was only a stroller" who abandoned her. Sissy leaves, and Harthouse thinks, "It wanted this to complete the defeat." He writes letters to his brother, Mr. Bounderby, and Mr. Gradgrind declaring his intention to leave his teaching post. He packs his things and leaves for the train station. Later he reflects that the incident in Coketown is the "only one that made him ashamed of himself."

Analysis

Sissy's visit to James Harthouse requires great courage. Harthouse is a wealthy man of status, the brother of a member of Parliament, and her employer's disciple. The daughter of a circus clown, Sissy has lived on the charity and goodwill of the Gradgrind family. Yet she is the only one in the Gradgrind household who has the wisdom and understanding about human nature to understand what needs to be done: Mr. Gradgrind has lost confidence in his ability to make emotional decisions; Louisa is too fragile to confront Harthouse at this time; Tom lacks the empathy to defend his sister, even if he knew what has taken place. Sissy understands the attempted seduction is all an amusement to Harthouse and ends his game by telling him to leave at once.

Harthouse's pursuit of Louisa as a game is confirmed in his response to Sissy's request. He thinks of her visit and his departure from Coketown as a personal defeat. He thinks of the entire episode in terms of winning and losing; he feels ashamed by this defeat, as he might in any other game, but he shows no real emotion at losing Louisa. It is possible his shame indicates a measure of regret at risking Louisa's reputation and turning her life upside down. However, he has this thought after Sissy reveals her background to him, with the phrasing "it wanted this." "This" is Sissy herself, a woman of humble birth, yet great strength and courage, who is able to order him away from Coketown and gives him no option but to comply. She overrides the status of his birth and wealth with her sincerity.

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