As a child, Louisa Gradgrind absorbs her father's teachings about the value of factual analysis and pure reason, rejecting imagination and sentiment completely. At 20 she marries Josiah Bounderby, a man 30 years older, because she believes it matters little whom she marries and has no other prospects at the time. When she meets and develops feelings for the young teacher James Harthouse, she spins into a crisis of conscience and must re-evaluate her understanding of herself and her world.
Josiah Bounderby proudly, loudly, and frequently proclaims to have been born in a ditch, abandoned there by his mother, and rescued by an abusive grandmother who raised him. He also claims to have ascended to his position of wealth and respect in Coketown by means of his own cunning and enterprise, overcoming abuse and hardship every step of the way. He resents his workers, believing they feel entitled to what he calls luxuries but in fact are basic necessities of life. After his marriage collapses, the truth about his family—he was raised by a loving, middle-class widowed mother—emerges, and his status diminishes.
Thomas Gradgrind's intentions are good as he raises his students and his children to embrace factual analysis and logic to ensure their long-term success and prosperity. However, he grows increasingly fond of his kindhearted and imaginative ward, Sissy Jupe, despite her inadequacies as a student of fact and reason. When his favorite child, Louisa, reveals the miseries of her own life and begs for his help, he feels powerless to understand emotion and soon after abandons pure reason for a more balanced approach to life.
Tom Gradgrind grows up feeling resentful of his father's philosophies and hating his own work. Referred to as a whelp, Tom is often irresponsible, entitled, selfish, disreputable, and dishonest. As he rebels against the constraints of his upbringing, Tom drinks heavily and incurs massive gambling debts. When Louisa is no longer able to help him, he steals from the bank and attempts to frame Stephen Blackpool for the crime. Tom's family helps him escape from England when the truth is known, but he comes to appreciate them only as he is dying alone abroad.
Sissy Jupe is the daughter of a horse-riding circus clown who hopes his daughter will get an education and have a more stable life than he and the circus can provide. Sissy is a poor student of Mr. Gradgrind's facts and reason-based curriculum, but she possesses more nuanced wisdom in seeing at an early age that facts are not the only basis for knowledge. Sissy sees issues from a larger perspective and has the ability to understand them from different angles. This kind of understanding, combined with her kind heart, helps the Gradgrinds in difficult times when facts do not.
Stephen Blackpool works in one of Mr. Bounderby's factories. He is married to an alcoholic who leaves home for long stretches of time, returning when she is too sick to function on her own. Stephen would like to divorce her so he can marry Rachael, the woman he loves, but divorce is not possible for people with no money and influence. Instead he does his duty and his work until his honesty and desire to avoid trouble anger both the union organizer and his employer. He leaves town but is forced to return to defend himself against false allegations of bank robbery. On his return trip he falls into a disused coal pit and dies of his injuries shortly after he is rescued.
Mrs. Sparsit was born and married within a higher class than her occupation as Mr. Bounderby's housekeeper implies. She takes this job after her husband dies but resents having to leave the position when Mr. Bounderby marries, even though he gives her a comfortable position at the bank. She plots against Louisa and later accidentally exposes Mr. Bounderby's fraudulent life story when she attempts to investigate the bank robbery.