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Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Plot Summary

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the plot summary of Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times.

Hard Times | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Book 1: Sowing

Thomas Gradgrind, one of the wealthy leaders of Coketown, a fictional industrial city in northern England, runs a school where curriculum is based entirely on factual knowledge. His oldest children, Tom and Louisa, attend the school alongside children of modest means, among whom are Sissy Jupe, a circus-performer's daughter, who is not good with facts, and a boy known as Bitzer, who is. The students spend their days being drilled about facts and scolded if they express any evidence of imagination.

One day Mr. Gradgrind catches Tom and Louisa peeping into the circus tent, owned by Mr. Sleary, on their way home from school. Their parents and their father's friend Mr. Josiah Bounderby, a banker and factory owner, reprimand them for wasting time on useless "fancy." Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby later find Sissy Jupe running through the streets, trying to escape from Bitzer's taunts. When they escort her back to the circus, they discover Sissy's father has abandoned her in hope she will get an education and live a better life without him and away from the circus. Mr. Sleary offers to let Sissy stay with the circus, but Mr. Gradgrind agrees to take charge of Sissy's schooling and allow her to live in his home and assist his wife. Sissy goes with Mr. Gradgrind because she thinks her father wants her to go to school.

Sissy tries hard to learn at school but finds the emphasis on facts difficult. Her answers to questions about facts and figures are usually based on her own questions about the people who are affected by those facts and figures. She shares her insecurities with Louisa, who sympathizes and asks Sissy about her father and the circus. The two develop a friendly relationship, although Mr. Gradgrind does not fully approve of it.

A factory worker, Stephen Blackpool, visits Mr. Bounderby to obtain advice on how to divorce his wife, an alcoholic who is usually absent but who wreaks havoc on the rare occasions when she returns home. Mr. Bounderby and his housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, are appalled by the suggestion of divorce and tell Stephen he took his wife for better or worse, adding he cannot afford a divorce anyway. Stephen is frustrated by this news because he is in love with another worker, Rachael, and now knows he will never be able to marry her. When he leaves Mr. Bounderby's house, he meets a mysterious woman who asks questions about Mr. Bounderby. When Stephen returns home, he finds Rachael taking care of his incapacitated wife, making his love for Rachael stronger and their impossible situation more frustrating.

Years pass, and when Mr. Gradgrind advises Sissy to leave school because she is a poor student, she agrees and apologizes. However, Mr. Gradgrind praises her for her goodness and wants her to remain in service to his family. Tom Gradgrind takes an apprenticeship with Mr. Bounderby at the bank and embraces his freedom. When Mr. Bounderby asks Louisa to marry him, Tom pressures her to accept the proposal to help smooth his indiscretions. Mr. Gradgrind advises Louisa to approach the proposal rationally. Louisa accepts, but her engagement and marriage cool her relationship with Sissy.

Book 2: Reaping

After Mr. Bounderby marries Louisa Gradgrind, he moves his housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, to a position at the bank where she lives, continues to receive a salary, and appears content. A new teacher at the Gradgrind school—the spoiled, privileged, and usually bored James Harthouse—develops a friendship with Mr. Bounderby, Tom, and Louisa, to whom he is attracted. He becomes close to Louisa by expressing interest in Tom's situation after Tom informs him she never loved Mr. Bounderby and married him out a sense of duty to her father and himself. He spends time at the Bounderbys' home in Coketown and at their newly purchased country estate.

In the meantime, the men at Mr. Bounderby's factory begin organizing a union, which Stephen Blackpool refuses to join because he has promised Rachael to stay out of trouble. Although the union men allow Stephen to continue working, they ostracize him. Looking for information about the union, Mr. Bounderby summons Stephen, but Stephen tells him little about the meeting. He does, however, tell Mr. Bounderby he doesn't think the union can solve the deep-rooted problems of poverty and the harsh conditions in the factories, nor does he think factory owners care about their workers. Mr. Bounderby is furious and fires Stephen on the spot.

Stephen encounters Rachael and the mysterious old woman, Mrs. Pegler, after his meeting with Mr. Bounderby and invites them to his home for tea. Louisa and Tom visit Stephen at home to express their sympathies. Louisa offers him some money, but he accepts only two pounds as a loan for travel expenses. With the pretense of being helpful, Tom, who has excessive and pressing gambling debts, tells Stephen to wait outside the bank for a few nights during the week to see if Tom has any leads on work for him. When the week ends with no leads, Stephen Blackpool leaves Coketown to find work elsewhere.

Shortly after Stephen leaves, the bank is robbed. Mr. Bounderby immediately suspects Stephen because of their quarrels and because Stephen was spotted loitering around the bank. Louisa vaguely suspects Tom might be behind the robbery, but Tom and James Harthouse convince her Stephen is probably guilty. She and James Harthouse become closer as both are concerned for Tom, and James Harthouse insinuates himself more into Louisa's life. To calm her nerves, Mrs. Sparsit comes to stay at the Bounderbys' country house after the robbery and observes Louisa and James Harthouse together. She begins to hope for Louisa's downfall and in private expresses contempt for Louisa and for Mr. Bounderby.

Mrs. Sparsit gets her wish when Mr. Bounderby is called away one weekend on business. She hurries to the country house to spy on Louisa who should be there alone. She spots Louisa and James Harthouse talking in the garden. Seeing Louisa leave the house shortly after Harthouse departs, Mrs. Sparsit follows Louisa on a train back to Coketown. Losing sight of Louisa after they leave the train station, she remains unaware Louisa is not meeting Harthouse but is going to her father's house to confess the near-affair and beg her father to help her because her education never taught her how to experience emotions properly. In the midst of a breakdown, Louisa falls to Mr. Gradgrind's feet. Her father is at a loss as to what to do.

Book 3: Garnering

Louisa recovers from her breakdown in her childhood bedroom. She and Sissy resume their friendly, even sisterly, relationship. Mr. Gradgrind apologizes for his role in Louisa's education and begins to question his philosophy that values facts over all else. Sissy goes to James Harthouse and quietly but firmly convinces him he must leave town to mitigate the damage he has caused. He is embarrassed about taking orders from Sissy but complies nonetheless. Mrs. Sparsit goes to London to inform Mr. Bounderby about his wife's activities. Mr. Bounderby rushes back to Coketown and confronts Mr. Gradgrind. He learns Louisa did not actually have an affair, but he still demands she get over her emotional problems and come home right away. Louisa does not return, and the marriage effectively ends.

Stephen's presumed guilt in the bank robbery becomes a common assumption throughout the city. Rachael writes to urge him to return to Coketown and defend himself, but he neither replies nor returns. Messengers sent to his new address fail to find him, and Rachael and Sissy worry something has happened to him. They do not rule out foul play and agree to search for him if he does not respond within one more day.

Meanwhile Mrs. Sparsit arrives triumphantly at Mr. Bounderby's house having nabbed Stephen's suspected accomplice, Mrs. Pegler. However, rather than showing gratitude or appreciation, Mr. Bounderby is furious. Mrs. Pegler's presence exposes his lifelong stories about being abandoned by his mother as an infant and making himself successful after years of abuse and neglect as a fraud. Mrs. Pegler is in fact Mr. Bounderby's mother, and she tells Mr. Gradgrind and others in Mr. Bounderby's house about how hard she worked to ensure her son got all the advantages possible. She is offended they would accuse her of being a bad mother when her son is right there to refute the claim—a claim he himself initiated with years of boasting about being entirely self-made. The episode ruins Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit's relationship. They quarrel, and he fires her from her post. Five years later he dies while walking down a street in Coketown.

Sissy and Rachael search for Stephen and find he has fallen into a coal pit while walking back to Coketown to defend himself. A large rescue effort mounts, and Stephen is pulled from the pit. Badly hurt, he is able to tell the world he is innocent and bid Rachael a sad goodbye before he succumbs to his injuries and dies. Tom realizes his role in the robbery is about to be exposed, so he escapes to Mr. Sleary's circus on Sissy's advice.

The Gradgrinds and Sissy catch up with Tom and the circus. Sissy and the performers enjoy a reunion, and Mr. Sleary agrees to help the family get Tom to a ship that will take him abroad. Bitzer has followed the family, though, and plans to take Tom back to Mr. Bounderby in exchange for a promotion. Mr. Sleary and the performers subdue Bitzer and help Tom escape. Then Mr. Sleary tells Mr. Gradgrind he believes Sissy's father has died because his old dog returned to the circus looking for Sissy before the dog also died. Mr. Sleary and Mr. Gradgrind agree to spare Sissy this news.

Mr. Gradgrind's change of philosophy, from facts to emotion, costs him his seat in Parliament, but he does not seem to mind. Tom forgives Louisa and tries to return to see her but gets sick and dies during the journey. Louisa does not remarry, but she is beloved by Sissy's children and devotes her life to promoting happiness and imagination among the people of Coketown.

Hard Times Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action


1 Mr. Gradgrind outlines his pedagogy: nothing but facts.

Rising Action

2 The Gradgrinds take in Sissy Jupe after her father leaves.

3 Stephen Blackpool learns he can't divorce his wife.

4 Tom Gradgrind goes to work at the bank.

5 Louisa Gradgrind marries Mr. Bounderby.

6 James Harthouse arrives and decides to seduce Louisa.

7 Mr. Bounderby fires Stephen for refusing to be an informant.

8 Mr. Bounderby accuses Stephen of robbing the bank.

9 Mrs. Gradgrind dies.

10 Mrs. Sparsit plots and spies on Louisa.


11 Louisa has a crisis when Harthouse professes his love.

Falling Action

12 Mr. Bounderby and Louisa's marriage ends.

13 Stephen is rescued from a coal pit and dies soon after.

14 Sissy helps Tom escape after he is revealed as the robber.


15 Louisa and Sissy settle into relatively contented lives.

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