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Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the themes in Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times.

Hard Times | Themes



Industrialization created difficult economic and environmental conditions during Dickens's time. The narrator of Hard Times describes Coketowners' resistance to government regulations, for example, in language that implies factory owners had no problem with child labor or dangerous conditions or "chopping people up with their machinery." Stephen Blackpool loses his job when he confronts Mr. Bounderby about the long hours and lack of incentives in factory work. The narrator also makes multiple references to middle-class and upper-class attitudes about workers' tendencies toward vice, which may be exaggerated when readers consider how virtuously Stephen Blackpool and Rachael live. Still, other workers do seek escape from daily toil through drink and other entertainments. The worst result of this need to escape is visible in Stephen Blackpool's wife, a woman driven to such excessive drink that her original personality is lost; her marriage is ruined; and at one point she inflicts serious harm on herself. At the end of the novel she is living on the streets, unable to escape from the temporary escape she pursued as a factory worker.

Industrialization also created an economic class structure that determined the course of each individual's life, with little mobility existing between classes. For example, Josiah Bounderby, one of the wealthiest people in Coketown, spends most of his time loudly proclaiming himself a wholly self-made man—born in a ditch, abandoned by his mother, abused by his grandmother, and left to an aimless and dissolute youth. This story illustrates his belief that anyone can improve their circumstances, and he uses his origins as a sort of cudgel, berating his workers for laziness. However, his story is a lie. Bounderby was raised by a loving middle-class mother who worked hard to help her son get an education and build a better life. He has risen above the humbler circumstances of his birth, but he certainly has not built himself from nothing.

Stephen Blackpool, on the other hand, illustrates the fate of most people born into poverty. He works in a factory and has little in his life beyond his work. He is subject to personal misery because he lacks the funds to divorce his alcoholic wife, even though those with sufficient wealth are able to dissolve their marriages. He is subject as well to exploitation and scorn because he refuses to join the union, but in his courageous refusal to sell out his co-workers who do join, he is fired. He dies because the industrial system denies him the financial resources to defend himself against accusations of a crime he did not commit. Stephen has no recourse against any of these injustices because he has no money and no way of earning it to improve his lot. The contrast between Mr. Bounderby and Stephen Blackpool illustrates how industrial society is structured to limit economic opportunities. If a man is born with a little bit of wealth, he may be able to grow that wealth, but if a man has nothing, he is likely to remain with nothing.

Another hazard of industrialization was the pollution that made the environment in cities like Coketown both literally and figuratively poisonous. Even Coketown's name evokes black dust and coal rocks. The name is apt in Hard Times; soot coats every surface of the town, turning buildings black as smoke hangs heavy in the sky. The river that runs through the town is black with coal dust and dyes used in making textiles in the mills. The people of Coketown are oppressed by the factories just as the air and water are tainted by them—the physical pollution of the town reflecting the pollution present in the residents' minds and spirits. Workers live in filthy conditions that rob them of the possibility to pursue better lives or even entertain their own thoughts. Factory owners are emotionally stunted and deny the humanity of the workers, and of themselves, to maintain their privileged lives and keep their factories running and profits rolling in. Neither the workers nor the factory owners at the time are fully aware of these realities because the physical and psychological pollution generated by industry obscures everything.

Reason and Imagination

The teachers and masters at Mr. Gradgrind's school present factual knowledge and adherence to pure reason as the keys to a successful and satisfying life. Characters such as Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, along with the menacingly named Mr. M'Choakumchild, aim not only to teach their students the value of facts but to eliminate any sign of "fancy"—emotional or creative response—because in their narrow worldview these ideas have no value. In an early scene, a teacher goes so far as to explain why images of horses and flowers should not be used in wallpaper because, in fact, horses do not live on walls and thus do not make an appropriate wallpaper design, and because flowers do not grow on floors, they do not make an appropriate carpet design. Such narrow-minded thoughts on aesthetics illustrate the extremity of devotion to fact at a level that seems to defy reason and kill off all beauty in people's lives.

Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind credit reason and fact as the secrets of their financial success, and for Mr. Bounderby the evidence indicates this belief is accurate. Even though Mr. Bounderby grossly exaggerates (in fact lies about) the story of his humble beginnings, the education and apprenticeship his mother provides do allow him to rise from his start as the son of a widowed shopkeeper to become the owner of a bank and factory and, as such, a respected member of Coketown's ruling class. Even Sissy Jupe reaps some financial rewards for choosing an education in reason. Arguably, she might have been at least equally happy had she remained with the circus and taken an apprenticeship there or happier with a more liberal education, but her father believes in education as the key to his daughter's long-term prosperity—so much so he abandons her so she can pursue her schooling without interruption where she had already begun. Even though Sissy is an unremarkable student by the standards of her fact-oriented teachers, she maintains her position in the Gradgrind household as a caregiver for Mrs. Gradgrind and the younger children. She does enjoy a safe and stable life as part of a wealthy family, which eventually culminates in marriage and a family of her own, really the most she might hope for then.

According to Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind, the lower classes, in contrast, remain poor because they distract their minds with entertainment, such as the displays of the circus or books of fairy stories, instead of focusing entirely on facts or the hard work that might better their station. However, Louisa Gradgrind's emotional collapse and the dissolution of her marriage illustrate the flaws in such an unbalanced approach to living. She is unable to cope with her emotions because she has never been exposed to the art, literature, or creative thought that might have helped her develop and live with feelings. Sissy Jupe's experience illustrates the importance of imagination as well. Her education in reason does provide her with economic opportunities that give her a stable and happy life, but her early years in the circus, steeped in her father's love and the imaginative performances of his colleagues, give her an emotional grounding that prepares her for adulthood. She has gained strength and balance because her education in facts has been tempered with roots in fancy. Pure reason cannot provide sufficient guidance in the complex world of human behavior and emotions.


Childhood figures most prominently in Book 1, as this section focuses on the formative years of Louisa and Tom Gradgrind and Sissy Jupe. The lessons and experiences of childhood shape these characters later in life.

For Louisa the emphasis on reason and the rejection of imagination and emotion in her childhood lead her to an unbalanced adulthood. Her over-reliance on reason and alienation from her own feelings make her passive and indifferent, leading her into a loveless marriage and to the edge of scandal with an extra-marital affair, which does not come to pass. When faced with emotions, she has no idea how to handle them. Her life comes apart as a result, requiring her to reassess her understanding of herself and her place in the world, and rebuild accordingly.

For Tom the emphasis on reason in his childhood deprives him of the pleasures of childhood, defined by fun and play, and leads him to resent his family deeply. His attempts to capture the youth he feels he missed lead to irresponsibility, entitlement, excessive gambling, and other disreputable activities. He feels entitled to his sister's continued assistance and later needs his father to help him avoid the consequence of stealing from the bank. Throughout the book the narrator refers to Tom as "the whelp," a term for an unweaned puppy or dissolute young man. In short, Tom's lack of a balanced childhood prevents him from growing into a balanced, responsible adult.

On the other hand, Sissy Jupe experiences a more balanced childhood and grows up accordingly. She spends her first seven years in the warm and whimsical environment of the circus, well loved by her father and the other performers. She reads fairy tales and plays with her dog. She spends the second half of her childhood studying facts and reason in school. Although she considers herself a failure as a student, her early experiences temper the strict education she receives and give her emotional and imaginative grounding that make her a useful resource when the Gradgrind family needs her.


The bonds of family love transcend the forces of fact and the fancies of imagination. Family bonds are as real as any fact presented, even as those bonds defy logic. Louisa Gradgrind considers herself emotionally numb, but she is devoted to her brother Tom beyond the bounds of reason. She gives him money to pay his gambling debts, even though pure logic would tell her such financial support is only a useless fool's errand. Mr. Gradgrind's devotion to Louisa moves him to radically change his life's driving philosophy when she comes to him in crisis, and this change later costs him his seat in Parliament. He also risks his reputation when he ignores the law and saves Tom from prison.

Such familial devotion is not limited to the Gradgrinds. Sissy Jupe never abandons hope her father will one day return for her, although he cannot. Mrs. Pegler remains loyal to her son, Mr. Bounderby, observing him from afar and asking strangers about his wellbeing, defending and loving him even though he has forbidden her to contact him.

Nor are family bonds determined solely by blood. Mr. Gradgrind comes to care deeply for Sissy and treats her as a member of his family, as is evident when he and Mr. Sleary choose to spare her the painful knowledge her father is dead. In return Sissy looks out for Tom's and Louisa's best interests as if they were her own siblings. Such feelings may likely have come from her time with the circus in which troupe members care for one another as a family of their own making. When Sissy returns to them after years away, the troupe rushes to help her and the Gradgrinds because Sissy is eternally part of the family bond they share.

Romantic love is presented as an emotion that may create sorrow but also makes life worthwhile. Stephen Blackpool and Rachael love each other and are pained by the knowledge they cannot marry or even openly express their love. At the same time, they find comfort and respite from the bleakness of factory work and poverty by sharing each other's company. Rachael's belief in Stephen's innocence, when he is accused of theft at the bank, comes from her love and respect for him. She never wavers and ultimately helps him clear his name. Even though Stephen dies from injuries sustained after falling into a coal pit, his love for Rachael keeps him alive long enough to say goodbye and proclaim his innocence.

Louisa's experience illustrates the value of love by showing the emptiness of a life that lacks such affection. She marries Mr. Bounderby out of a practical need to help her brother and satisfy her father's wishes. The marriage is loveless from the start, and it only declines with time. Louisa is vulnerable to James Harthouse's attentions because she is starved for an emotional connection. Even though she does not love him—and to him the seduction is just a game—the encounter shows how greatly love is missing from her life.

Questions for Themes

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How would you explain how a good, loving and all-powerful God allows suffering and evil in his creation?
Tell us what the best piece of writing your ever read was. Why did you think so? What did it reach you so well? Was there something special about the description or detail? Did you like the writer's v
to whom i should speak today meaning every stanza . please help me i badly needed this.
In Of Queen’s Gardens , John Ruskin echoes gender norms in the Victorian period. Ruskin states, The man's power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer
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