Hard Times Study Guide

Hard Times

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard Times is a novel by Charles Dickens published in 1851. Like many of Dickens' novels, Hard Times focuses on the plight of the working class and the deplorable living and working conditions of industrial laborers. The novel also satirizes the contemporary trend of utilitarianism, which Dickens ridiculed for reducing morality to numbers and statistics. The novel features Mr. Gradgrind, a utilitarian educator, Mr. Bounderby, a selfish businessman and the workers of the mills.

Relating back to Dickens' aim to "strike the heaviest blow in my power," he wished to educate readers about the working conditions of some of the factories in the industrial towns of Manchester, and Preston. Relating to this also, Dickens wished to confront the assumption that prosperity runs parallel to morality, a notion which is systematically deconstructed in this novel through his portrayal of the moral monsters, Mr. Bounderby and James Harthouse. Dickens was also campaigning for the importance of imagination in life, and for people's life to not be reduced to a collection of material facts and statistical analyses. Dickens's favourable portrayal of the Circus, which he describes as caring so "little for Plain Fact", is an example of this.

Fact vs. Fancy

This theme is developed early on, the bastion of Fact being the eminently practical Mr. Gradgrind, and his model school, which teaches nothing but Facts. Any imaginative or aesthetic subjects are eradicated from the curriculum, while analysis, deduction and mathematics are emphasised. Fancy, the opposite of Fact, encompasses anything not purely functional and is epitomised by Sleary's circus. Sleary is reckoned a fool by Gradgrind and Bounderby, but it is Sleary who understands that people must be amused. Sissy, the circus performer's daughter, does badly at school, failing to remember the many facts she is taught, but is genuinely virtuous and fulfilled. Gradgrind's own son Tom revolts against his upbringing, becoming a gambler and a thief, while Louisa becomes emotionally stunted, virtually soulless both as a young child and as an unhappily married woman. Bitzer, who adheres to Gradgrind's teachings, turns out an uncompassionate egotist.

Officiousness and spying

Prying and knowledge is key to several characters, namely Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby. Mr. Bounderby spends his whole time fabricating stories about his childhood, covering up the real nature of his upbringing, which is solemnly revealed at the end of the novel. While not a snooper himself, he is undone by Sparsit unwittingly revealing the mysterious old woman to be his own mother, and she unravels Josiah's secrets about his upbringing and fictitious stories. Mr. Bounderby himself superintends through calculating tabular statements and statistics, and is always secretly rebuking the people of Coketown for indulging in conceitful activities. This gives Bounderby a sense of superiority, as it does with Mrs. Sparsit, who prides herself on her salacious knowledge gained from spying on others. Bounderby's grasp for superiority is seen in Blackpool's talks to Bounderby regarding divorce proceedings and a union movement at his factory, accusing him that he is on a quest 'to feast on turtle soup and venison, served with a golden spoon.' All "superintendents" of the novel are undone in one way or another.


This is closely related to Dickens's typical social commentary, which is a theme he uses throughout his entire œuvre . Dickens portrays the wealthy in this novel as being morally corrupt. Bounderby has no moral scruples; he fires Blackpool "for a novelty". He also conducts himself without any shred of decency, frequently losing his temper. He is cynically false about his childhood. Harthouse, a leisured gent, is compared to an "iceberg" who will cause a wreck unwittingly, due to him being "not a moral sort of fellow", as he states himself. Stephen Blackpool, a destitute worker, is equipped with perfect morals, always abiding by his promises, and always thoughtful and considerate of others, as is Sissy Jupe.

The role of status on morality

Another theme repeated by Dickens throughout Hard Times is the effects of social class on the morality of an individual. Some contrasting characters relating to this theme are Stephen and Rachel, and Tom and Mr. Bounderby. Stephen's honesty and Rachel's caring actions are qualities not shown in people from higher classes, but among hard working individuals who are browbeaten by the uncaring factory owners such as Bounderby. These qualities appear repeatedly, as Stephen works hard every day, until he decides to leave town to save the names of his fellow workers, and Rachel supports Stephen through this, while struggling to provide for herself as well. In contrast to these behaviours, Mr. Bounderby refuses to recognize the difficulties faced by those in lower classes, as seen by him completely casting aside Stephen's request for help. Other aristocratic characters simply carry out blatantly immoral actions, such as Tom throwing away his sister's money, falling into debt, then robbing a bank, and even framing someone else for his actions. Tom is also seen to be incredibly deceitful as he is able to keep his guilt hidden until the evidence points only toward him. On the contrary, when the news comes out that Stephen had robbed the bank, Stephen begins to head back to Coketown to face his problems and clear his name. Overall, the stark difference in morality between characters of dissimilar social status suggests Dickens’ idea that there is a form of innate natural law that may remain unhampered in those leading less titled lives. Stephen's concept of right and wrong is untainted by the manufactured values of utilitarianism, instilled into Tom and Bounderby.

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