Hard Times by Charles Dickens: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:02 Background Information
  • 1:02 Marriage in Hard Times
  • 2:38 Spurned Love in Hard Times
  • 3:50 Death and the Future
  • 4:33 Important Themes in Hard Times
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Abigail Walker

Abigail has taught writing and literature at various universities. She has an M.A. In literature from American University and an M.F.A. in English from The University of Iowa.

First published in 1854, Dickens's ''Hard Times'' centers on the Gradgrind family. The members of this family--as well as others inhabiting fictional Coketown--shift their philosophies and romantic entanglement as the plot unfolds.

Background Information

Charles Dickens is known for writing about life during the Industrial Revolution. Hard Times, published in 1854, falls into this category. It focuses on the fictional town of Coketown, England and the people who live there and their struggles. It begins with Thomas Gradgrind lecturing about facts. Academic supervisor in the community of Coketown, Gradgrind believes facts provide the keys to success. Fun, needless to say, is normally withheld from Gradgrind's children, and he is horrified one day to find his children, Louisa and Tom, captivated by the sight of Coketown's circus. Gradgrind discusses this behavior with a close friend, the wealthy Josiah Bounderby. He blames the children's classmate, Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a circus performer, for piquing the children's interest in carnivals. Sissy, the two men decide, must leave school. But arriving at the circus to inform Sissy's father of her dismissal, they learn he has disappeared, probably never to return. Gradgrind determines Sissy should move into his home.

Marriage in Hard Times

Having Sissy in Gradgrind's house worries Bounderby, who wants to marry teenage Louisa. He fears Sissy will corrupt Louisa, but he is mistaken. Sissy is kind and diligent, except when her father's disappearance overwhelms her. Then, she cannot help but cry. Noticing Sissy's tears one day, Louisa comforts her. Sissy and Louisa then become closer. While Sissy is often criticized at school for delighting in fancy rather than fact, Louisa has discovered she prefers imagination to reason. Nonetheless, when Bounderby, whom Louisa does not love, asks her to marry him, she agrees.

As Louisa prepares to become a bride, another resident of Coketown wants to end his marriage. A factory worker, Stephen Blackpool lives in the poorest part of Coketown, a hellish place where soot and smoke fill the air and where awful smells and mechanical noises overpower the senses. Stephen knows he cannot help his wife, who is an alcoholic and a thief. He has fallen in love with Rachael, who is always generous and kind. Thinking of Rachael makes his long days happy, while he works the mechanized loom at the factory owned by Bounderby, the person Stephen turns to for advice about ending his marriage. Bounderby though, informs Stephen that only the rich can get divorced.

Bounderby's own marriage will soon fail. His wife is now being pursued by young political aficionado James Harthouse, whom Louisa's father, a new member of Parliament, is mentoring. Having befriended Louisa's brother Tom, who now drinks heavily and works for Bounderby, crafty James knows quite a bit about Louisa and enjoys trying to seduce her.

Spurned Love in Hard Times

Although Louisa initially resists, her affection for James grows. They are unaware that a woman named Mrs. Sparsit has begun watching them. Sparsit was once Bounderby's housekeeper. She hoped to wed Bounderby herself and is still furious that he married Louisa. Sparsit is delighted one day to overhear the couple make arrangements to meet, and she reports these plans to Bounderby. Before Bounderby arrives at Stone Lodge to confront Louisa though, Louisa goes there to talk to her father.

How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death?

She asks him, sobbing. When she informs him of how unhappy her marriage is and how she loves James, her father is heartbroken and regrets the way he raised her. Sissy blames James for much of Louisa's pain and persuades him to disappear from Coketown for good. Before leaving, James stares amorously at lovely Sissy and tells her she is the only one who could have convinced him to leave.

James' departure does nothing to alleviate Bounderby's anger about losing Louisa. His rage intensifies when he learns a bank he owns has recently been robbed and the thief, Bounderby is certain, is Blackpool.

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