Critical Essays Characterization in Hard Times



In Hard Times, Dickens placed villains, heroes, heroines, and bystanders who are representative of his times. Even though many of these characters have names which indicate their personalities or philosophies, they are not caricatures but people endowed with both good and bad human qualities. Shaped by both internal and external forces, they are like Shakespeare's characters — living, breathing beings who love, hate, sin, and repent. True to the class or caste system of nineteenth-century England, Dickens drew them from four groups: the fading aristocracy, the vulgar rising middle class, the downtrodden but struggling labor class, and the itinerant group, represented by the circus people.

Major Characters

Representative of the fading aristocracy are Mrs. Sparsit and James Harthouse.

Mrs. Sparsit, a pathetic, but scheming old lady, earns her living by pouring tea and attending to the other housekeeping duties for Mr. Josiah Bounderby, whom she despises. Sparing with words, she is literally a "sitter," first in Bounderby's home and later in his bank. She lends her respectability and culture to his crude, uneducated environment. Resentful of Bounderby and others who do not have the background that she has, she seemingly accepts Bounderby's philosophy of life. In direct discourse with him, she simpers and hedges; when he is not present, she scorns him and spits on his picture. Throughout the novel, Mrs. Sparsit connives and plans for her own advantage. Her role in the first book is one of waiting and watching; in the second book, she continues this role and enlists the aid of Bitzer, an aspirant to the middle class, to bring revenge upon Bounderby; in the last book, she serves as informer and is rewarded by losing her position with Bounderby and by being compelled to live with a hated relative, Lady Scadgers.

James Harthouse, the second face of the aristocracy, is a young man who comes to Coketown because he is bored with life. He is employed to advance the interests of a political party. When introduced to Louisa, he becomes infatuated with her and seeks to arouse her love. Taking advantage of Bounderby's absences from home, he goes to see Louisa on various pretexts. When Louisa refuses to elope with him, he leaves Coketown for a foreign country. The only hurt he has received is a blow to his ego or vanity.

Characters of the middle class take many faces: the wealthy factory owner, the retired merchant who is a champion of facts, the "whelp," and the beautiful Louisa nurtured in facts. Just as the buildings of Coketown are all alike in shape, so are these people alike.

Josiah Bounderby, the wealthy middle-aged factory owner of Coketown, is a self-made man. Fabricating a story of his childhood, he has built himself a legend of the abandoned waif who has risen from the gutter to his present position. To add to his "self-made" station in life, this blustering, bragging bounder has told the story of his miserable childhood so long and so loud that he believes it himself. The story is simple: he says that after being abandoned by his mother, he was reared by a drunken grandmother, who took his shoes to buy liquor; he relates often and long how he was on his own as a mere child of seven and how he educated himself in the streets. In the final book, when his story is proved false by the appearance of his mother, who had not abandoned him but who had reared and educated him, he is revealed as a fraud who had, in reality, rejected his own mother. With this revelation and other events came his downfall and eventual death.

An opinionated man, he regards the workers in his factories as "Hands," for they are only that — not people to him. The only truth to him is his own version of truth.

In the first book, as a friend of Thomas Gradgrind, he is intent upon having Louisa, Gradgrind's older daughter, for his wife. In the conclusion of book one he succeeds — by taking Gradgrind's son into the bank — in marrying Louisa, who does not love him, for she has never been taught to love or dream, only to learn facts. True to braggart nature, Bounderby expands the story of his miserable rise to wealth by letting everyone know that he has married the daughter of a wealthy, respectable man.

Book two reveals him more fully as the bounder; however, he is a blind bounder — he does not know that his young wife has found a younger man to whom she is attracted. In the final book, when she leaves him and returns home, his ego cannot stand the blow. He does not change, even though almost everyone and everything around him changes.

Gradgrind is the father of five children whom he has reared to learn facts and to believe only in statistics. His wife, a semi-invalid, is simple-minded; although she does not understand his philosophy, she tries to do his bidding. As the book progresses, however, he begins to doubt his own teachings. Mr. Thomas Gradgrind represents the Utilitarian philosophy of the nineteenth century.

In the first book, he takes into his home a young girl whose father, a circus clown, has abandoned her. He undertakes her education but fails since she is the product of another environment. In this book, he presents Bounderby's suit for marriage to Louisa and is pleased when she recognizes that wealth is important.

In the second book, Gradgrind emerges as a father for the first time. He takes Louisa back into his home after she leaves Bounderby. Having lived with the foundling in his home, he has come to recognize that there are emotions such as love and compassion. When his daughter comes to him as a daughter looking for help and sanction, he reacts as a father.

In the last book, Gradgrind abandons his philosophy of facts again to help Tom, his wayward son, to flee from England so that he will not be imprisoned for theft. Gradgrind also vows to clear the name of an accused worker. Here he learns — much to his regret — that Bitzer, one of his former students, has learned his lesson well; Bitzer refuses to help young Tom escape.

Tom Gradgrind, the son, is also a face of the middle class. Having been reared never to wonder, never to doubt facts, and never to entertain any vice or fancy, he rebels as a young man when he leaves his father's home, Stone Lodge, to work in Bounderby's bank. He uses Bounderby's affection for Louisa to gain money for gambling and drink. He urges Louisa to marry Bounderby since it will be to his own benefit if she does.

Freed from the stringent rule of his father, Tom (whom Dickens has Harthouse name "the whelp") becomes a "man about town." He begins to smoke, to drink, and to gamble. When he becomes involved in gambling debts, he looks to Louisa for help. Finally she becomes weary of helping him and denies him further financial aid. Desperate for money to replace what he has taken from the bank funds, Tom stages a robbery and frames Stephen Blackpool. Just as he uses others, so is he used by James Harthouse, who has designs on Louisa.

At the last, Tom shows his complete degeneration of character. When he realizes that exposure is imminent, he runs away. The only redeeming feature of his character is that he truly loves his sister and ultimately regrets that he has brought her heartache. Escaping from England, he lives and dies a lonely life as an exile. In his last illness, he writes to his sister asking her forgiveness and love.

Louisa Gradgrind Bounderby, a beautiful girl nurtured in the school of facts, reacts and performs in a manner in keeping with her training until she faces a situation for which her education has left her unprepared. A dutiful daughter, she obeys her father in all things — even to contracting a loveless marriage with Bounderby, a man twice her age. The only emotion that fills her barren life is her love for Tom, her younger brother. Still young when she realizes that her father's system of education has failed her, she begins to discover the warmth and compassion of life. Only after her emotional conflict with Harthouse does she start her complete re-education.

Dickens employs biblical parallels to portray the characters of the struggling working class. Stephen Blackpool, an honest, hard-working power-loom weaver in Bounderby's factory and the first victim to the labor cause, is likened unto the biblical Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Just as the biblical Stephen was stoned by his own people, so is Stephen Blackpool shunned and despised by his own class. Even though he realizes that Bounderby and the other factory owners are abusing the workers and that something must be done to help them, he refuses to join the union. He is perceptive enough to know that Slackbridge, the trade-union agitator, is a false prophet to the people.

Married to a woman who had left him years before the story opens, Stephen finds himself hopelessly in love with Rachael, also a worker in the factory. Rachael is likened unto the long-suffering woman of the same name in biblical history. Stephen cannot marry his beloved because the laws of England are for the rich, not the penniless workman. When he goes to Bounderby for help to obtain a divorce from his drunken, degenerate wife, he is scorned and bullied until he speaks up, denying Bounderby's taunts. On another occasion he defends the workers against Bounderby's scathing remarks; consequently, he is fired and has to seek a job in another town. When Stephen learns that he is accused of theft, he starts back to Coketown to clear his name; however, he does not arrive there. He falls into an abandoned mine pit and is found and rescued minutes before his death. Although he is just one of the "Hands" to Bounderby and others of the middle class, Stephen Blackpool is a very sensitive, religious man who bears no enmity toward those who have hurt him.

The last social group that Dickens pictures is best represented by Cecilia "Sissy" Jupe, who is the antithesis of the scholars of Gradgrind's school. This group, the circus people whose endeavor is to make people happy, is scorned by the Gradgrinds and the Bounderbys of the world. Sissy, forsaken by her father, who believed that she would have a better life away from the circus, is a warm, loving individual who brings warmth and understanding to the Gradgrind home. Because of her influence, the younger girl, Jane Gradgrind, grows up to know love, to dream, and to wonder. In the conclusion of the book, Sissy can look forward to a life blessed by a husband and children. The handwriting on the wall foretells her happiness and Louisa's unhappiness.

Minor Characters

Dickens used the minor characters for comic relief, for transition of plot, and for comparison and contrast.

Bitzer is a well-crammed student in Gradgrind's model school of Fact. He is the living contrast to the humble, loving, compassionate Sissy. Bitzer can best be characterized as the symbolic embodiment of the practical Gradgrindian philosophy: he is colorless, servile, mean; and he lives by self-interest.

Mr. M'Choakumchild, a teacher in Gradgrind's model school, is an advocate of the Gradgrind system. Dickens says that he might have been a better teacher had he known less.

Slackbridge, symbolized as the false prophet to the laboring class, is the trade-union agitator.

Mrs. Pegler is the mysterious woman who shows great interest in Mr. Bounderby. One meets her, usually, standing outside the Bounderby house, watching quietly.

Adam Smith Gradgrind and Malthus Gradgrind are Thomas Gradgrind's two youngest sons. Their names are in keeping with the economic concern of the book.

Members of the Sleary Circus, in addition to Mr. Sleary, are Emma Gordon, Kidderminster, who plays the role of cupid; Mr. E. W. B. Childers, and Josephine Sleary.

Unnamed characters are members of the "Hands" and the sick wife of Stephen Blackpool.