Summary and Analysis
Just as the biblical Ruth garnered in the fields of Boaz picking up the wheat dropped by the reapers, so do the characters garner or pick up what the grim reapers of experience have left behind. Thomas Gradgrind, after realizing the failure of his system, tries to help his children to pick up the pieces of his and their shattered lives. Returning to bachelorhood, Bounderby, exposed as a fraud, garners a life of loneliness, dying perhaps in the streets of Coketown. As they sowed, as they reaped, so must they reassemble what is left.
The first three chapters — "Another Thing Needful," "Very Ridiculous," and "Very Decided" — primarily concern Louisa's fight for self-understanding. Here Thomas Gradgrind reverses the thing needed; he bears out Dickens' beliefs that people's emotions cannot be measured in statistics. In the first chapter of the novel, the thing needed was a factual education, a concern of the head; in the first chapter of the final book of the novel, the thing needed is understanding and compassion, a concern of the heart. In this chapter, too, the reader learns that Jane Gradgrind, the younger daughter, is leading and will continue to lead a life quite different from that which her older sister has led. Facts mixed with Fancy, statistics mixed with compassion, love, and understanding will shape her life. Under the influence of Sissy, she will grow into another Sissy, but a better-educated Sissy.
Even though Gradgrind blames himself for the unhappiness that has come to Louisa, she does not blame him. Rather, in the conclusion of the chapter, she — bewildered and lost with no consolation from her education of Facts — turns to Sissy, begging for help.
In the second chapter, the reader finds Sissy — modest, shy, gentle Sissy — taking into her own hands matters concerning Louisa. This chapter also depicts the ridiculous situation in which Harthouse finds himself. Harthouse, who spends an anxious and uneasy twenty-four hours after Louisa leaves him, is taken aback at the appearance of Sissy at his quarters. Although he argues with her, he bows to her command that he leave Coketown, never to see Louisa again. Had any person other than the innocent Sissy gone to him, he might have reacted differently.
After Sissy takes her leave of him, he writes three letters: one to his brother declaring his boredom with Coketown, one to Bounderby announcing his departure, and one to Gradgrind stating that he is leaving his position. Calling himself the "Great Pyramid of Failure," he proves himself to be a very shallow and selfish man: he is concerned only with what the "fellows" will think if they learn of his failure.
"Very Decided," the title of the third chapter, could describe Bounderby, Thomas Gradgrind, and Louisa. Having lost Louisa in the dark and rain and being anxious to bear the tidings to Bounderby, Mrs. Sparsit goes to London and seeks him out at his hotel in St. James' Street. Although she has a sore throat from her drenching and is barely able to talk, Mrs. Sparsit relates the news of Louisa's supposed elopement and faints at the feet of the great "self-made man." Later she and Bounderby rush back to Coketown to inform Gradgrind of his daughter's disgrace. When Bounderby learns that Louisa is at Stone Lodge and that her father proposes to keep her for a while, he becomes furious. He delivers his ultimatum: if Louisa has not returned to his house by noon the next day, he will send her clothing and conclude that she prefers to stay with her family. Should she decide not to return, he will no longer be responsible for her.
The reader learns from the conversation and manner of the two men that Gradgrind has undergone some change of philosophy. Bounderby becomes infuriated, probably because Gradgrind uses words almost identical to those spoken by Bounderby to Stephen in discussing Stephen's responsibilities toward his wife. He reacts in a manner in keeping with Josiah Bounderby, the "self-made man" of Coketown. According to Bounderby, the incompatibility is that of Loo Bounderby, who might have been better left Loo Gradgrind. True to his expected pattern, he comments that she wants "turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon."
When Louisa does not return to Bounderby's house the next day, he sends her clothing and personal belongings to her, begins negotiations to sell the country house, returns to his town house in Coketown, and reassumes his life as a bachelor.