Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Thomas Gradgrind, proprietor of an experimental private school in Coketown, insists that the children under him learn only facts. He believes that the world has no place for fancy or imagination. His own five children are models of a factual education. Never having been permitted to learn anything of the humanities, they are ignorant of literature and any conception of human beings as individuals. Even fairy tales and nursery rhymes had been excluded from their education.
One day, as he walks from the school to his home, Gradgrind is immensely displeased and hurt to find his two oldest children, Louisa and Tom, trying to peek through the canvas walls of a circus tent. It eases his mind even less to discover that the two youngsters are not at all sorry for acting against the principles under which they had been reared and educated. Later, Gradgrind and his industrialist friend, Mr. Josiah Bounderby, discuss possible means by which the children might have been misled from the study of facts. They conclude that another pupil, Sissy Jupe, whose father is a clown in the circus, had influenced the young Gradgrinds.
Having decided to remove Sissy Jupe from the school, Bounderby and Gradgrind set out immediately to tell the girl’s father. When they arrive at the inn where the Jupes are staying, they find that the father has deserted his daughter. Moved by sentiment, Gradgrind decides to keep the girl in his home and to let her be educated at his school, all against the advice of Bounderby, who thinks Sissy Jupe will only be a bad influence on the Gradgrind children.
Years pass, and Louisa and young Tom have matured. Gradgrind knows that Bounderby, who is thirty years his daughter’s elder, has long wished to marry Louisa. Educated away from sentiment, she agrees to marry Bounderby. Tom, an employee in Bounderby’s bank, is very glad to have his sister marry Bounderby; he wants a friend to help him if he gets into trouble there. In fact, he advises his sister to marry Bounderby for this reason, and she, loving her brother, agrees to help him by marrying the wealthy banker.
Bounderby is very happy to be married to Louisa. After his marriage, he places his elderly housekeeper in a room at the bank. Mrs. Sparsit dislikes Louisa and is determined to keep an eye on her for her employer’s sake. After the marriage, all seems peaceful at the bank, at the Gradgrind home, and at the Bounderby residence.
In the meantime, Gradgrind had been elected to Parliament from his district. He sends...
(The entire section is 1036 words.)
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Summary and Analysis
Book I, Chapters 1-2: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1: The One Thing Needful
Chapter 2: Murdering the Innocents
Thomas Gradgrind: the proprietor of a model school
Mr. M’Choakumchild: the school teacher
Unnamed “Government Officer”: present to inspect schools
Bitzer: a model pupil
Sissy Jupe: another pupil, who answers inappropriately
In a plain, bare classroom, students sit in rows, listening to a speaker, a square-faced man who lectures them on the all-importance of Fact. This is Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, a “man of Realities, a man of facts and calculation.” He is accompanied in the classroom by two other adults: his school teacher, Mr. M’Choakumchild, a recent graduate of the new state-supported teacher training, and an unnamed man, a “government officer,” apparently inspecting the school in his official capacity.
Gradgrind calls on Sissy Jupe (as “girl number 20”), asks for her name and what her father does for a living, ascertains that he is one of the “horse riders” (performers) in Sleary’s Circus, and asks for her “definition of a horse.” Sissy is unable to give him the answer, but another student, the boy Bitzer, answers in the approved style: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders.”
The third man then addresses the children, asking them if they would decorate their houses with patterned wallpaper or cover their floors with flowered carpets. Sissy Jupe is again called upon and answers that she would very much like to decorate her home that way,...
(The entire section is 664 words.)
Book I, Chapters 3-4: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 3: A Loophole
Chapter 4: Mr. Bounderby
Mr. Sleary: owner of “Sleary’s Horse-Riding,” an equestrian circus
Miss Josephine Sleary: his daughter, who performs in the circus
Signor Jupe: Sissy Jupe’s father, who performs with his trained dog, Merrylegs
Mr. Bounderby: a wealthy mill owner and banker
Mrs. Gradgrind: Thomas Gradgrind’s feeble wife
Adam Smith, Malthus, and Jane Gradgrind: the younger sons and infant daughter of Thomas Gradgrind
Mr. Gradgrind walks from his school to his home, Stone Lodge, built on a moor just outside Coketown, a “great town” in Northern England. He thinks with satisfaction about his school and his children, about how he intends all the pupils in the school to be model pupils, and how he believes his own children to be models of his strictly rational and practical approach to life and learning.
Reaching the outskirts of Coketown on his way home, Mr. Gradgrind hears the unexpected sound of band music from a traveling circus. Mr. Sleary himself can be seen at a ticket booth, and there is a poster identifying his daughter, Josephine, and Sissy Jupe’s father as performers. Mr. Gradgrind keeps going, paying no attention. But just then something does grab him: the sight of a group of school-aged children trying to peep into the circus. He puts on his eyeglass and is astonished to find his own Tom and Louisa looking on with the rest.
Mr. Gradgrind asks disapprovingly what they think they are doing there. Louisa says only that she “wanted to see what it was like.” But what would their friends think, Gradgrind asks reproachfully. What would Mr. Bounderby think?
As it happens, Mr. Bounderby himself is waiting for them at Stone Lodge, having dropped by to call on his old friend—and on Louisa. What he thinks about the circus episode is exactly what Mr. Gradgrind thinks—it seems they always agree perfectly.
A large, loud bald man in late middle-age, he is standing near the drawing-room...
(The entire section is 868 words.)
Book I, Chapters 5-6: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 5: The Key-Note
Chapter 6: Sleary’s Horsemanship
Mr. E.W.B. Childers: a horse-rider
Master Kidderminster: his son
Emma Gordon: a pregnant member of Sleary’s Circus
Gradgrind and Bounderby walk to Coketown in search of Sissy Jupe’s father. He lives in Pod’s End, a part of town unfamiliar to them both. They stop and look about themselves. Just then Sissy Jupe herself comes into view, running. She is being pursued by Bitzer, the pale boy in her class. Mr. Gradgrind sends Bitzer on his way with a warning and asks Sissy to conduct them to her father’s house.
She leads the way to the Pegasus’...
(The entire section is 610 words.)
Book I, Chapter 7: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 7: Mrs. Sparsit
Mrs. Sparsit: Bounderby’s housekeeper
Mr. Sparsit: the lady’s late husband
Lady Scadgers: her invalid great aunt
On the morning following Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby’s eventful visit with the circus people, Mrs. Sparsit, an elderly widow who acts as Mr. Bounderby’s housekeeper, and who is regarded by him (and by herself) as having once been socially very much his superior, chats with her employer over breakfast. Bounderby tells Mrs. Sparsit about what he calls his friend Gradgrind’s “whim,” his proposal to take care of Sissy Jupe. Bounderby also mentions his own resolution to take...
(The entire section is 560 words.)
Book I, Chapter 8: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 8: Never Wonder
Louisa and Tom sit talking by the fireplace in their study at the close of day. Their unhurried conversation starts and stops, with pauses to gaze into the fire. Tom complains bitterly about his life at Stone Lodge, which he calls a “Jaundiced Jail.”
Tom brings up the subject of his going to live with “old Bounderby.” Louisa asks him if he really looks forward to working for him. Tom replies that “there’s one thing to be said for it, it will be getting away from home.” Louisa repeats this remark, word for word, in a “curious tone.” Gazing at the fire, she tells Tom she has been “wondering about you and me, grown up.” At this point Mrs....
(The entire section is 445 words.)
Book I, Chapter 9: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 9: Sissy’s Progress
Several months have passed since Sissy Jupe has moved into Stone Lodge. She has not done well at school; caring for Mrs. Gradgrind is hard, and she’s had “strong impulses” to run away. But the thought of her father stops her—she still has faith that he will return to her some day, and that he would prefer her to remain where she was. After all, it had been his idea to enroll her in Gradgrind’s school in the first place.
Mr. M’Choakumchild cannot give Gradgrind a favorable account of her performance. She is slow with figures; can grasp that the world is round but has no interest in its dimensions; cannot remember historical dates unless...
(The entire section is 584 words.)
Book I, Chapters 10-12: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 10: Stephen Blackpool
Chapter 11: No Way Out
Chapter 12: The Old Woman
Stephen Blackpool: one of Bounderby’s “hands”
Rachael: a fellow worker
Stephen’s wife: an unnamed, drunken, sub-human woman
Stephen Blackpool, a weaver in Mr. Bounderby’s cotton mill, stands searching for someone in the crowd of women leaving the factory at the end of the day. He’s a gray-haired man of 40, who speaks in the broad accents of his native Lancashire. His hard life has made him look much older. Just as he’s about to turn away disappointed, he sees a familiar shape ahead of him. It is Rachael, his friend and...
(The entire section is 986 words.)
Book I, Chapter 13: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 13: Rachael
Stephen returns to his room and finds Rachael attending his wife, who is in a feverish, semiconscious state from which she is not expected to emerge until the morning. Rachael has changed the woman’s clothes, tidied and swept the room, and rigged a sheet around the bed, so Stephen can’t see her. On a low table by the bed stand two bottles of medicine, one marked “Poison.” The sight of it makes him shiver, which Rachael attributes to his staying out late in the heavy rain and high winds.
At Rachael’s urging, Stephen goes to sleep in his chair. He dreams that it is his wedding day and he is standing in church by his bride. During the ceremony, he...
(The entire section is 691 words.)
Book I, Chapters 14-15: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 14: The Great Manufacturer
Chapter 15: Father and Daughter
The years pass, bringing change to the inhabitants of Gradgrind’s establishment. Gradgrind has been elected to Parliament, as a member for Coketown. Sissy Jupe, through with school (Gradgrind sees no point in her continuing; her performance there has been as consistently disappointing as her services to the family have been appreciated), has been asked to stay on at Stone Lodge under Gradgrind’s protection. Tom, as expected, has gone to work for Mr. Bounderby’s bank. He lives with Bounderby now, working hard during the day but enjoying his evenings. If Bounderby comes on too strong, all he has to do is mention his...
(The entire section is 807 words.)
Book I, Chapter 16: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 16: Husband and Wife
Mr. Bounderby’s first concern, when he hears that Louisa will have him, is what to say to Mrs. Sparsit, his housekeeper. He is worried that she might have a fit, or cry, or pack up and go to her great aunt, Lady Scadgers—Louisa’s coming will mean her services in his house will no longer be needed. When he does summon the nerve to tell her, Mrs. Sparsit’s reaction is unexpected. She takes it all in stride, as if she’d been expecting the news all along, and her manner toward him changes. She says she wishes he may be happy, but her tone implies that he won’t, and that he is very much to be pitied, as a kind of victim. Bounderby, baffled and resentful but...
(The entire section is 649 words.)
Book II, Chapters 1-3: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1: Effects in the Bank
Chapter 2: Mr. James Harthouse
Chapter 3: The Whelp
Mr. James Harthouse: a gentleman from London, newly recruited to Gradgrind’s party
It is the end of a hot summer day in Coketown, some time after Bounderby and Louisa’s wedding. Mrs. Sparsit is installed at the bank. Bitzer, Gradgrind’s diligent old pupil, now employed at the bank as a porter (and as Bounderby’s informant and spy) keeps her company while she consumes a late afternoon tea.
The conversation turns to Louisa’s brother Tom, whose presence in the bank Bitzer resents. Bitzer says Tom is a slacker with expensive habits, and that...
(The entire section is 828 words.)
Book II, Chapters 4-5: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 4: Men and Brothers
Chapter 5: Men and Masters
Slackbridge: trade union leader
The union leader Slackbridge holds forth to a large, attentive audience of working men. He has learned of a working man among them who has declined to support certain measures proposed by Coketown’s union of factory operatives. Slackbridge, addressing a meeting of The United Aggregate Tribunal, denounces this man as a “traitor and a craven and a recreant.” The crowd, which had been with him, is divided—there are calls from the hall to see the man himself and hear what he has to say.
The holdout is Stephen Blackpool, who in refusing to join in...
(The entire section is 656 words.)
Book II, Chapter 6: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 6: Fading Away
Stephen, Rachael, and the mysterious old lady, who has reappeared outside Bounderby’s house and has been hospitably invited for tea in Stephen’s room, are just about to settle down to their meal when Stephen’s landlady comes up the stairs and whispers the name of some visitors in Stephen’s ear. Catching the name Bounderby, the old lady retreats fearfully into a dim corner of the room. Stephen, candle in hand, shows Louisa up. She is followed by her brother, Tom. She has come, Louisa tells Stephen, because of what has just happened at her husband’s. She wants to know what plans he has, and if there is really no hope of his finding work in Coketown. Louisa then...
(The entire section is 429 words.)
Book II, Chapters 7-8: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 7: Gunpowder
Chapter 8: Explosion
Ever since being dazzled, on the evening he first met Louisa, by the affectionate smile she gave to her brother, James Harthouse has wanted the same smile turned on him. His conversion to Bounderby and Gradgrind’s political and economic views, his making himself an intimate of the Bounderby household, his becoming a frequent guest at Mr. Bounderby’s newly acquired summer house—all have had this same end in view.
Mr. Harthouse knows from Tom’s indiscretions the night he got the boy drunk that his sister has entered a loveless marriage for his sake. He also senses that if he appears to take an interest in Tom he will gain her...
(The entire section is 896 words.)
Book II, Chapters 9: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 9: Hearing the Last of It
Mrs. Sparsit, invited to stay on at Bounderby’s country retreat “to recover the tone of her nerves,” settles in to her old role as housekeeper and her new, self-appointed, role as spy. She reclaims her place at Bounderby’s table and prowls around the house, keeping her sharp eyes on its inhabitants.
A hastily written note arrives from Stone Lodge, carried by Bitzer, informing Louisa that her mother is seriously ill. Louisa immediately travels to her old home to be at her mother’s side. She finds her mother as usual propped up on a couch, with Sissy as ever in attendance. Jane, Louisa’s sister, now a girl of 11, is also in the room....
(The entire section is 619 words.)
Book II, Chapters 10-12: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 10: Mrs. Sparsit’s Staircase
Chapter 11: Lower and Lower
Chapter 12: Down
The first chance Mrs. Sparsit gets to spy on Louisa and Mr. Harthouse at Bounderby’s country place, she can only watch them—watch them sit close together in the garden one evening, bending toward one another, their heads almost touching—but she can’t hear a word. They are talking about Blackpool, and whether he can be responsible for the robbery. Louisa is ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, but she acknowledges how little she knows about him or about any of the men and women of his class. Harthouse comes close to convincing her about Blackpool’s probable guilt, and they stroll...
(The entire section is 918 words.)
Book III, Chapters 1-2: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1: Another Thing Needful
Chapter 2: Very Ridiculous
Louisa wakens from a deep sleep. She is in her old room, on her own bed. She feels weak and her head hurts. Her little sister Jane is present. Jane tells Louisa that it was Sissy who had prepared the room and brought her there. Louisa turns her head away; just at this moment, she doesn’t want to hear about Sissy’s kindness and thoughtfulness.
Louisa’s father enters the room and sits down beside her. He speaks to her awhile in uncharacteristically subdued tones, holds her hand, gently rearranges her disordered hair, and then when Louisa no longer replies to his questions quietly leaves the room. His place is...
(The entire section is 583 words.)
Book III, Chapter 3: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 3: Very Decided
Mrs. Sparsit, ill from her late-night ordeal in the rain, pursues Bounderby to his hotel in London, tells him all she has seen and heard (and, no doubt, all that she imagines and fears), and faints dead away. After the usual restorative measures are applied, the two return by train to Coketown and proceed directly to Stone Lodge, where Bounderby bursts in upon Gradgrind demanding loudly to know where Louisa is. Told that she is right there in the house, Bounderby turns on Mrs. Sparsit and demands an apology for inventing stories. His housekeeper being incapable of speech, Bounderby escorts her out to the coach that conveyed them to Gradgrind’s and tells her to return...
(The entire section is 624 words.)
Book III, Chapters 4-5: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 4: Lost
Chapter 5: Found
Despite his domestic difficulties, Mr. Bounderby remains intent on investigating the bank robbery. Hoping it will crack the case open, Mr. Bounderby has a “WANTED” poster for the missing Stephen Blackpool printed up in great black letters and pasted all over town before daybreak. The agitator Slackbridge denounces Blackpool with his usual overheated language, adding to his former denunciations of Stephen the names of thief and plunderer.
On the same evening that workers cluster around the posters in Coketown, the case suddenly erupts into the quiet confines of Stone Lodge. In the presence of her brother, Tom, who has arrived with...
(The entire section is 1013 words.)
Book III, Chapter 6: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 6: The Starlight
Rachael and Sissy Jupe spend a Sunday in the country just outside Coketown. Walking alone they come across a man’s hat lying on the grass. Inside, written in his own hand, is the name Stephen Blackpool. Directly in front of the two women yawns the gaping mouth of an abandoned coal works, one of many that dot the landscape outside the city.
Sissy convinces Rachael not to give way entirely to lamentation, that there is a chance Stephen may still be alive at the bottom of the shaft. Marking the spot with a shawl, the two set off in different directions; Rachael back toward where they came, Sissy in another direction entirely, each hoping to raise the alarm...
(The entire section is 882 words.)
Book III, Chapter 7: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 7: Whelp-Hunting
Tom Gradgrind stands by the Old Hell Shaft, next to Bounderby and a little apart from his father and sister. Sissy, seeing him there and watching him take in the fact that his father has been called to Stephen’s side, leaves Rachael, steals up behind Tom and whispers something. The two confer briefly, and Tom leaves the scene without being seen.
As Sissy explains to Mr. Gradgrind, she had remembered where her father’s old circus was at this time of year and had directed Tom to flee there and ask Mr. Sleary to take him in and hide him. Mr. Gradgrind, relieved that his son is in no immediate danger of arrest, takes heart when he realizes that Sleary’s...
(The entire section is 827 words.)
Book III, Chapters 8-9: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 8: Philosophical
Chapter 9: Final
Bitzer stands before Gradgrind in the circus ring, holding Tom fast. Mr. Gradgrind, “broken and submissive,” begins to appeal to him to let his son go. Each appeal is met with polite, “business-like,” and “logical” refusal. No talk of “heart,” no consideration of loyalty to his old master for the training that was bestowed upon him will induce him to release Tom. Bitzer has suspected Tom of the bank robbery from the first, and he’s sure that if he delivers Tom over to Mr. Bounderby his employer would promote him to Tom’s old place in the bank. No amount of money (Gradgrind asks him to name his sum) will change his mind. In...
(The entire section is 1049 words.)