Thomas Gradgrind, a retired hardware merchant and the founder of an experimental school where only facts and proved scientific laws are taught. A firm believer that “two and two are four, and nothing over,” he is the father of five unhappy fact-finders and the husband of an ailing, dispirited woman quite worn out from the facts of life. While he is essentially a kind and good man, his excessive attention to the scientific and the practical and his total neglect of the imaginative and the speculative make him a kind of bumbling ogre. Through Gradgrind’s theories and activities, Dickens projects his sharp criticism of nineteenth century industry and culture.
Louisa Gradgrind, his older daughter, called Loo by her husband, a wealthy, elderly industrialist to whom she was married according to her father’s calculated mathematical theories. A sensible young woman, trained to have respect for hard facts by Mr. M’Choakumchild, master of the model school, she has no nonsense about her and therefore makes a proper wife for unsentimental and callous Josiah Bounderby. She cannot wonder, speculate, or love. Her two thwarted rebellions, an attempt in her girlhood to see a circus and a planned elopement from her unhappy marriage, fail because she lacks courage. Resisting the temptation to run away with another man, she returns to her father’s house and stays there when she cannot bring herself to return to her husband’s bed and board within the time limit he sets.
Thomas Gradgrind, the younger son. Although trained in the same school of hard facts, he is filled with melancholy and a lack of ambition that lead him to a determination to sample life’s vices. Loved and protected by his sister, he becomes a drunkard, a sensualist, and finally a thief, stealing one hundred and fifty pounds from his brother-in-law’s bank, where he is employed as a clerk. For a time, he is able to throw suspicion on an innocent man, but eventually his guilt is revealed. Easily led, he accepts the overtures of cynical James Harthouse, who uses the relationship of weak brother and protective sister as a wedge in his attempted seduction of Louisa. Tom is given another chance to face the facts, something he has rebelled against, when his sister and Sissy Jupe give him an opportunity to flee the country, away from Bounderby’s wrath and the law’s long arm.
Adam Smith Gradgrind
Adam Smith Gradgrind, and
Jane Gradgrind, the other Gradgrind children, all victims of their father’s harsh training.
Josiah Bounderby, a wealthy industrialist, the friend of Thomas Gradgrind and Louisa’s husband. The owner of a Coketown (Manchester) factory, he is exceedingly proud of the fact that he is a self-made man. He advises Mr. Gradgrind against taking Sissy Jupe into his home or allowing her to attend the experimental school. In the end, he loses his wife and the respect of his friends—everything but his money.
Cecilia Jupe, called Sissy, the daughter of a circus clown. Deserted by her father, she grows up in the Gradgrind home, a companion to Louisa. Unsuccessful in learning facts, she is constantly forced to face them and is turned from her foster home to work in Bounderby’s factory. A sensitive, loving girl, she is convinced that her father has not abandoned her, that the Gradgrinds have been generous, and that people are generally trustworthy. She proves her own trust by supporting confused Louisa, persuading Harthouse to leave the neighborhood, and helping Tom Gradgrind escape from the law.
James Harthouse, a cynical political aspirant and a shrewd observer of human nature and behavior. Handsome, smooth-spoken, he attempts the seduction of lonely, unloved Louisa. Sissy Jupe saves her friend from folly when she visits the young politician and persuades him the planned elopement would bring unhappiness to all concerned, including himself.
Mrs. Sparsit, a woman of aristocratic pretensions and closed mind, formerly Bounderby’s housekeeper. Deposed from her position of authority after his marriage, she embarrasses the self-made industrialist by producing his respectable mother and thus proving that his story of his rise from rags to riches is a hoax.
Mrs. Pegler, the mother of Josiah Bounderby, a figure of mystery after her appearance in Coketown. The truth, finally revealed, is that she had reared her son in modest but comfortable circumstances and given him an education. Ashamed of his real background, the son has paid her a pension to stay away from him so that she cannot disprove his story that he lifted himself from the gutter.
Stephen Blackpool, a poor, honest weaver in Bounderby’s factory. The victim of a drunken wife and the factory system, his life is a hard one. During a labor disturbance at the factory, he refuses to join the rebellious workers or to side with his employer. Discharged, he leaves Coketown to look for work elsewhere. During his absence, he is accused of the robbery committed by Tom Gradgrind. Louisa and Sissy find the miner in an abandoned mine shaft, into which he had fallen while returning to prove his innocence. He is brought to the surface alive but severely injured, and he dies soon afterward.
Mrs. Blackpool, his wife, a confirmed drunkard.
Rachel, a worker in Bounderby’s factory, hopelessly in love with Stephen Blackpool.
Bitzer, a typical product of Mr. Gradgrind’s school. Acting as Bounderby’s agent, he tracks down Tom Gradgrind and arrests him, only to lose the culprit when Tom makes his escape with the aid of a circus owner, a performer, a trained dog, and a dancing horse.
Mr. M’Choakumchild, the master of Mr. Gradgrind’s model school, also a believer that facts are facts.
Mr. Sleary, the proprietor of a circus troupe. A friend of Sissy Jupe, he helps Tom Gradgrind to flee the country.
E. W. B. Childers
E. W. B. Childers, a circus performer billed as “The Wild Huntsman of the North American Prairies.” He aids Mr. Sleary in the plan for Tom Gradgrind’s escape from Bitzer.
Emma Gordon, Sissy Jupe’s friend, a member of the circus troupe.
Master Kidderminster, a young boy with a strangely aged face, the member of the circus troupe who assists E. W. B. Childers in his high-vaulting act.
Josephine Sleary, the lovely daughter of the circus proprietor.
Slackbridge, a trade union organizer.
Lady Scadgers, the eccentric, incredibly obese bedridden aunt of Mrs. Sparsit.
Signor Jupe, the circus clown who deserts his daughter.