Study Guide

Hard Times

by Charles Dickens

Hard Times Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


Coketown. Fictional factory town in northern England that offers nothing that is not “severely workful.” Coketown is center of Dickens’s social criticism. As “a triumph of fact,” it is grim, unnatural, and mechanical, from the polluted purple river to the identical laborers who all “do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow.” Forested with the smokestacks of its textile mills, it is a “sulky blotch upon the prospect,” abandoned by the sun even in sunny midsummer. Its tenements, such as Stephen Blackpool’s home, tainted by poverty and by the drunken wife to whom he is irrevocably tied, reflect the miserable sameness and grinding labor of the workers’ lives, empty of leisure and of fancy, which the utilitarian mill owners and politicians see as mere idleness. While Coketown is often associated with the real industrial towns of Leeds, Preston, and Manchester in the north, Dickens saw his commentary as touching on English workers everywhere.


Factory. Textile mill in Coketown, owned by Josiah Bounderby. Bounderby’s factory is typical, for Dickens, of the factory system. Lit up by night, the factories look from a distance like “Fairy palaces.” Yet they are not the dream palaces of fairies; instead they are nightmarishly inhabited by the “melancholy mad elephants,” the pistons of steam engines working up and down. In its bitter monotony, its dreary labor, and in the polluted air that kills child workers and adults alike, the factory is a harsh metaphor for the tyrannical facts that govern all the stunted lives of the novel.

Sleary’s horse-riding

Sleary’s horse-riding. Traveling circus, featuring clowns, equestrian exhibitions, tumbling, and tightropes. Typically found in that “neutral ground” which is “neither town nor country,” the circus brings the old paternalist values of sentiment and charity into the new, alienated economy in which, as in the factory, the master knows nothing of the enslaved. Sissy Jupe, who brings to the Gradgrind house that “wisdom of the Heart” learned in the circus but absent from utilitarianism, is the abandoned daughter of a clown in this circus. Tom Gradgrind hides here from a vengeful Bounderby and the law after his robbery is discovered. Despised as trivial idleness by Gradgrind and Bounderby, the circus stands for that scorned leisure that proves a necessary antidote to the inescapable facts of Coketown: factory life, rampant capitalism, and domestic misery.

Gradgrind’s school

Gradgrind’s school. Privately funded elementary school, financed by Gradgrind, and taught by Mr. M’Choakumchild on the monitorial system, in which student “monitors” repeat lessons they have learned from the schoolmaster to a row of children. The method emphasizes repetition and the rote learning of facts; Dickens here satirizes both the new model of teacher training and the absurdity of such fact-based rote learning.

Stone Lodge

Stone Lodge. Home of the Gradgrind family. Like Bounderby’s town house, “cheerless and comfortless, boastfully and doggedly rich,” Stone Lodge reflects the character of its owner, Thomas Gradgrind. From the outside, it is perfectly symmetrical; from the inside, perfectly mechanical, its time measured off by the “deadly statistical clock” in Gradgrind’s study. For young Tom, it is the “Jaundiced Jail” he longs to escape, for Louisa the “great wilderness,” without graces, without sentiments, without heart. Both Stone Lodge and the Gradgrinds are ultimately redeemed by the admission of Sissy Jupe into this monument of fact.

Bounderby country house

Bounderby country house. “Snug little estate” outside Coketown, on which Bounderby’s bank has foreclosed. Here Bounderby, “the Bully of humility,” grows cabbages in the flower garden and allows the estate’s former elegance to fall into disrepair. The country house highlights Bounderby’s secret allegiance to aristocratic rank and status, even as his lies about his own origins pretend to humility. It is also the site of Mrs. Sparsit’s imaginary staircase, down which she imagines Louisa approaching “a dark pit of shame and ruin” with every day and hour of knowing James Harthouse. The image of the staircase was emblematic, for the Victorians, of a woman’s progress into sexual sin and social ruin.

Hard Times Historical Background

The period in which Dickens wrote is called the Victorian Age, after the popular, long-lived Queen Victoria, who occupied the throne of...

(The entire section is 617 words.)

Hard Times Quizzes

Book I, Chapters 1-2: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Chapter 1 is entitled “The One Thing Needful.” What is that one thing?

2. What does Gradgrind want to “plant” and what does he want to “root out” of his pupils?

3. To whom does Gradgrind say “Sissy is not a name…Don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia.”

4. What gesture does Bitzer make once he finishes his answer?

5. What direct comment does the narrator permit himself about the teacher M’Choakumchild?

6. The “government officer” is compared to what kind of professional athlete?

7. Instead of patterned china and wallpaper and flowery carpets, with what does the government officer urge the children to decorate their homes?

8. Which character is said to have been, with 140 others, “turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs”?

9. How does the girl Sissy’s physical appearance differ from the boy Bitzer’s?

10. Which “calling” (occupation) does Gradgrind not wish mentioned in his classroom?

1. “Facts” are the one thing needful, at least as far as Gradgrind and his associates are concerned. The phrase is meant to suggest the reductiveness of Gradgrind’s philosophy.

2. Again, “Facts” are what Gradgrind wishes to plant in the minds of the children; to be rooted out is any suggestion...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Book I, Chapters 3-4: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Gradgrind is “virtually retired” from what occupation?

2. How does Stone Lodge, Gradgrind’s house, resemble its owner?

3. Who is often referred to as “eminently practical”?

4. Which character describes himself as “a young vagabond”?

5. Who says, “Go and be somethingological directly.”?

6. Signor Jupe, Sissy Jupe’s father, performs in the circus with what animal?

7. Mr. Gradgrind’s political ambitions include what?

8. Who asked whom to come peep at the circus?

9. Why does Mr. Bounderby always “throw” on his hat?

10. What is Louisa’s reaction to Mr. Bounderby’s...

(The entire section is 302 words.)

Book I, Chapters 5-6: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Coketown’s river run with?

2. Coketown’s buildings are made of what material?

3. What does Bitzer tell Gradgrind he was about to help Sissy with before she ran away?

4. What is Sissy carrying when she is stopped by Gradgrind and Bounderby?

5. The picture behind the bar in the Pegasus’ Arms is of what animal?

6. Why did Signor Jupe enroll his daughter in Gradgrind’s school?

7. What is a “cackler”?

8. The “Wild Horseman of the North American Prairies” refers to which of Sleary’s performers?

9. Who is “the diminutive boy with an old face”?

10. What does Mr. Sleary...

(The entire section is 269 words.)

Book I, Chapter 7: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is Mrs. Sparsit occupied in making for her employer?

2. How much does Mr. Bounderby pay yearly for Mrs. Sparsit’s services?

3. Where did the late Mr. Sparsit die, and of what?

4. What has to happen before Tom Gradgrind can start to work for Bounderby?

5. Who speaks “with a kind of social widowhood” upon her?

6. Who is said to have a “moral infection of clap-trap in him”?

7. When does Mr. Gradgrind lower his voice?

8. What is the “oversight” Gradgrind mentions?

9. Which of Mrs. Sparsit’s facial features are most pronounced?

10. Who is to be “reclaimed and formed” and in...

(The entire section is 233 words.)

Book I, Chapter 8: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What do you think Dickens means by the opening words of Chapter 8, “Let us strike the key-note again, before pursuing the tune”?

2. How many church denominations compete for the allegiance of Coketown’s population?

3. Mr. Gradgrind is said to have “greatly tormented his mind” about what?

4. Who does Tom say hates him and all the family?

5. The “Jaundiced Jail” is Tom’s way of referring to what?

6. What does Louisa wish she had learned, so as to be able to “reconcile” Tom to conditions at home?

7. What will be Tom’s “revenge” when he goes off to work at Bounderby’s?

8. In what way does Tom...

(The entire section is 326 words.)

Book I, Chapter 9: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Whispering the “awful word,” Sissy divulges that her father is a what?

2. What word always reminds Sissy of stutterings?

3. What “terrible communication” does Sissy make about her mother?

4. What does Sissy remember her father doing when she was “quite a baby”?

5. What is Sissy’s reply to Louisa’s question about where she lived with her father?

6. Which of the stories Sissy read her father did he seem particularly to enjoy?

7. What was the object of Sissy’s father’s one outburst of anger?

8. Why does every letter that she sees in Mr. Gradgrind’s hand take Sissy’s breath away and blind her...

(The entire section is 273 words.)

Book I, Chapters 10-12: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Who are the “Hands” of Coketown?

2. Only in his expression does Blackpool resemble what set of men?

3. What do travelers by express train say about the spectacle of Coketown’s factories at night?

4. How old is Rachael?

5. Why does the undertaker in Rachael’s neighborhood have a black ladder?

6. The “crashing, smashing, tearing piece of mechanism” refers to what?

7. How does Mrs. Sparsit react when Blackpool says he has come to ask, “How I am to be ridded o’ this woman?”

8. How has the old woman traveled to Coketown?

9. How long has Blackpool worked in Gradgrind’s factory?


(The entire section is 339 words.)

Book I, Chapter 13: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What object makes Stephen compare Rachael to the stars?

2. What item of Rachael’s clothing does Stephen kiss?

3. How many times does he kiss it?

4. What does Rachael break on the hearth?

5. Whose little sister is imagined to be among the angels?

6. The red finger marks on Rachael’s forehead are from what?

7. Who is the woman Stephen stands beside in church, in the “imaginary happiness” of his dream?

8. Which of the Ten Commandments would it seem Stephen sees and hears in his dream?

9. What time is it when Stephen and Rachael both wake?

10. During the whole of this chapter, what is...

(The entire section is 305 words.)

Book I, Chapters 14-15: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Of what aspects of Sissy’s performance in school does Mr. Gradgrind complain?

2. What does Dickens mean when he writes that Gradgrind has become “one of the respected members for ounce weights and measure, one of the deaf honorable gentlemen, dumb honorable gentlemen, blind honorable gentlemen, dead honorable gentlemen, to every other consideration”?

3. When does Louisa give her father the same look as the night she was found peeping at the circus?

4. When Tom says to his sister, “It would do me a great deal of good if you were to make up your mind to I know what, Loo. It would be a splendid thing for me. It would be uncommonly jolly!” what is he alluding...

(The entire section is 477 words.)

Book I, Chapter 16: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. The “deadly statistical recorder” in Gradgrind’s study refers to what?

2. When is Louisa, for the first time, a little shaken in the reserved composure she adopts on her wedding day?

3. What does Mrs. Sparsit prefer that Mr. Bounderby call the “terms” (salary) of her employment?

4. What sort of factual knowledge do the wedding guests bring to the Gradgrind-Bounderby wedding feast?

5. Mrs. Sparsit says she has long been under the necessity of “eating the bread of dependence”; what in fact is her favorite supper dish?

6. What precaution does Mr. Bounderby take before communicating to Mrs. Sparsit the news of his upcoming...

(The entire section is 366 words.)

Book II, Chapters 1-3: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does Dickens declare that Coketown’s very existence is a wonder?

2. What “fiction of Coketown” takes the form of a threat?

3. The Fairy Palaces, on hot days, have the atmosphere of a what?

4. After office hours in Bounderby’s bank, what room does Mrs. Sparsit like to sit in?

5. What does Mrs. Sparsit like to think of herself as, and what do people passing by Bounderby’s bank think of her as?

6. Bitzer shows himself to be an “excellent young economist” in what remarkable instance?

7. Why does Mrs. Sparsit exclaim, “O you fool!” to herself, after Harthouse has left the bank?

8. In the sentences...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Book II, Chapters 4-5: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Dickens find notably lacking in the meeting of the Coketown workers?

2. The man who, in Slackbridge’s speech, “deserts his post, and sells his flag,” refers to whom?

3. A “strong voice” in the meeting hall calls for what?

4. Blackpool makes no complaint about being made into an outcast but asks that he be allowed just one thing. What thing is that?

5. Who during the meeting feels “more sorry than indignant” toward Blackpool?

6. What does Slackbridge, acting like “fugleman” (a drill sergeant) call for as soon as Stephen leaves the meeting hall?

7. What are Mr. Bounderby’s first words to Stephen, and...

(The entire section is 309 words.)

Book II, Chapter 6: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How does the strange old woman come to be in Rachael’s company?

2. What do Stephen, Rachael, and the old woman have for their tea, and how does the meal fulfill the standard testimony of the Coketown magnates that “these people lived like princes, Sir”?

3. What name does the old lady give herself and what does she say about her son?

4. Early on in her visit, what potentially hurtful question does Louisa ask Stephen?

5. Louisa learns that her husband’s firing of Stephen will have what effect upon Stephen’s reputation?

6. What does Dickens say about the manner in which Stephen accepts Louisa’s offer of help?

7. What...

(The entire section is 411 words.)

Book II, Chapters 7-8: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. According to Mr. Harthouse, what is the only difference between the “hard Fact fellows” and their opponents, the “philanthropists” and “professors of virtue”?

2. What does Mr. Harthouse write to his brother soon after his arrival in Coketown?

3. What does Mr. Bounderby say were the only pictures in his possession as a youth?

4. Who is the previous owner of Bounderby’s summer house?

5. In the course of their conversation in the forest clearing, Louisa confides to Harthouse that she has been doing what for her brother, Tom?

6. What is Tom doing as he walks through the trees on Bounderby’s estate, not knowing that Harthouse and...

(The entire section is 385 words.)

Book II, Chapter 9: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is Mrs. Sparsit always smoothing?

2. “Serve you right, you Noodle, and I am glad of it” is said by what character, and what does it mean?

3. The train to and from Bounderby’s country retreat passes over what kind of countryside?

4. Why does Dickens speak of Bitzer as a “fit servitor” at death’s door?

5. What “idol” has presided grimly over Louisa’s childhood?

6. Where is Mr. Gradgrind while his wife lies dying?

7. To whom has Louisa “never softened” since leaving home?

8. With what kind of feeling does Louisa go to see her mother?

9. With what “strange speech” does Mrs....

(The entire section is 276 words.)

Book II, Chapters 10-12: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Since when does Mrs. Sparsit complain of her nerves?

2. How does Harthouse describe Blackpool’s speech before Bounderby?

3. From the “House of Commons to the House of Corrections,” observes Mr. Harthouse, “there is a general profession of morality,” with, however, one exception. Which one is that?

4. The expression the “national cinder-heap” refers to what?

5. What rather odd piece of advice does Mrs. Sparsit give her employer?

6. In his study at Stone Lodge, Gradgrind is at work, “proving something.” What does Dickens suppose he is trying to prove?

7. When he hears a particularly loud clap of thunder from the...

(The entire section is 395 words.)

Book III, Chapters 1-2: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. The title of Chapter 1 refers back to which other chapter title, and why?

2. At first Louisa has an impression that all the events of her life since leaving her childhood room are like what?

3. What does Louisa allow her sister to do?

4. What kind of look does Louisa’s father have on his face?

5. What does Gradgrind say about himself with special earnestness, and that Dickens gives him credit for believing?

6. What is the belief that Mr. Gradgrind says he has never shared but that now he must consider afresh?

7. Why does Harthouse keep ringing his bell all night for the hotel porter?

8. Where does Harthouse look for...

(The entire section is 362 words.)

Book III, Chapter 3: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What is it that Gradgrind is surprised Bounderby has missed?

2. Asked to speak, Mrs. Sparsit is reduced to what?

3. What does Mr. Bounderby call Mr. Harthouse?

4. What does Gradgrind entreat Bounderby, for his own sake and for Louisa’s?

5. When Bounderby learns where Louisa is, he demands what from Mrs. Sparsit?

6. What does Mr. Bounderby advise his housekeeper to do when she returns to the bank?

7. Bounderby takes offense at Gradgrind’s use of which common form of address?

8. According to Bounderby, what is the nature of the “incompatibility” between him and his wife?

9. Why does Bounderby declare...

(The entire section is 308 words.)

Book III, Chapters 4-5: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does Mr. Bounderby think that, as a “commercial wonder,” he is more admirable than Venus?

2. What sum is offered as reward for the arrest of Stephen Blackpool?

3. Why is the placard describing Blackpool being read aloud?

4. What resolution concerning Stephen Blackpool does Slackbridge propose?

5. What is young Tom doing while Bounderby pursues his investigations?

6. Why does Mrs. Sparsit cry out “It’s a coincidence! It’s a Providence!” when she spots Rachael and Sissy outside of Bounderby’s house?

7. What “pension” has Bounderby supplied his mother with, in return for her silence?

8. Why do...

(The entire section is 348 words.)

Book III, Chapter 6: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why do Sissy and Rachael, as they walk together in the countryside, avoid mounds of high grass?

2. Why do Sissy and Rachael not wish to look closely at Stephen’s hat?

3. How does Sissy get Rachael to stop screaming?

4. Who holds the watch that tells how long the men have been down the shaft?

5. What can “practiced eyes” tell about the action of the windlass the first time it is brought up?

6. Which of the pitmen is the first to inform the crowd of Stephen’s condition?

7. What has broken Stephen’s fall?

8. Where was Stephen headed to before he fell?

9. What is Stephen’s first utterance after he...

(The entire section is 319 words.)

Book III, Chapter 7: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. The title of Chapter 7, “Whelp-Hunting,” refers to whom?

2. What does Gradgrind do as soon as he returns home from seeing Stephen Blackpool at the Old Hell Shaft?

3. What does Gradgrind tell Bounderby it is his duty to do?

4. At the outset of the family conference called by Gradgrind to discuss what to do about his son, what does Louisa say to encourage her father?

5. “Ten thousand pounds could not effect it,” says Gradgrind. What is “it”?

6. Mr. Bounderby’s “bullying vein of public zeal” might lead him to do what?

7. Where has Sleary’s Horse-Riding set up?

8. Who sells the tickets for the circus?...

(The entire section is 364 words.)

Book III, Chapters 8-9: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. As he is confiding his plans to Sissy, what does Sleary call Bitzer?

2. What does Mr. Gradgrind say is his last chance to soften Bitzer?

3. The reappearance of Merrylegs immediately suggests what to Mr. Sleary?

4. What is it that Sleary says people can’t always be doing?

5. According to Mr. Sleary, a promise from Gradgrind to do what will more than balance his account with the circus?

6. How does Bounderby decide he can get the most glory out of his employment of his housekeeper?

7. What does Mrs. Sparsit ask Mr. Bounderby not to do as he begins to speak to her?

8. Mrs. Sparsit says the portrait of Mr. Bounderby has...

(The entire section is 271 words.)