Josiah Bounderby is described as "a big, loud man, with a stare, and a metallic laugh," and he is often associated with images of swelling or inflating. His great claim to fame is that he is an entirely self-made man. He insists that he was born in a gutter—one filled with water—with no shoes. When he was sent to live with his grandmother, the cruelest woman ever and an alcoholic to boot, she would sell his his shoes, if he had any, to buy more liquor.
Based on this story of making himself wealthy entirely by his own efforts and self-discipline, without the help of anyone, Bounderby feels he has the right to pass judgment on his factory workers. If he could make it with no help, they should be able to as well—or accept their lot as life's losers. Although his workers toil in miserable and unhealthy conditions for very low wages, he considers them whiners who want, in his words, to be fed
turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon.
The problem with Bounderby, however, is that his story of being self-made is a complete fabrication. It is a self-serving story that allows him to oppress others—he is as, the narrator says, "the bully of humility," using his own supposed humble story to bully those around him. He has even bought off his own mother to stay away from him so that he can continue with his lie—a lie he comes to believe is true.
However, when Bounderby's mother, Mrs. Pegler, does arrive, she exposes Bounderby as the fraud he is, stating convincingly that
he come of parents that loved him as dear as the best could, and never thought it hardship on themselves to pinch a bit that he might write and cipher beautiful, and I've his books at home to show it!
In lesser hands than Dickens's, Bounderby could have been the one-dimensional stereotype of the hard-hearted industrialist who exploits his workers without mercy, but Dickens's genius was for drawing realistic characters. Bounderby is fully human in his need to find a narrative to justify his exploitation: were he a less realistic figure, he simply would have been content to be a heartless monster for no reason. And while we might not quite feel sorry for Bounderby, we feel some of the pathos of his loss of his sustaining myth. As he says goodbye to the people who have heard his mother speak,
who he knew would carry what had passed to the whole town, to be given to the four winds, he could not have looked a Bully more shorn and forlorn.