How would you define Mr. Gradgrind as a tragic figure in Hard Times by Charles Dickens?

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dashing-danny-dillinger eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Hard Times, Charles Dickens presents the sad, exaggerated Utilitarian philosophy of Thomas Gradgrind as a sort of tragedy. More specifically, Dickens examines how Gradgrind’s staunch pedagogical approach negatively affects his children, especially Louisa. Gradgrind is initially shown as a strict, Utilitarian caricature who emphasizes facts and rote memorization over imagination and critical thinking. Dickens opens chapter two by detailing Gradgrind’s unfortunate personality:

“A man of realities. A man of facts and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.... With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to” (6).

His strict nature affects his children and they have a hard time overcoming their father’s prescriptive values. Indeed, when Louisa seeks his advice on marrying the loathsome Bounderby, Gradgrind boils the situation down to statistics and facts rather than taking an empathetic stance on the subject. Louisa follows her father’s advice into a ruinous relationship. It is only at this point that Gradgrind realizes the error in his ways, and in turn grows as a human being.

“Aged and bent he looked, and quite bowed down; and yet he looked a wiser man, and a better man, than in the days when in this life he wanted nothing but Facts” (205).

While Gradgrind does transform, it is only after his daughter is forever affected by his teachings. This is why Gradgrind is a tragic character: he realizes the narrow scope of his Utilitarian values only after his daughter is ensnared in a poisonous relationship.

I pulled my textual support from the Norton Critical Edition, 3rd ed.