This shorter work of Dickens is a cross-breed somewhere between a social satire and a more seriously staged saga. In a series of highly unlikely circumstances, confrontation between the classes shapes the destiny of an array of different characters. However, it particularly focuses on the llife choices of a brother and sister, Tom and Louisa Gradgrind. The story line traces their lives from a strict upbringing through early adulthood and marriage, including such leit motifs as love vs duty, sentiment vs reason, etc. The overshadowing influence of Thomas Gradgrind, their father, adds intrigue and depth:
Two other pupils of Gradgrind’s prove important to the story: the naturally affectionate Sissy Jupe, the daughter of a performer in Sleary’s Circus (a traveling troupe of clowns, jugglers, and horseback riders), and Bitzer, an emotionless, eerily pale boy who absorbs all of Gradgrind’s precepts. When Sissy’s father abandons her, Gradgrind takes her into his household, making her a companion to his ailing wife. Sissy turns out to be a faithful friend to Louisa and Tom; the calculating, cold-hearted Bitzer, her opposite, turns on his old mentor in the end.
Another subplot involves confrontation between a union leader (Slackbridge) and a factory worker (Blackpool) who is unjustly framed for robbery. Blackpool slips and falls to his death in a mine shaft while trying to clear his name.
The autobiographical nature of this novel cannot be denied. Dickens knew first-hand about precarity, and his life with its rollercoaster "ups" and "downs" reads like a rags-to-riches story in hyperbole. Dickens, though, never forgot the difficult moments of his youth and used his writings as a forum for social protest.
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