What is the conclusion of the novel Hard Times?

The conclusion of Hard Times tells the reader the fates of some of the major characters, including Mrs. Sparsit, Mr. Bounderby, Mr. Gradgrind, Tom, and Louisa. Of these, Louisa's is the last and happiest. Though she will not have her own children, she will love and be loved by Sissy's, improving their lives with the beauty and imagination so conspicuously absent from her own childhood.

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Hard Times is a favorite Charles Dickens book. It's also one of his shortest and least acclaimed. Those with an unfavorable opinion often say that Dickens's concern with making a statement about society overtook his concern with creating a compelling story.

Yet to understand the conclusion, we must try and get at Dickens's intent with the novel. What was Dickens trying to tell us about society and its preoccupation with empirical knowledge, or as Thomas Gradgrind says,

Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.

By the end of the novel, Gradgrind has reversed course. He believes in "Faith, Hope, and Charity." As for deceitful Josiah Bounderby, he dies. Does Louisa have children of her own? "Such a thing was never to be," Dickens tells us. However, she is loved by Sissy's kids.

Yet what strikes us most in the conclusion is the last paragraph. Dickens writes, "Dear reader! It rests with you and me, whether, in our two fields of action, similar things shall be or not."

The call to us, the reader, is jolting. It reminds us of calls-to-action we often see on social media. What are we supposed to do?

Maybe we should think about the times we've suppressed our inconvenient emotions in favor of more convenient, acceptable facts. Perhaps we should think about our own beliefs and if they are really helping us or actually hindering us. Remember how strongly Gradgrind championed facts? Maybe not all strong beliefs are as beneficial to us as we think they are.

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At the end of the novel, Mr. Bounderby stares into the fires and thinks about what the future holds for the characters of the novel. The narrator says that he sees his housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, living in "a mean, little airless lodging," looking after her great aunt Lady Scadgers.

He catches a glimpse of himself showing off the young Blitzer as his protege. Working together they will earn a fortune until in five year's time, when Bounderby will have a fit on Coketown street and die.

The narrator then moves to Gradgrind, who is looking thoughtful in his room. He sees himself moving into old age with a more relaxed frame of mind, finally letting go of the inflexible ideas he'd held, even though it could possibly lose him his political associates.

Louisa stares into her fire with a "gentler and a humbler face." She sees herself helping others but never marrying or having children.

Louisa, however, does see Sissy surrounded by happy children. She loves the children, and the children love her. She will "beautify their lives of machinery and reality with those imaginative graces and delights without which the heart of infancy will wither up."

Louisa's brother, Tom, will try to get back to her,...

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but he will die of fever on the voyage home. She will receive a letter stating that her name was the last words he spoke.

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The final chapter of Hard Times is simply called "Final." The first section deals with the quarrel between Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit, which leads them to part acrimoniously. The second section then briefly sketches what the future holds in store for certain major characters, beginning with these two. Mrs. Sparsit is doomed to a miserable life of poverty and futile quarrels with Lady Scadgers in her cramped quarters, while Bounderby will only live five more years before dying of a fit in the street, leaving all his wealth for grandiose memorials to himself in a will that is destined to furnish years of squabbling between lawyers.

Mr. Gradgrind, it seems, will relax his formerly inflexible theories, though his political associates will despise him for it. He will publish the truth about his son, Tom, and exonerate Stephen Blackpool from all suspicion. Tom Gradgrind himself is to die of fever in a hospital, never able to see Louisa again, though he thinks of her constantly, and her name will be his last breath. Louisa herself is never to be a wife and mother, but Sissy's children will love her, and she will love them, filling their childhood with the beauty and imagination of which she and Tom were starved by her "eminently practical" father.

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At the end of this excellent novel, we are shown the futures that the omniscient and god-like narrator assigns to each of the central characters. There does seem to be a certain extent to which good characters are given good endings and "bad" characters are given what they deserve. For example, Bounderby is exposed as a big fraud and an imminent death, Mrs. Sparsit it sent away to an uncertain and rather grim future with Lady Scadgers. Tom does escape being arrested but realises the errors of his ways to late and dies pining for his sister. Sissy, as befitting her morally good character, lives happily. The one exception is the fate of Stephen Blackpool. Although it appears he welcomes death as an ending to what has been for him a rather miserable life, he dies leaving Rachel to face the struggles of life alone without him.

However, there are some characters who are not classified into the narrow categories of "good" and "bad," and these characters offer somewhat more interesting endings to be considered. Mr. Gradgrind for example is ironically forced to rely on the circus, which he at the beginning of the novel deplored as the place of fantasy and everything that opposed his fact-based philosophy, to save his son. He is left at the end of the novel trying to help the poor but receiving scorn from the very politicians he helped establish.

Louisa as well is a very interesting example of a character whose fate we might wish to debate. We are told that she has a very close relationship with Sissy's children and yet no family of her own. On the one hand, she has her liberty and is not trapped by either Harthouse or Bounderby, yet on the other hand her lonely existence could be regarded as slightly unjust, and we are left questioning to what extent she was responsible for her own fate and how much is her father to blame.

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