The main thematic conflict in Hard Times is between utilitarianism and humanism. The utilitarian philosophy represented by Mr. Gradgrind emphasizes reason and practicality at the cost of everything else—namely imagination and compassion for society's unfortunate members. He enforces this philosophy on his children, who grow up emotionally stunted and miserable as a result of only being fed "facts, facts, facts."
For example, much conflict arises from the miserable match Gradgrind makes between his daughter Louisa and his friend Bounderby as a result of this extremely practical but inhumane value system where marriage is made solely based on material benefit.
Sissy Jupe is Gradgrind's antithesis. She believes individuals must be valued regardless of how much money they make because people have inherent worth solely because they are human. Unlike Gradgrind and his fellow utilitarians, for Sissy Jupe, the ends can never justify the means.
The novel's main conflict has to do with Louisa's disastrous marriage to Mr. Bounderby and Tom's theft from Bounderby's bank. But the underlying conflict in Hard Times is the opposition of emotion and intellect. Mr. Gradgrind is the master of a school which ignores human sentiment and seeks to educate children only in facts. Life, in this way of thinking, becomes reduced to a series of cost-benefit analyses. Louisa marries Mr. Bounderby because the benefits of marrying into the wealthy Bounderby family outweigh her lack of feeling for Bounderby, who is about thirty years her senior.
However, Gradgrind's efforts to educate emotion out of his children only serve to make them vulnerable and miserable. Both Louisa and Tom fall victim to unexpected desires beyond their control: Louisa is seduced by Harthouse and leaves her husband; Tom is driven by avarice and selfishness to betray his employer's trust. In resolving these conflicts, Mr. Gradgrind comes to understand that feelings cannot be ignored. After Mrs. Sparsit reveals to Bounderby her belief that Louisa plans to elope with Harthouse, Bounderby demands his wife return to him immediately, but Gradgrind refuses, saying that Louisa herself must make up her own mind. Similarly, Gradgrind has to resort to assistance from the circus (the book's symbol of whimsy and imagination) to hide Tom and eventually help him elude Bounderby's men.