Dickens’s specific, satirical writing style is widely known for its uniqueness and ability to entertain the reader. Furthermore, it is also quite detailed, picturesque, and often poetic and, as such, doesn’t require an in-depth analysis of the plot in order to understand the point. When it comes to his characters and the narration, Dickens tends to keep it simple and avoids complex descriptions that carry a deeper meaning. However, in his sociological novel Hard Times, Dickens chose to incorporate a plethora of symbols and metaphors and thus create a captivating tale. One apt example of this is Mrs. Sparsit’s Staircase.
Mrs. Sparsit’s Staircase is the tenth chapter of Book II: Reaping. In it, Mrs. Sparsit—an unkind and jealous woman with a manipulative nature, creates an imaginary staircase that represents the interesting relationship between Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa and James Harthouse. Even though she is married to Mr. Bounderby, Louisa finds herself getting closer and closer to Mr. Harthouse. Mrs. Sparsit, being enamored with Mr. Bounderby herself, is a silent watcher from the sidelines and desperately hopes that Louisa will eventually act on her desires and cheat on her husband. The staircase she envisions in her mind is a symbol of the gradual fall and degeneration of Louisa’s morality and her path towards sin and adultery.
Now, Mrs. Sparsit was not a poetical woman; but she took an idea in the nature of an allegorical fancy, into her head. Much watching of Louisa, and much consequent observation of her impenetrable demeanor, which keenly whetted and sharpened Mrs. Sparsit’s edge, must have given her as it were a lift, in the way of inspiration. She erected in her mind a mighty Staircase, with a dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom; and down those stairs, from day to day and hour to hour, she saw Louisa coming.
What is interesting about this allegory is the fact that Dickens gives Louisa a choice. When walking down Mrs. Sparsit’s metaphorical staircase, Louisa is always in control of her body and her emotions. She doesn’t hesitate, she doesn’t doubt her desires, nor does she question her ability to make rational decisions. She walks down the steps willingly and has every opportunity to stop and walk back up, or in other words, to put a stop to her near love affair with Mr. Harthouse. She may be wooed by a not so honorable man, but no one is compelling her to commit sin and adultery; she walks the path on her own free will, much to the pleasure of Mrs. Sparsit.
Although she comes close to cheating on her husband with Mr. Harthouse, Louisa never quite reaches the bottom of the stairs and never begins an actual relationship with him. Instead, she chooses to return to her father, which means that she neither walked down the stairs towards a sinful affair with Mr. Harthouse, nor walked up the stairs to an unhappy marriage to Mr. Bounderby. With her decision to go back home, separated from both her husband and her almost lover, Louisa destroys Mrs. Sparsit’s imaginary staircase and manages to save what is left from her honor and morality and redeem herself of sin.