Hard Times Summary

Hard Times by Charles Dickens is a novel about a school superintendent named Thomas Gradgrind who raises his children, Tom and Louisa, strictly.

  • Gradgrind considers expelling a girl named Sissy Jupe for being a bad influence on his children. Realizing that Sissy’s father has abandoned her, he lets her stay.
  • When Louisa comes of age, she marries her father’s friend Mr. Bounderby. Her brother, Tom, who works at Mr. Bounderby’s bank, urges her to do this.
  • Tom falls into debt and robs Mr. Bounderby’s bank, a crime for which a mill worker named Stephen Blackpool is initially blamed.

Summary

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Last Updated on January 12, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1301

Mr. Thomas Gradgrind raises his children on facts and facts alone. Along with the schoolmaster, Mr. M’Choakumchild, he runs a school where children learn piles of facts and nothing else. Sissy Jupe, one of the students and the daughter of a circus man, fails to define “horse.” The boy Bitzer does instead. The children learn that fancy is never acceptable, only facts.

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As he walks home to Stone Lodge, Mr. Gradgrind, whom the narrator describes as “an eminently practical” man, notices “Sleary’s Horse-Riding,” the circus in which Sissy’s father, Signor Jupe, performs with his dog, Merrylegs. Mr. Gradgrind is horrified to find two of his children, Louisa and Tom, peeping at the show. He scolds them for their idleness and folly. Louisa is unrepentant and says she is tired of everything.

Back at Stone Lodge, Mr. Bounderby, who is Mr. Gradgrind’s friend, is telling Mrs. Gradgrind all about his horrible childhood. Born in a ditch, abandoned by his mother, raised by a drunken grandmother, and generally abused all around, Mr. Bounderby now takes pride in being a self-made man. The listening Mrs. Gradgrind, a weak woman physically and mentally, hardly knows how to respond. She is displeased with the behavior of her children, and the two men agree that Sissy Jupe must be the bad influence.

When Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, however, go to visit Sissy’s father in a poor area of Coketown (the industrial city where the Grandgrinds and Mr. Bounderby live), they learn that he has abandoned the girl. Mr. Gradgrind offers Sissy a place in his home and school as long as she forgets her circus friends. Mr. Sleary, head of the circus, offers her an apprenticeship. Knowing that her father wants her to have an education, Sissy chooses to go with Mr. Gradgrind.

Mr. Bounderby’s housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, is a woman born into high society but impoverished by her marriage and early widowhood. Sissy remains at the Bounderby home for a little while until Mr. Gradgrind decides firmly what to do with her. He determines to make her a helper to his wife, but she must focus on facts. The Gradgrinds, after all, are forbidden to wonder or imagine.

Tom and Louisa are dissatisfied with their life and education. Tom will be apprenticed to Mr. Bounderby soon, and he intends to use Louisa’s influence over the man to his own advantage. Sissy struggles in her new position, for she is not a girl guided by facts but by common sense and compassion. She will not accept that her father has left her permanently.

The scene then shifts to the “Hand” Stephen Blackpool. He is in love with another Hand named Rachael but married to a drunken woman who is often absent. That night Stephen’s wife returns to his room, and the next day Stephen goes to Mr. Bounderby for advice. Mr. Bounderby tells him nothing can be done. Divorce is too expensive. Stephen is married, and he had better mind his work and accept his fate. Stephen laments over this “muddle.”

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As he leaves Mr. Bounderby’s home, Stephen meets an old woman in the street who asks him how Mr. Bounderby is doing. When Stephen returns home, Rachael is there, caring for his wife. She tells him to sleep for a while, and Stephen awakens later to find Rachael dozing and his wife on the verge of taking poison. Rachael starts up just in time to prevent that. Stephen calls her an angel.

Time passes. Sissy finishes school but stays in the Gradgrind home. Tom is apprenticed to Mr. Bounderby. One day, Mr. Gradgrind tells Louisa that Mr. Bounderby has asked to marry her. Louisa is apathetic toward life by this point, and she agrees to the proposal. Eight weeks later, Louisa and Mr. Bounderby marry. Tom is pleased because he thinks Louisa’s position will work in his favor. Mrs. Sparsit decides to pity Mr. Bounderby and treat him like a victim of his marriage.

The next year, Mrs. Sparsit is living at the bank as its keeper with the assistance of Bitzer, who is now a light porter. Tom Gradgrind works there, too, quite unsuccessfully. Mr. James Harthouse arrives in town on a letter of introduction from Mr. Gradgrind to Mr. Bounderby. Mr. Harthouse is a bored young gentleman, but he is decidedly intrigued by Louisa. He quizzes Tom about her but is unimpressed and even disgusted by the young man’s attitude.

Meanwhile, the Hands are gathered in their Hall to listen to the organizer Slackbridge, who is encouraging them to unite against the owners. Stephen will not join them, and they shun him. Mr. Bounderby calls Stephen in to see him, and Stephen tries to explain the problem with the workers and their poor conditions. Only treating them like human beings will help. Mr. Bounderby fires Stephen, who knows that he will have great difficulty finding work in the future.

Louisa visits Stephen, who has met up with Rachael and the woman he encountered once before, a Mrs. Pegler. Louisa gives Stephen some money, but he will accept it only as a loan. Tom takes him aside and tells him to loiter at the bank for an hour each evening because there might be an opportunity for him. Stephen does this, but nothing happens. Then he leaves Coketown.

Mr. Harthouse has decided to seduce Louisa, and he gains her confidence by listening to her troubles with regard to Tom, who is deeply in debt. Tom is horribly agitated when Mr. Harthouse speaks with him.

The next day, Mr. Bounderby arrives with the news that the bank has been robbed. He is sure that Stephen Blackpool is the culprit. Mrs. Sparsit, shaken by the robbery, stays at the Bounderby estate, still pitying Mr. Bounderby for his marriage and imagining Louisa descending a staircase to ruin due to her association with Mr. Harthouse.

When Mr. Bounderby leaves on a business trip, Mrs. Sparsit is determined to catch Louisa and Mr. Harthouse in a compromising position. She overhears Mr. Harthouse declare his love for Louisa. Louisa leaves the house soon after but goes to her father’s home (her mother died a while before) for protection and help. She laments the limitations of her education and life, and Mr. Gradgrind realizes he has made a horrible mistake in bringing up his children. Sissy cares for Louisa, who asks for her compassion and help.

Sissy visits Mr. Harthouse and tells him he will not see Louisa again and must leave Coketown for good. Mrs. Sparsit hurries to get Mr. Bounderby, who storms into the Gradgrind home only to be told that Louisa is under her father’s protection. Mr. Bounderby refuses to allow Louisa time away and renounces her as his wife.

Mr. Bounderby puts up notices accusing Stephen of the robbery. Rachael denies it. She has written to Stephen, and he will return in two days to clear his name. He does not show. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sparsit finds the mysterious woman, Mrs. Pegler, who turns out to be Mr. Bounderby’s mother. He is not a self-made man after all, at least not as he claims.

Sissy and Rachael go walking in the country one Sunday and find Stephen’s hat. He has fallen down a mine shaft and is badly injured. Before he dies, he asks Mr. Gradgrind to clear his name. It becomes evident that Tom Gradgrind is the real robber. Sissy arranges for Tom to go to Mr. Sleary to be sent out of the country, and this happens even after the interference of Bitzer. Mr. Gradgrind reveals the truth and clears Stephen. Louisa does not return to Mr. Bounderby but discovers life beyond facts and devotes herself to caring for the poor.

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