Thomas Gradgrind, proprietor of an experimental private school in Coketown, insists that the children under him learn only facts. He believes that the world has no place for fancy or imagination. His own five children are models of a factual education. Never having been permitted to learn anything of the humanities, they are ignorant of literature and any conception of human beings as individuals. Even fairy tales and nursery rhymes had been excluded from their education.
One day, as he walks from the school to his home, Gradgrind is immensely displeased and hurt to find his two oldest children, Louisa and Tom, trying to peek through the canvas walls of a circus tent. It eases his mind even less to discover that the two youngsters are not at all sorry for acting against the principles under which they had been reared and educated. Later, Gradgrind and his industrialist friend, Mr. Josiah Bounderby, discuss possible means by which the children might have been misled from the study of facts. They conclude that another pupil, Sissy Jupe, whose father is a clown in the circus, had influenced the young Gradgrinds.
Having decided to remove Sissy Jupe from the school, Bounderby and Gradgrind set out immediately to tell the girl’s father. When they arrive at the inn where the Jupes are staying, they find that the father has deserted his daughter. Moved by sentiment, Gradgrind decides to keep the girl in his home and to let her be educated at his school, all against the advice of Bounderby, who thinks Sissy Jupe will only be a bad influence on the Gradgrind children.
Years pass, and Louisa and young Tom have matured. Gradgrind knows that Bounderby, who is thirty years his daughter’s elder, has long wished to marry Louisa. Educated away from sentiment, she agrees to marry Bounderby. Tom, an employee in Bounderby’s bank, is very glad to have his sister marry Bounderby; he wants a friend to help him if he gets into trouble there. In fact, he advises his sister to marry Bounderby for this reason, and she, loving her brother, agrees to help him by marrying the wealthy banker.
Bounderby is very happy to be married to Louisa. After his marriage, he places his elderly housekeeper in a room at the bank. Mrs. Sparsit dislikes Louisa and is determined to keep an eye on her for her employer’s sake. After the marriage, all seems peaceful at the bank, at the Gradgrind home, and at the Bounderby residence.
In the meantime, Gradgrind had been elected to Parliament from his district. He sends out from London an aspiring young politician, James Harthouse, who is to gather facts about the industrial city of Coketown, facts that are to be used in a survey of economic and social life in Britain. To facilitate the young man’s labors, Gradgrind gives him a letter of introduction to Bounderby, who immediately tells Harthouse the story of his career from street ragamuffin to industrialist and banker. Harthouse thinks Bounderby is a fool, but he is greatly interested in the pretty Louisa.
Through his friendship with Bounderby, Harthouse meets Tom Gradgrind, who lives with the Bounderbys. Harthouse takes advantage of Tom’s drinking problem to learn more about Louisa. He had heard that she had been subjected to a dehumanizing education, and feels that she will be easy prey for seduction because of her loveless marriage to the pompous Bounderby. For these reasons, Harthouse decides to test Louisa’s virtue. Before long, Harthouse gains favor in her eyes. Neither realizes, however, that Mrs. Sparsit, jealous and resenting her removal from the comfortable Bounderby house, spies on them constantly.
Everyone is amazed to learn one day that thieves had taken money from the Bounderby bank. The main suspect is Stephen Blackpool, an employee whom Bounderby had mistreated. Blackpool, who had been seen loitering in front of the bank, had disappeared on the night of the theft. Suspicion also falls on Mrs. Pegler, an old woman known to have been in Blackpool’s company. A search for Blackpool and Mrs. Pegler proves fruitless. Bounderby seems content to wait; he says that the culprits will turn up sooner or later.
The affair between Louisa and Harthouse reaches a climax when Louisa agrees to elope with the young man. Her better judgment, however, causes her to return to her father instead of running away with her lover. Gradgrind is horrified to see what his education had done to Louisa’s character, and he tries to make amends to her. The situation is complicated by Mrs. Sparsit, who learns of the proposed elopement and tells Bounderby. He angrily insists that Louisa return to his home. Realizing that his daughter had never loved Bounderby, Gradgrind insists that she be allowed to make her own choice. Harthouse disappears, giving up all hope of “winning” Louisa.
Mrs. Sparsit returns to act as Bounderby’s housekeeper during Louisa’s absence and tries to reinstate herself in Bounderby’s confidence by tracing down Mrs. Pegler. To her chagrin, Mrs. Pegler turns out to be Bounderby’s mother. Bounderby is furious, for his mother disproves his boasts about being a self-made man. Meanwhile, Louisa and Sissy Jupe accidentally find Blackpool, who had fallen into a mine shaft while returning to Coketown to prove his innocence in the bank theft. After his rescue, he tells them that Tom Gradgrind is the real culprit. When the young man disappears, his sister and father find him with the help of Sissy Jupe. They place Tom, disguised, in a circus until arrangements can be made to spirit him out of the country. Before he can escape, however, Bounderby’s agents find Tom and arrest him. With the aid of the circus roustabouts, he is rescued and put on a steamer that carries him away from the police and Bounderby’s vengeance.
Mrs. Sparsit, who had caused Bounderby great embarrassment by producing Mrs. Pegler, is discharged from his patronage, much to her chagrin. Bounderby himself dies unhappily in a fit a few years later. The Gradgrinds, all of them victims of an education of facts, continue to live unhappily, unable to see the human side of life.