Last Updated on February 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 621
In a plain, bare classroom, students sit in rows, listening to a speaker, a square-faced man who lectures them on the all-importance of Fact. This is Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, a “man of Realities, a man of facts and calculation.” He is accompanied in the classroom by two other adults: his schoolteacher, Mr. M’Choakumchild, a recent graduate of the new state-supported teacher training, and an unnamed man, a “government officer,” apparently inspecting the school in his official capacity.
Gradgrind calls on Sissy Jupe (as “girl number 20”), asks for her name and what her father does for a living, ascertains that he is one of the “horse riders” (performers) in Sleary’s Circus, and asks for her “definition of a horse.” Sissy is unable to give him the answer, but another student, the boy Bitzer, answers in the approved style: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders.”
The third man then addresses the children, asking them if they would decorate their houses with patterned wallpaper or cover their floors with flowered carpets. Sissy Jupe is again called upon and answers that she would very much like to decorate her home that way, missing the point that the gentleman is trying to develop, namely that “What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact” and that none of them are to have “any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact.” You don’t, he observes sarcastically, ever actually see horses going up and down walls or butterflies and birds on teapots; therefore, you should not permit these things in your homes.
The floor is then turned over to M’Choakumchild, who delivers his preparatory lesson, which looks to be everything Gradgrind could hope for in the way of a barrage of facts on assorted subjects but which Dickens does not record.
Hard Times opens with an angry speech delivered in a classroom. The manner and emphases of the speech seem better suited to a lecture or meeting hall than a room filled with children. In the second chapter we learn that the speaker, Thomas Gradgrind, is in the habit of addressing everyone in this emphatic, “I won’t be contradicted” tone.
The description of the classroom, “a plain, bare, monotonous vault,” is brief but evocative and is carried over in the description of the speaker: his hardness, dryness, and squareness. All this seems intended to convey, more even than through his words, the hardness and unfeeling nature of Gradgrind’s philosophy.
The children are called “little vessels” and “little pitchers.” The idea seems to be that they are to be “filled,” as a jug is filled with water, with factual knowledge. They are thus considered as entirely passive recipients, and what they learn is considered external to them.
That Gradgrind addresses Sissy Jupe as “girl number 20” is significant: it is meant to show how abstractly Gradgrind conceives of other people. His own name, of course, is evocative of what his beliefs have made of him: a sort of human “fact machine,” a grinder of fact. (Today’s expression “a grind,” used for an excessively hardworking student, one who takes no joy in life, is fairly close to what Dickens wished to connote by the name.) Other names in the novel are similarly indicative (often satirically) of their holders: “M’Choakumchild” is a typical example.
The title of chapter 2, “Murdering the Innocents,” is striking. Gradgrind is at one point even compared to a loaded cannon, “prepared to blow [the children] clean out of the regions of childhood at one discharge.” The metaphor is intended to underline how much harm Gradgrind is capable of doing. In effect, Dickens is accusing Gradgrind of killing the imagination of his pupils.