Book I, Chapter 9: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 584

Chapter 9: Sissy’s Progress

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Several months have passed since Sissy Jupe has moved into Stone Lodge. She has not done well at school; caring for Mrs. Gradgrind is hard, and she’s had “strong impulses” to run away. But the thought of her father stops her—she still has faith that he will return to her some day, and that he would prefer her to remain where she was. After all, it had been his idea to enroll her in Gradgrind’s school in the first place.

Mr. M’Choakumchild cannot give Gradgrind a favorable account of her performance. She is slow with figures; can grasp that the world is round but has no interest in its dimensions; cannot remember historical dates unless “something pitiful happened to be connected therewith”; bursts into tears when she is asked to do practical sums, and so on. Disappointed, Gradgrind nevertheless declares that Sissy must be “kept to it.”

One night, Sissy approaches Louisa and tearfully confides her school troubles. Louisa, intrigued by Sissy’s “wrong” answers, asks about her past life. Interrupted three times by an impatient Tom, who wants Louisa to come into the drawing room to meet Bounderby, Sissy tells the story of both her parents: about her mother, a dancer who died when Sissy was born, and her barely literate father who had somehow gotten the idea (perhaps from his wife, who was literate) that Sissy should be educated. Louisa asks if her father loved his wife, and why he left Sissy—only for her own good, insists Sissy, and because he had failed in his performances as a clown and felt himself to be a disgrace and no good to her.

Ever since this conversation, Louisa stops what she is doing when Sissy asks if there has been any word about her in the mail and looks “as earnestly as Sissy did” for the reply—which, however, is always the same: no.

The hail storm of fact that has broken over Sissy’s head every day for months has not altered her. She is still recognizably the same simple-hearted girl who was at a loss to define “horse” in M’Choakumchild’s classroom. Gradgrind’s project to “form” her anew, if it ever does succeed, has a long way to go.

Sissy’s poignant narrative of her past life makes us feel that if Gradgrind’s project depends on Sissy’s forgetting or shedding her past, it will never succeed. Sissy’s past is a part of her. So is the story she tells. For if Gradgrind or M’Choakumchild think in figures, Sissy, one might say, thinks in stories.

Notice how much essential rightness, at least from a humanitarian or Dickensian point of view, there is in Sissy’s “mistakes.” Take for example what she says when M’Choakumchild asks her what percentage 500 deaths by drowning or shipboard fires would be out of 100,000 taking long sea voyages. Her answer, “Nothing…nothing to the relations and friends of the people who were killed,” is a truth about suffering and the meaninglessness of statistics to the bereaved.

When Louisa asks Sissy if her father loved Sissy’s mother she is, we are made to feel, thinking of her own situation: of her parents’ loveless marriage and of Bounderby, whose attentions to her persist. The increasing selfishness of Tom, who for the sake of a dinner invitation is eager to subject her to those attentions, is thrown into high relief in this chapter.

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