Last Updated on February 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
The years pass, bringing change to the inhabitants of Gradgrind’s establishment. Gradgrind has been elected to Parliament, as a member for Coketown. Sissy Jupe, through with school (Gradgrind sees no point in her continuing; her performance there has been as consistently disappointing as her services to the family have been appreciated), has been asked to stay on at Stone Lodge under Gradgrind’s protection. Tom, as expected, has gone to work for Mr. Bounderby’s bank. He lives with Bounderby now, working hard during the day but enjoying his evenings. If Bounderby comes on too strong, all he has to do is mention his sister and he softens—which is just what Tom said would happen, back when Louisa gazed into the fire, wondering what the future would bring.
Louisa herself, Mr. Gradgrind has to acknowledge, is now really not just “almost a young woman” but “quite a young woman.” They must talk; father and daughter need to have a serious conversation. He asks her to see him in his study after breakfast the next morning.
The serious conversation takes place as scheduled. Gradgrind tells Louisa that Bounderby has asked him for her hand in marriage. Bounderby has, he says, “long watched your progress with particular interest and pleasure.” Louisa wants to know if her father thinks she loves Mr. Bounderby. Gradgrind says he cannot tell. Does he wish her to love Mr. Bounderby? Her father, at first unsure how to answer, advises her to consider her decision strictly on the basis of Fact. What are the Facts in the case? He’s much older than she is, but (particularly when the latest available statistics on marriage are taken into account) that need not be viewed as an obstacle. In every other respect, Gradgrind says, they are suitably matched.
The “only remaining question” then becomes, Gradgrind tells his daughter, “Shall I marry him?” All along Louisa has been looking very searchingly at her father. A moment comes when she might have opened up to him, showing him “the pent-up confidences in her heart.” But the moment passes, and Louisa, remarking, “What does it matter?” asks her father to tell Bounderby that “since he likes to take me thus, I am satisfied to accept his proposal.”
Mr. Gradgrind and Louisa go to the drawing room, where her mother is lying down, attended by Sissy. Mr. Gradgrind introduces Louisa as “Mrs. Bounderby.” Her mother congratulates Louisa and starts worrying what she is going to call her new son-in-law: “Josiah” won’t do, and “Joe” is out of the question. Sissy, when she hears Mr. Gradgrind’s announcement, looks toward Louisa with “a multitude of emotions,” in which appear wonder, pity, sorrow, and doubt.
Mr. Gradgrind, who has up to now shown more than a few traces of ordinary humanity, in chapter 15 is shown once more as a fanatic, a man so blindly and willfully devoted to his principles and his system that he fails to perceive his own daughter’s true feelings about the proposal of marriage he conveys to her. In a sense, the completeness of his failure can be traced to the “success” of his system as it has worked to form Louisa into the person she is. If Louisa had not been raised in an environment kept purposefully free of all sentiment, her own feelings would not be so hidden from herself and from all others, including her father.
The scene between Louisa and her father has a significance beyond Dickens’s objections to Gradgrind’s educational philosophy, however. In its depiction of the barriers to communication that can rise up between parent and child, thwarting understanding and love, Dickens has tapped deep into some unhappy truths about human relations across the generations.
It is interesting to think what a Victorian reader would be likely to make of chapter 15. Nineteenth-century mythology held the authority and wisdom of the father, the paterfamilias, sacred; here is a father whose every word of advice and counsel could not be more grievously mistaken and harmful. For a young woman, as for her parents—especially her mother—marriage was regarded by the Victorians as a uniquely joyous and significant event; but here is Louisa, saying what does it matter, and her mother worrying about what to call her son-in-law.
Chapter 14 is primarily a transitional chapter, intended to register the passing of time, advance the characters, and keep the story moving, with no big dramatic scene. But notice the complexity and evocativeness of the extended metaphor giving the chapter its title and its structure: the idea of time as a great manufacturer. The closing sentences, in which Old Time appears as “that greatest and longest-established Spinner of them all,” whose factory is “a secret place, and whose Hands are mutes,” is particularly suggestive.