Book I, Chapters 3-4: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 868

Chapter 3: A Loophole
Chapter 4: Mr. Bounderby

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New Characters:
Mr. Sleary: owner of “Sleary’s Horse-Riding,” an equestrian circus

Miss Josephine Sleary: his daughter, who performs in the circus

Signor Jupe: Sissy Jupe’s father, who performs with his trained dog, Merrylegs

Mr. Bounderby: a wealthy mill owner and banker

Mrs. Gradgrind: Thomas Gradgrind’s feeble wife

Adam Smith, Malthus, and Jane Gradgrind: the younger sons and infant daughter of Thomas Gradgrind

Mr. Gradgrind walks from his school to his home, Stone Lodge, built on a moor just outside Coketown, a “great town” in Northern England. He thinks with satisfaction about his school and his children, about how he intends all the pupils in the school to be model pupils, and how he believes his own children to be models of his strictly rational and practical approach to life and learning.

Reaching the outskirts of Coketown on his way home, Mr. Gradgrind hears the unexpected sound of band music from a traveling circus. Mr. Sleary himself can be seen at a ticket booth, and there is a poster identifying his daughter, Josephine, and Sissy Jupe’s father as performers. Mr. Gradgrind keeps going, paying no attention. But just then something does grab him: the sight of a group of school-aged children trying to peep into the circus. He puts on his eyeglass and is astonished to find his own Tom and Louisa looking on with the rest.

Mr. Gradgrind asks disapprovingly what they think they are doing there. Louisa says only that she “wanted to see what it was like.” But what would their friends think, Gradgrind asks reproachfully. What would Mr. Bounderby think?

As it happens, Mr. Bounderby himself is waiting for them at Stone Lodge, having dropped by to call on his old friend—and on Louisa. What he thinks about the circus episode is exactly what Mr. Gradgrind thinks—it seems they always agree perfectly.

A large, loud bald man in late middle-age, he is standing near the drawing-room fireplace telling Thomas Gradgrind’s invalid wife the story of his early life, when Gradgrind, Tom and Louisa return. Bounderby hits on a practical explanation for Tom and Louisa’s behavior and has a practical solution to propose. His explanation is that they must have been lured out to look at the circus people by their classmate, Sissy Jupe, who Bounderby has heard is “one of those stroller’s children,” and his solution is to have the girl kicked out of the school, right away. Gradgrind has Sissy’s father’s address and invites Bounderby to accompany him to Coketown to tell the father his daughter must leave.

While Gradgrind goes upstairs for the address, Bounderby walks into the children’s study, requests a kiss from Louisa, plants one on her “ungraciously” offered cheek, and sets forth with Mr. Gradgrind on their errand.

These two chapters move outward from the confinement of Gradgrind’s classroom and into Gradgrind’s world: Stone Lodge, his house on the edge of Coketown, his relations with his family and they with him, and his great friend Bounderby. Gradgrind’s home life is a dismal affair. His wife, whom he seems to have married for money, is practically an idiot, entirely absorbed in her own ailments, a “little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily” who “whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her.” The younger Gradgrinds—whose numbers include two named after Adam Smith, the great economist, and Thomas Malthus, the Utilitarian philosopher—have had their own childhoods taken away from them. They have never read a story book, never learned a nursery rhyme, “never known wonder.”

Gradgrind is not an ill-intentioned or evil man—Dickens even calls him “an affectionate father, after his manner.” But he is a prisoner to his system, unable to understand his own children. Their desire to see the circus—which anyone else would think perfectly normal—utterly baffles him.

Of Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa, we learn that she is a girl of 15 or 16, soon to be a woman, pretty, with an air of “jaded sullenness” that she shares with her younger brother. She gives her father a “searching look” when he asks her what Mr. Bounderby would think of her peeping at the circus, a look that, characteristically, her father misses. In fact there appears to be active dislike on Louisa’s part for Bounderby.

With his “great puffed head and forehead, swelled veins in his temples” and the “pervading appearance” of being “inflated like a balloon, and ready to start,” Mr. Bounderby is like a monstrous cartoon. He boasts constantly—as he does here to the helpless Mrs. Gradgrind—of being a “self-made” man, meaning someone who has risen unaided up the social ladder. In a memorable phrase, Dickens calls him the “bully of humility.” By this he means that Bounderby uses the squalor and misery of his upbringing—all the stories he tells in this chapter about being born in a ditch and raised as a vagabond—to put other people down, exactly as if he were claiming exalted birth and high connections.

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Book I, Chapters 1-2: Summary and Analysis


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