Book II, Chapters 1-3: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828

Chapter 1: Effects in the Bank
Chapter 2: Mr. James Harthouse
Chapter 3: The Whelp

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New Character:
Mr. James Harthouse: a gentleman from London, newly recruited to Gradgrind’s party

It is the end of a hot summer day in Coketown, some time after Bounderby and Louisa’s wedding. Mrs. Sparsit is installed at the bank. Bitzer, Gradgrind’s diligent old pupil, now employed at the bank as a porter (and as Bounderby’s informant and spy) keeps her company while she consumes a late afternoon tea.

The conversation turns to Louisa’s brother Tom, whose presence in the bank Bitzer resents. Bitzer says Tom is a slacker with expensive habits, and that he wouldn’t be where he was if he didn’t have a “friend at court,” meaning his sister, Louisa.

A knock at the door interrupts their chat. Bitzer lets in a well-dressed man of 35 or so, well-spoken, handsome, a gentleman. He explains he is in Coketown to meet Mr. Bounderby, that he carries a letter of introduction to Bounderby from Mr. Gradgrind, and that he has been mistakenly directed to the bank by a passing mill hand. Mrs. Sparsit is only too happy to give him directions to Mr. Bounderby’s residence—and to enlighten him about the Bounderby family, especially Louisa.

The strange gentleman is Mr. James Harthouse, a man of good family who has done a little of everything in his time, and been bored by it all. Mr. Bounderby visits Harthouse at the hotel where he is staying, gives him the standard Bounderby version of Coketown, and invites Harthouse home for dinner, where he will be glad to introduce him to “Tom’s Gradgrind’s daughter.” (Bounderby habitually refers to his wife this way.)

Harthouse is duly introduced and finds himself intrigued by her combination of intelligent reserve and self-reliance, as well as the obvious embarrassment she exhibits over her husband’s boasting. When Tom enters the room, late for dinner, Harthouse is able to observe what Louisa’s face looks like when it softens toward someone she holds dear, and he likes what he sees. Suddenly Harthouse is very glad he has come to Coketown.

After dinner, Tom directs the visitor back to his hotel. When Harthouse invites him up for a smoke, Tom accepts immediately. The confidences about his sister that Harthouse has been looking for are not hard to coax out of the boy. It requires a little direct flattery here, a little indirect flattery there, and more and more drink. Before Tom passes out, he has told his new friend the whole story of Louisa’s unfortunate marriage, including his own part in the disaster.

The character James Harthouse is in part a study of an outsider, a well-born dilettante and amateur in a world dominated by professionals and parvenus like Bounderby who boast of their lack of family connections. An experienced traveler who seems to have no permanent roots, he views Coketown with the jaundiced eye of a tourist, and the Coketowners as curiosities. His “going in” for the Utilitarianism of the “hard fact men” is, for him, no more than a whim, although his new associates are distinctly pleased by the prospect of backing from a gentleman of his kind and take it seriously. Political power in England in 1854 was still very much contested between men like Bounderby and Gradgrind and the nonmanufacturing, nonmercantile upper classes whose wealth was in land. Aristocratic endorsement for the dogmas Bounderby and Gradgrind keep repeating would be rare enough to cherish, as Gradgrind and Bounderby do Harthouse.

Mr. Harthouse’s chief business in the story will be as a smooth-tongued seducer of Louisa, whose remoteness and evident lack of ease in her surroundings so intrigue him. From his first visit his lazy, humorous talk and correctness of manner make Bounderby look like a boor—not that just about anyone wouldn’t. But Louisa is not to be lured by him into cheap shots at her husband. Note the quiet but sharp rebuff she delivers to his somewhat clumsy mockery of Bounderby as “a noble animal in a comparatively natural state”: “You respect Mr. Bounderby very much…it is natural that you should.” Harthouse immediately feels himself to be “disgracefully thrown out, for a gentleman who has seen so much of the world.”

Harthouse is, in his facile way, intelligent—enough so to appreciate Louisa’s intelligence, anyway, or to come up with the perfectly apt phrase “the whelp” for her brother. He is in some ways as disgusted with what he sees in Coketown as Dickens. And he’s often very funny. Perhaps in order not to let him grow too much in the reader’s sympathies, Dickens now and again plants sinister, even supernatural suggestions about the smooth-tongued Harthouse. In Chapter 3, for example, he appears in a distinctly demonic light: he’s an “agreeable demon,” a “tempter,” who has only to “hover” over Tom to take away his soul.

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