Book II, Chapters 10-12: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 918

Chapter 10: Mrs. Sparsit’s Staircase
Chapter 11: Lower and Lower
Chapter 12: Down

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The first chance Mrs. Sparsit gets to spy on Louisa and Mr. Harthouse at Bounderby’s country place, she can only watch them—watch them sit close together in the garden one evening, bending toward one another, their heads almost touching—but she can’t hear a word. They are talking about Blackpool, and whether he can be responsible for the robbery. Louisa is ready to give him the benefit of the doubt, but she acknowledges how little she knows about him or about any of the men and women of his class. Harthouse comes close to convincing her about Blackpool’s probable guilt, and they stroll off for a walk, followed all the while by Mrs. Sparsit’s eagle eye.

Back at the bank, with Bounderby away on business for a few days, Mrs. Sparsit keeps alert for any suspicious sign of progress in Mr. Harthouse’s campaign of seduction. Having learned from Tom that Harthouse plans to spend the evening with him in Coketown before going away for a while, Mrs. Sparsit leaps to the conclusion that Mr. Harthouse is putting Tom off, and that he is at that very moment with Tom’s sister. Impulsively, she hurries onto the train to Bounderby’s house in the country. She creeps through the woods and, hiding behind a tree, hears and sees Harthouse, who has himself arrived secretly and on horseback, profess his love many times and place his arm around Louisa’s waist.

Mr. Harthouse then rides away, leaving Louisa standing there in the woods, under the driving rain of a thunderstorm. Mrs. Sparsit, prevented by the storm and her own excitement from discovering how Louisa has responded to Harthouse’s outpourings, follows her back to the house, waits outside, and is beside herself with triumph when she sees Louisa leave the house, apparently on her way to elope. The now thoroughly rain-soaked, bedraggled housekeeper follows her back to Coketown by train but loses her at the station.

Louisa has gone straight to Stone Lodge, where her father, at home for the Parliamentary vacation, sits working in his study. She appears at his door, wet from the rain, and, sinking into a chair, asks her astonished father if he has trained her from her infancy. To his reply that, yes, he had, she announces that she “curses the hour I was born to such a destiny.”

Reminding him of their last long talk, when he had urged the marriage to Bounderby despite her obvious dislike of the man and unpreparedness for such a step, Louisa demands to know whether, had he any way of knowing then that there lingered in her breast “sensibilities, affections, weaknesses capable of being cherished into strength,” he would have allowed her to marry? More devastating questions follow, and her father, completely overcome by his daughter’s urgency and despair, is reduced to murmuring one-word replies.

Then at last Louisa tells him what she has come to say—that her heart, left uninstructed for years by anything in his teachings, has been stirred by another man. That she may indeed love him. That this man waits for her now—to tell him she would leave with him was the only way to get him to leave her alone. She does not feel sorry or ashamed or degraded; she only knows that nothing in Gradgrind’s philosophy can save her. She calls upon her father, now that he has brought her to where she is, to save her in some other way. And then she faints, falling at his feet.

These last chapters of the second book show Dickens’ mastery of suspense, humor, and dramatic encounter. The suspense is provided by Mrs. Sparsit’s metaphor (carried over in the chapter titles) of the staircase down which she sees Louisa descending and by her determined sleuthing and tracking down of the lovers. The occasion for humor is provided by Mrs. Sparsit’s almost lunatic eagerness and willingness to ruin her bonnet with standing in the rain, and her clothes by creeping through the forest, so that she comes to present an almost surreal appearance of “stagnant verdure on her general exterior, such as accumulates on an old park fence in a mouldy lane.” In Louisa’s superb confrontation with her father, Dickens draws on his feeling for the theater. Down to her fainting away, Louisa is transformed in these pages from a reserved, intelligent young woman who rarely shows her feelings to a passionate heroine in a melodrama.

Mr. Gradgrind’s part in that melodrama, we gather from Louisa’s speeches, has been that of one who has profoundly failed his obligations—who is as guilty as she is for the events that have brought her to him. Only she doesn’t feel guilty. But this too her father is answerable for—it is he who with his blind insistence on the cultivation of reason at the expense of affections has deprived her of any normal capacity to feel.

Louisa says she is not reproaching her father, but it is hard to see how else he could understand her. Throughout, Mr. Gradgrind exhibits no resistance to Louisa, none of the iron certainty in the rightness of his way that he has displayed in the past. He seems genuinely overcome, at a loss for words to respond to what his daughter tells him, and (despite what she says) is charging him with.

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Book II, Chapters 9: Summary and Analysis


Book III, Chapters 1-2: Summary and Analysis