Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 896
Chapter 7: Gunpowder
Chapter 8: Explosion
Ever since being dazzled, on the evening he first met Louisa, by the affectionate smile she gave to her brother, James Harthouse has wanted the same smile turned on him. His conversion to Bounderby and Gradgrind’s political and economic views, his making himself an intimate of the Bounderby household, his becoming a frequent guest at Mr. Bounderby’s newly acquired summer house—all have had this same end in view.
Mr. Harthouse knows from Tom’s indiscretions the night he got the boy drunk that his sister has entered a loveless marriage for his sake. He also senses that if he appears to take an interest in Tom he will gain her confidence. Accordingly, when Harthouse finds Louisa alone in her favorite spot on the grounds of Bounderby’s estate, a secluded clearing in the woods, it is of her brother, and of her brother’s problems, chiefly his habit of gambling, that he speaks.
When Tom himself appears through the trees, Harthouse draws him aside for a private talk. Strolling with Tom through Mr. Bounderby’s rose garden, Harthouse offers to settle his gambling debts, asking in return only that he act more kindly toward his sister. Tom seems extraordinarily moody and distracted—he keeps tearing up rosebuds, scattering their petals, even chewing the buds. Harthouse’s offer to “be his banker,” intended to set his mind at ease, has the opposite effect. Apparently, no amount of money from Harthouse would be of any help now.
The following evening, pleased with his progress in gaining Louisa’s confidence, Mr. Harthouse is riding back from a public meeting when Bounderby suddenly bursts into view, shouting that his bank has been robbed. It seems a small safe in which Tom routinely locked up the petty cash has been broken into, and about 150 pounds taken. Bounderby suspects Blackpool—he was observed by Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer loitering outside the bank for several nights in a suspicious manner—and several others, including an old woman known to have been in Blackpool’s company.
Mr. Bounderby has come from the bank with Bitzer and a nervous Mrs. Sparsit. He invites Mrs. Sparsit to stay on at his country house so that she can recover from the shock of the robbery. Tom is still at the bank, busy with the police. Louisa, terribly worried about him and what he might have had to do with the robbery, waits up for his return.
It is after midnight when Tom returns. Dressed only in a loose robe, Louisa steals into his room, where he lies on his bed pretending to be asleep. She asks him—begs him, really—if he has anything special to tell her, and “taking him to her bosom as if he were a child,” assures him she will save him no matter what he might have done. Tom protests that he has nothing to say and keeps telling her to go to bed. Louisa asks him if she should mention their having been to see the suspected man, Stephen Blackpool. Saying that it’s up to her, Tom gives her a false explanation of what he had said to Stephen that night and again urges her to go to bed. When she leaves, he gets up, locks the door, throws himself on his pillow, and gives way to a flood of tears.
Mr. Bounderby’s reaction to the bank robbery, his absurd need to magnify the crime, is at first merely laughable, like so much of what he says and does. But then his readiness to assign blame and convict the wrong-doers ahead of time suddenly makes him seem not simply ludicrous or vulgar—the usual impression given by his bluster—but actually dangerous, both capable of and prone to acts of real injustice. Although he is less positive, Mr. Harthouse is shown to share in the prejudice underlying the automatic assumption that a worker is to blame.
To the existing number of “philosophers” in Hard Times, we must now add James Harthouse. For all his newfound interest in Utilitarianism, Harthouse doesn’t really believe in anything. He thinks everyone is a hypocrite, that all opinions are hollow (including his own). His favorite motto, “whatever will be, will be” sums up his essentially detached, planless outlook on life. The “Harthouse philosophy,” Dickens believes, makes him peculiarly attractive to Louisa. Apart from the obvious advantages that he possesses over her husband—relative youth, charm of manner—advantages that make her vulnerable to his amorous advances, his essential nihilism sounds an answering chord in her. It was Louisa, after all, who had replied “what does it matter?” when her father proposed her husband.
The scene between Louisa and her brother that closes Chapter 8, however, might well make the reader wonder whether Mr. Harthouse could ever hope to compete with Tom for Louisa’s love. Louisa’s appeal to Tom is so passionate that it goes beyond ordinary sisterly affection; the scene has an excited, incestuous quality which is hinted at in Louisa’s state of undress, the lateness of the hour, and the quasi-maternal embrace she gives Tom. Louisa’s absorption in her brother can be better understood when we consider that the emotional side of Louisa’s nature, starved and stunted under Gradgrind, has all her life been entirely wrapped around her brother.
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