Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 619
Chapter 9: Hearing the Last of It
Mrs. Sparsit, invited to stay on at Bounderby’s country retreat “to recover the tone of her nerves,” settles in to her old role as housekeeper and her new, self-appointed, role as spy. She reclaims her place at Bounderby’s table and prowls around the house, keeping her sharp eyes on its inhabitants.
A hastily written note arrives from Stone Lodge, carried by Bitzer, informing Louisa that her mother is seriously ill. Louisa immediately travels to her old home to be at her mother’s side. She finds her mother as usual propped up on a couch, with Sissy as ever in attendance. Jane, Louisa’s sister, now a girl of 11, is also in the room.
Mrs. Gradgrind is so weak, and she is so wrapped in shawls, that her voice sounds as if it were coming from the bottom of a well. Her mind, never very consecutive, wanders into odd corners. When her eldest daughter is announced, she reverts to the puzzle that confronted her when Louisa’s marriage to Bounderby was announced: what name to call her son-in-law. Mrs. Gradgrind asks for Jane to be brought forward, so that Louisa can see how much she is beginning to resemble her older sister.
The resemblance of Jane and Louisa reminds her mother of something she had wanted to speak to Louisa about. Evidently it is something she wants only Louisa to hear, as she asks Sissy to leave the room. She says that Louisa and her brother learned a lot, studying their “Ologies.” But that there was something, “not an Ology at all,” that their father missed or had forgotton. What was it? She asks for a pen, to write to her husband and ask him what it might be. Just then, scribbling “figures of wonderful no-meaning” with an imaginary pen, she dies.
What Mrs. Sparsit’s sharp eyes search out—the intimacy Harthouse is establishing with Louisa, the indifference of Louisa to her husband’s comfort or views—confirms her in the poor opinion that she had always held of Bounderby’s marriage. Fundamentally, she has lost whatever respect she may have once had for her employer. Her new attitude can be seen in her habit of openly pitying, and secretly scorning, Mr. Bounderby, as she does when she shakes her fist at his portrait.
Mrs. Gradgrind’s character has been the least significant, perhaps, of all the characters in the novel, certainly never present for Louisa as a daughter might hope her mother would be. She has been hardly present for anyone, including the reader, except as the source of inane remarks. And yet her death scene is unexpectedly moving. The reader seems to see her for the first time, to become aware of her as a real person who can think, as the weird brilliance of her remark “I think there’s a pain somewhere in the room…but I couldn’t positively say that I have got it” or her dying half-perception that her husband, for all his “Ologies,” has forgotton, or missed, something. In the final phrases of Chapter 9—”and even Mrs. Gradgrind, emerged from the shadow in which man walketh and disquieteth himself in vain, took upon her the dread solemnity of the sages and patriarchs”—Dickens even manages to lend her a quality of grandeur, the last word a reader would have thought to connect with her character.
The extraordinary power of the scene owes something to Dickens’ psychological acuteness, his alertness to the currents of feeling within the characters, and to the quiet, understated, dispassionate realism of its presentation. Outside of Tolstoy, there is perhaps no more unsentimental deathbed scene in fiction.
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