Book III, Chapter 3: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 624

Chapter 3: Very Decided

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Mrs. Sparsit, ill from her late-night ordeal in the rain, pursues Bounderby to his hotel in London, tells him all she has seen and heard (and, no doubt, all that she imagines and fears), and faints dead away. After the usual restorative measures are applied, the two return by train to Coketown and proceed directly to Stone Lodge, where Bounderby bursts in upon Gradgrind demanding loudly to know where Louisa is. Told that she is right there in the house, Bounderby turns on Mrs. Sparsit and demands an apology for inventing stories. His housekeeper being incapable of speech, Bounderby escorts her out to the coach that conveyed them to Gradgrind’s and tells her to return forthwith to the bank.

Alone with Gradgrind, Bounderby declares himself distinctly dissatisfied with what he calls his “treatment” by Louisa. Gradgrind ventures to say that there are “qualities in Louisa which have been harshly neglected and a little perverted.” He goes on to recommend that Bounderby allow his wife to stay on at home, attended by Sissy. Bounderby, who swells and turns various shades of red as he listens to all this, launches into one of his familiar tirades. He is Josiah Bounderby of Coketown; he knows the town; knows its bricks, knows its works, knows its smoke, and knows its hands; they’re real; Gradgrind’s new talk of imaginative qualities is not; he knows what Gradgrind and his daughter really mean by it; they mean turtle soup and venison, and wanting to be set up in a coach and six. If that’s what Louisa wants, Bounderby concludes defiantly, she had better get it from her father, because she will never have it from him. He tells Gradgrind that if Louisa is not at home with him by
12 o’clock the next day, he will send over her things and consider himself rid of her.

Bounderby returns home and goes to bed. Five minutes after noon the next day, Louisa not having reappeared, he gives directions to have his wife’s clothing and other property returned to her, advertises his country retreat for sale, and resumes “a bachelor life.”

The resignation and sadness that Gradgrind now displays is offset by the unregenerate Bounderby in full cry. Bounderby’s extraordinary energy, as well as his grotesque coarseness and absurdity, reach a kind of hateful climax here. Down to the ritual invocation of the turtle soup and venison, Dickens has Bounderby react to the disaster in his marriage as he might (and, in the case of Stephen Blackpool, does) some piece of impertinence, real or imagined, on the part of his employees. In effect, Bounderby fires his wife.

The comedy of the chapter—it is one of the funniest in the book—lies in Bounderby’s “very decided” attitude, the insanely all purpose, insanely consistent nature of his responses, which are perhaps summed up in his “throwing on” his hat: the very gesture with which, so long ago, he accompanied Gradgrind into Coketown to find Sissy’s father.

One satiric thrust stands out. It comes when Gradgrind reminds Bounderby that he took his daughter “for better or worse, for…” and Bounderby cuts him off. About this Dickens observes that “Mr. Bounderby may have been annoyed by the repetition of his own words to Stephen Blackpool.” In fact there can be little question that Bounderby intends a formal separation, leading to a divorce; the speed with which he acts suggests that really he welcomes Louisa’s departure. His thowing Mrs. Sparsit in Gradgrind’s face as a high born lady who worships the very ground he walks on suggests that his housekeeper’s triumph over her junior rival is, at least for now, complete.

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