Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827
Chapter 7: Whelp-Hunting
Tom Gradgrind stands by the Old Hell Shaft, next to Bounderby and a little apart from his father and sister. Sissy, seeing him there and watching him take in the fact that his father has been called to Stephen’s side, leaves Rachael, steals up behind Tom and whispers something. The two confer briefly, and Tom leaves the scene without being seen.
As Sissy explains to Mr. Gradgrind, she had remembered where her father’s old circus was at this time of year and had directed Tom to flee there and ask Mr. Sleary to take him in and hide him. Mr. Gradgrind, relieved that his son is in no immediate danger of arrest, takes heart when he realizes that Sleary’s Circus is performing in a town not far from Liverpool, from where Tom could be shipped far away from England.
Using different routes to get there, Mr. Gradgrind, Louisa, and Sissy travel to Sleary’s Circus. Sissy and Louisa arrive first. Sissy is warmly welcomed by Mr. Sleary and her old friends among the performers. Louisa asks after Tom; Mr. Sleary points out where he is on stage, completely disguised as a comic black servant. When later in the day Mr. Gradgrind arrives and enters the now empty circus ring, it is in this grotesque and ludicrous garb that his son appears before him, his face a mask of black greasepaint. After hearing the full story of the robbery, for which Tom says he alone was responsible, his father tells him he must be sent away from England as soon as possible. The family says its farewells. The elder Gradgrind tells him to “atone, by repentence and better conduct, for the shocking action you have committed, and the dreadful consequence to which it has led.” Louisa opens her arms, but Tom spurns her.
As Mr. Sleary, the elder Gradgrind, Sissy, a crying Louisa, and a newly redisguised Tom, his face washed and dressed in a countryman’s smock, leave the circus, a familiar figure suddenly runs into their midst and triumphantly collars Tom. It is Bitzer.
In trying to have Tom spirited out of England by Sleary’s Horse-Riders, Mr. Gradgrind and his party are undoubtedly engaged in frustrating justice; but, partly because Tom’s rescue itself involves the humiliating punishment of his comic disguise, Dickens evidently thought his readers would not dwell on any legal niceties raised by Chapter 7. Modern readers are in any case more likely to be disturbed by Dickens’ use of a racial stereotype, the comic black servant. Dickens means to show Tom as both ludicrous and abject, “blackened” by his evil actions, and for this the traditional figure of the stage “blackamoor” answered his purposes.
The reappearance of the circus at the conclusion of Hard Times is significant. Sleary’s Horse-Riders, we remember, are a community devoted to the cultivation of the fancy, to art and creativity. At the beginning of the novel they had been regarded as at best a nuisance, at worst a set of dangerous vagabonds, by Mr. Gradgrind. Now he must rely on them to save his son. Mr. Sleary’s generosity, his willingness to help the man he calls “Thquire,” without once pressing him for any explanations or hinting at any reward, shows him to operate outside the realm of calculation and self-interest within which Bounderby, Bitzer, and until recently Gradgrind himself lived exclusively.
The confrontation between Mr. Gradgrind and his son is pure Dickens, and pure melodrama, all at once. There are the stagey lines of Gradgrind’s farewell. There is the strangely compelling, pitiable, grotesque figure of Tom, the telling details of his monkey-like hands or his chewing on straw. There is the symbolic setting, with Gradgrind seated on a clown’s stool in the middle of a deserted circus ring. And then there is the painful interchange between father and son, the former overcome by a sense of the disgrace this once “model child” has brought on himself (and on his father and his father’s teachings), the latter feebly defiant, still able to use some of his father’s old “statistical” habits of thought in his own defense, as when, in reply to his father’s remark that he could not have been more shocked by the news of his son’s deed than if a lightning bolt had fallen on him, he replies, “I don’t see why not…so many people are employed in situations of trust; so many people, out of so many, will be dishonest. I have heard you talk, a hundred times, of its being a law. How can I help laws? You have comforted others with such things, Father. Comfort yourself!”
Contemplation of any such law as this offers no comfort, not anymore, not now that Gradgrind finds himself answerable to a new law: the law of the heart, a law whose least commandments now supersedes all his former economic determinism.
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