Book III, Chapters 4-5: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1013

Chapter 4: Lost
Chapter 5: Found

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Despite his domestic difficulties, Mr. Bounderby remains intent on investigating the bank robbery. Hoping it will crack the case open, Mr. Bounderby has a “WANTED” poster for the missing Stephen Blackpool printed up in great black letters and pasted all over town before daybreak. The agitator Slackbridge denounces Blackpool with his usual overheated language, adding to his former denunciations of Stephen the names of thief and plunderer.

On the same evening that workers cluster around the posters in Coketown, the case suddenly erupts into the quiet confines of Stone Lodge. In the presence of her brother, Tom, who has arrived with Bounderby, Stephen Blackpool’s old friend and “guardian angel” Rachael, her father, and Sissy, Louisa confirms the truth of Rachael’s account of the visit she and Tom paid to Stephen the night he was fired.

Rachael says she has written Stephen about the charges against him and fully expects to see him return of his own free will in two day’s time. Bounderby, who has treated Rachael with his customary tact, is less sure. Bidding everyone good night, he takes his leave, closely followed by Tom, whose farewells consist of a brief “Good night, father,” and a scowl for his sister.

Rachael, who is terribly upset and cannot shake the thought that Louisa might have meant something more by her visit than simple charity, departs as well, but not before Sissy has discovered her address and promised to come over every evening to learn if there has been any news of Stephen. After Rachael leaves, Mr. Gradgrind lifts his head from his hands and muses aloud about whether the man Blackpool, whom he has never met, really is implicated in the crime. If he is not, he goes on in a worried way, might the real culprit know of the accusations? Where is he? Who is he? Just at that moment, Louisa and Sissy’s eyes meet, a fearful knowledge passes between them and Louisa instantly places her finger on her lips. From that time on, as the days pass with no sign of Blackpool, they avoid mentioning his name in Gradgrind’s presence.

True to her word, Sissy goes to Rachael every evening, and every evening learns that Blackpool has yet to be heard from. One night, out for a stroll that takes them by Bounderby’s residence, they notice a coach come rattling up to Bounderby’s door and hear the excited tones of Mrs. Sparsit ordering someone to come out. It is the old woman, firmly in the housekeeper’s grip. A crowd of about 25 curious stragglers begins to gather as Mrs. Sparsit pulls her prey out of the carriage and starts dragging her inside.

With Rachael and Sissy behind her, and behind them the crowd of onlookers, Mrs. Sparsit calls out for Mr. Bounderby. Her employer, who had been meeting upstairs with Gradgrind and Tom, wonderingly descends the stairs to his drawing room. When he sees who Mrs. Sparsit has in custody, his face undergoes an extraordinary alteration. Of Mrs. Sparsit he unexpectedly demands to know what she means by this, and why she doesn’t mind her own business? To everyone’s amazement, it turns out that this old woman, Mrs. Pegler as she calls herself, far from being the looked for suspect in the robbery, is none other than Mr. Bounderby’s own mother, loud in her cries of “My dear Josiah!” and “My darling boy!”

At this charged moment, Mr. Gradgrind, with a little of his old severity of manner, remarks that he is surprised that in her old age she has the audacity to claim Bounderby as her son, considering how she had deserted him in infancy. When Mrs. Pegler vehemently denies this, Mr. Gradgrind receives an inkling of the truth and asks whether she had not then allowed her son to grow up in the gutter? This provokes such a flood of denial and reminiscence of Bounderby’s poor but decently cared for childhood, the love he received from both parents (his father dying when the boy was eight), the schooling he received, and the many kindnesses extended to him by others, including his first employer, that before she is done Bounderby stands revealed to all as the fraud and liar he is, a “self-made humbug.”

Mr. Bounderby’s comeuppance is perhaps the most complete of any character in fiction. The simplicity of Dickens’ conception, to suddenly confront the boastfully “self-made” man with a progenitor, an actual parent with a long memory and an active tongue, does nothing to take away from its comic genius. In line with its simplicity, perhaps, there is an archaic, punitive, almost medieval quality to Dickens’ comedy here, pointed up in the reference to Bounderby’s crestfallen state, as a bully who could not have looked “more shorn and forlorn, if he had had his ears cropped.”

If there is nothing in the preceding chapter, or in the novel as a whole, that can quite compete with this amazing scene, still Gradgrind’s coming as close as his newly functioning imagination can take him to the awful truth of his son’s crime, has ironic force. Gradgrind’s “where is he? who is he?” combined with the reference to his suddenly gray head—the compact, vigorous man in late middle age of his first appearances has, since his disillusionment, aged rapidly—suggests that Dickens sees in Gradgrind’s situation elements of the tragic dilemma of an Oedipus or perhaps a Lear. The prolonging of the mystery of Blackpool’s disappearance, and the various hints that Tom Gradgrind may actually have done away with Blackpool, show a skillful management of suspense on Dickens’ part.

Sissy’s joining forces with Rachael is a typical Dickensian development. At least as far as his good characters went, Dickens seemed to approve of the combination that he condemns among workers. They are less interesting together than either is paired with Louisa, because their type, the purely good, self-sacrificing angel of the household, is so similar.

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