Hard Times Characters
The main characters in Hard Times include Thomas Gradgrind, Tom Gradgrind, Louisa Gradgrind, Sissy Jupe, and Josiah Bounderby.
- Thomas Gradgrind is the Utilitarian founder of an experimental school in Coketown and a member of Parliament.
- Tom Gradgrind is Thomas Gradgrind’s son, who robs a bank but escapes the law.
- Louisa Gradgrind is Thomas Gradgrind’s daughter, who enters into a loveless marriage with Josiah Bounderby.
- Sissy Jupe is the daughter of a circus performer who is educated at Thomas Gradgrind’s school.
- Josiah Bounderby is a wealthy industrialist and Thomas Gradgrind’s friend.
Last Updated January 12, 2023.
The “eminently practical” Thomas Gradgrind governs his family by facts. Dedicated to reason and scientific demonstration, he has no time for wonder, imagination, or curiosity. He considers himself an affectionate father but demands that his children adhere strictly to his philosophy, not realizing that he is raising children who will be incomplete human beings unable to cope with life.
To Mr. Gradgrind’s credit, the plight of his daughter Louisa leads him to admitting and regretting his mistakes and to changing his thoughts and actions. When he sees Louisa’s suffering and listens to her laments, he realizes that his system has failed miserably, and he dedicates himself to learning what he never thought he had to know, finally uniting the heart and the head.
Louisa Gradgrind Bounderby
Louisa Gradgrind is tired of life even at fifteen or sixteen years old. She instinctively realizes that there is something more than her father’s facts, but she cannot find it on her own. So, Louisa stops looking and stops caring. Her refrain becomes, “What does it matter?” Life holds no interest. She marries a man she does not love even though part of her reaches out to her father for help and understanding at that point. Only her brother Tom can make her smile, and her affection for him is such that she will do almost anything to please him.
Mr. Harthouse stimulates something in Louisa that she does not understand. She has never been trained to recognize such things nor to grasp the nature of anyone like this man. When he declares his love for her, she is overwhelmed and runs to her father for protection. She cannot cope with the situation. With Sissy’s help, Louisa eventually learns what it is like to be fully human, and she dedicates herself to helping others experience the delights of life.
The nickname “whelp” suits Tom Gradgrind quite well. He is an inconsiderate, immature, selfish little puppy who rebels so completely against his fact- and reason-based training that he goes to the other extreme. He cares for no one but himself, but he certainly cannot take care of himself. Instead of working hard in his apprenticeship, Tom falls to gambling and gets deeply in debt. Then he expects his sister to give him more and more money. When she cannot, he declares that he hates her, and he ends up robbing the bank and framing Stephen to cover his crime. Even when his family sends him to safety, Tom is ungrateful and even hostile. Only at the very end of his life does Tom, now all alone, finally respond positively to Louisa’s love.
Sissy Jupe is the daughter of a circus clown, but she has been raised with love and imagination to become a compassionate young woman who wants to find the best in everyone and to help everyone find the best in themselves. When Sissy’s father abandons her, she goes to live with the Gradgrinds. Her father, she firmly believes, has left her only for her own good. While she has little ability with facts and figures, she continually shows her goodness.
Sissy makes a significant impact on the Gradgrinds. She is a loyal companion to Mrs. Gradgrind, and she softens the regimen of reason for the younger children, especially Jane. She longs for a connection with Louisa and develops a strong one when Louisa returns home. Sissy also reaches out beyond the family to comfort Rachael and to confront Mr. Harthouse. She is a young woman who does what she must with a simplicity that is both kind...
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Josiah Bounderby is a blusterer whose pride makes him into a liar. Mr. Bounderby presents himself as the ultimate self-made man who has raised himself up from the gutter (literally) to become a mill owner. He prides himself on his horrible upbringing and uses it as an excuse to be rough and demanding. He has no qualms about unfairly firing Stephen or labeling him as the bank robber. He has no patience with Louisa and refuses to allow her the time she needs to recover.
Yet, Mr. Bounderby is, underneath everything, a liar. His story of childhood woe is completely false. The image he has created for himself falls down around him when his mother, Mrs. Pegler, is revealed. Josiah Bounderby is above all a fraud, but he never learns his lesson and dies alone after having a fit in the street, perhaps over something that did not go his way.
Mr. Bounderby’s housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, is a manipulative woman who is determined to make life miserable for Louisa, perhaps because her own life has been miserable. While she does not directly oppose Mr. Bounderby’s marriage, she treats him like a victim in it, skewing his perspective and driving a wedge into an already unstable relationship. Then she watches Louisa descend into a predicament with Mr. Harthouse, maliciously desiring the young woman’s ruin. The tables are turned on Mrs. Sparsit, however, when she “catches” the mysterious woman, who turns out to be Mr. Bounderby’s mother. Mr. Bounderby, fed up and embarrassed, sends Mrs. Sparsit to a life of petty bickering with her only relative, Lady Scadgers.
James Harthouse is bored with life. He has bounced from one thing to the next, never finding interest or satisfaction. Life is something of a game to him, and when he arrives in Coketown, he decides to make a game out of Louisa. She intrigues him, so he seduces her. However, he finds himself far more agitated by her rejection than he expects, and he is no match for the firm insistence of Sissy that he leave Coketown. He is embarrassed at being made ridiculous, but he bows to a force in Sissy that he has never known before.
Stephen Blackpool is a man in a “muddle.” He loves Rachael with his whole heart, but he is married to a woman who has left him for a life of drunken dissolution. Stephen does not despair even though he is sometimes sorely tempted. His love for Rachael lifts his spirits and gives him the courage to stand up to Mr. Bounderby and to his fellow Hands. Stephen refuses to give up no matter how bad life gets. Even as he lies dying in the mine shaft, he finds comfort in a star. His muddle will not overcome him, and in fact, he knows how to solve it if only anyone else would listen.
Rachael is the metaphoric shining star in Stephen’s life. She is a practical woman who is filled with compassion. Even when her heart is breaking, she cares for Stephen’s drunken wife and prevents her from poisoning herself. Rachael places full trust in Stephen, knowing with certainty that he did not rob the bank. She remains by Stephen’s side as he dies, holding his hand and providing the comfort she has always given to him.
Circus leader Mr. Sleary is rather gruff, but he has a kind heart. When Sissy’s father leaves, he offers the girl an apprenticeship, but he understands when she chooses an education. When Sissy sends Tom to Mr. Sleary, he asks no questions but merely hides Tom according to Sissy’s request. His loyalty to her has remained. Mr. Sleary can also be a clever fellow, for he figures out how to help Tom escape from Bitzer with the assistance of a dancing horse and a trained dog. Mr. Sleary compassionately refrains from telling Sissy about her father’s presumed death, allowing the young woman to maintain her hope.