50 pages 1 hour read

Charles Dickens

Hard Times

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1854

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Summary and Study Guide


Hard Times is an 1854 novel by Charles Dickens. The 10th book of Dickens’s career, Hard Times is notably shorter than his other works and is one of the few that isn’t set in London. Instead, Hard Times provides a satirical examination of the fictitious industrial city of Coketown, England. The novel has been adapted numerous times for radio, television, theater, and film.

This guide is written using an eBook edition of the 2003 Penguin Classics edition.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of blackface, substance use, and exploitation.

Plot Summary

Coketown is a fictitious industrial city in northern England. Thomas Gradgrind is a wealthy merchant who lives there and who, following his retirement, has dedicated his life to promoting what he believes is a rational, fact-based philosophy. He lectures students about this philosophy of self-interest and brings up his own children, Tom and Louisa, to believe in this philosophy. He instructs them not to pursue fanciful ideas that don’t immediately benefit them. Gradgrind uses his wealth to establish a school based on his ideas. As part of the school’s charitable outreach, he offers a scholarship to a local girl named Cecilia Jupe, otherwise known as Sissy. Her father is a circus performer and has abandoned Sissy. Gradgrind and the other students criticize Sissy’s whimsical view of the world.

In addition to Louisa and Tom, Gradgrind has three other (much younger) children: Adam Smith, Malthus, and Jane. Gradgrind’s closest friend is a man named Josiah Bounderby, who is notably devoid of any sentiment. Bounderby owns and operates a mill; he often invents or embellishes stories about his childhood to make his rise to a position of wealth and power sound more impressive. Together, Gradgrind and Bounderby take a dim view of Sissy. They prepare to expel her from the school to limit her influence on the other children. When they discover that her father abandoned her, however, they hesitate. Gradgrind presents Sissy with two options: Go to work for Mr. Sleary, the circus manager, or continue her education and work for his wife, Mrs. Gradgrind—without the option of ever returning to the circus. Sissy selects the second option. She comes to live with the Gradgrind family and becomes acquainted with Louisa and Tom. They all dislike Gradgrind’s strict ideas and teaching methods.

At Bounderby’s mill, the workers are referred to as the Hands. Among them is Stephen Blackpool, who returns from work one day to discover that his estranged wife, who has alcoholism, has returned unannounced. Blackpool would ideally like to divorce his wife and marry his friend Rachael. He approaches Bounderby to ask for information about divorce, but Bounderby tells him that it would cost a great deal of money. Blackpool thinks it’s unjust that divorce is beyond his means, but Bounderby criticizes him for pointing out the inequality in society. While leaving the house, he meets a strange elderly woman who admits that she visits Coketown each year. She seems interested in Bounderby but doesn’t say why. When he gets home, Blackpool finds Rachael caring for his wife. As she recovers from an alcohol stupor, Blackpool sees her reach for a bottle of medicine, thinking it’s alcohol. He knows that drinking the entire bottle will kill her but doesn’t stop her. Rachael wakes up just in time to prevent a tragedy—and, realizing what he nearly allowed to happen, Blackpool is horrified. He resolves to endure in his marriage.

As the years pass by, Sissy begins working as a housekeeper in Gradgrind’s house, helping raise the younger children. One day, Gradgrind approaches his daughter Louisa with news: Bounderby has proposed to her, though he’s 30 years older than her. Gradgrind explains away the age difference using statistics, and Louisa unenthusiastically accepts. She marries Bounderby, and the couple travel to Lyon on their honeymoon, where Bounderby plans to scrutinize new French production techniques that he hopes to incorporate at home.

James Harthouse is a young man who has unsuccessfully tried to find a profession. Although competent, he can’t find a profession that engages his interest. He visits Coketown to meet Bounderby on Gradgrind’s advice. When he meets Bounderby, however, he’s immediately struck by the man’s dull and embellished stories. In Bounderby’s house, he meets Louisa and immediately falls in love. She has taken on a melancholic demeanor in her unhappy marriage. Meanwhile, her brother Tom now works for Bounderby. Bored by the job, he loses focus and acts recklessly. When Bounderby hires Harthouse, Tom finds him admirable. The feeling isn’t mutual, though Harthouse realizes that Tom is the brother of the woman he loves. He discovers that Tom convinced his sister to marry Bounderby to pay his gambling debts; she agreed to marry Bounderby to help her brother.

The Hands gather for a union meeting. Some of the men want to strike for better working conditions. Blackpool refuses to join the union, so he’s ostracized. When Bounderby talks to Blackpool about the workers’ unrest, he struggles to explain himself. Bounderby fires him. Louisa and Tom, feeling pity for Blackpool, visit him and bring him some money. Tom decides to implicate Blackpool in a scheme. Days later, Bounderby’s bank is robbed, and Blackpool is the primary suspect, especially because he has fled Coketown. Harthouse confesses his love to Louisa, but she rejects him. Nevertheless, the servant Mrs. Sparsit suspects Louisa of having an affair. Louisa visits her father and complains that his stoic philosophy has robbed her of the ability to express herself. She collapses in front of him.

Mrs. Sparsit tells Bounderby about her suspicions. He goes to Louisa, who is recovering, and Gradgrind tells him that she refused Harthouse’s romantic advances. However, she’s now ill. Bounderby is annoyed and embarrassed. He threatens to divorce Louisa unless she immediately returns to him. She doesn’t. Sissy encourages Harthouse to flee Coketown, while Rachael tries to clear Blackpool’s name. She tells Bounderby that Tom and Louisa visited Blackpool the night before the robbery. Mrs. Sparsit conducts her own investigation and discovers that the strange old woman is actually Bounderby’s mother. In contrast to his invented stories, she raised him well, but he told her never to visit him. Her arrival exposes the truth about Bounderby’s supposed rags-to-riches self-mythologizing, much to Bounderby’s annoyance.

Blackpool tries to return to Coketown but falls down a mineshaft. Although Rachael and Sissy rescue him, he dies a short time later, still professing his innocence. Louisa and Sissy begin to suspect that Tom framed Blackpool for the bank robbery. By this time, Sissy has helped Tom escape to join Mr. Sleary’s circus. They find him performing with the circus and, together with Gradgrind and Sleary, arrange for him to flee the country. Bounderby is angry and fires Mrs. Sparsit. Gradgrind adopts a new, more Christian philosophy, pardoning Blackpool in the process. A penitent Tom dies far away from home, while Louisa grows old and never remarries. Sissy marries and has children, raising them with her fanciful view of the world.

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