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Hard Times

Hard Times

'There is a wisdom of the head... and there is a wisdom of the heart' (chapter 1, Book the Third, Hard Times, 1854). Charles Dickens presents multiple dualities throughout the novel: head vs heart, rationality vs imagination, and fact vs fancy, are just a few examples.

These dualities reflect the questioning that arose due to the fast-paced changes of the Industrial Revolution. Within a newly industrialised world, there was a growing need for orderly, machine-like efficiency which did not always complement the more human side of life that could be irrational, romantic, and flawed. In Hard Times, Dickens' demonstrates that progress does not always mean improvement.

Hard Times: overview

Hard Times, written by Charles Dickens, was originally published in serial form in 1854. Serialised weekly in Dickens' own publication, Household Words, Hard Times, proved popular with audiences, and it was published in novel form soon after completion. It is one of Charles Dickens' shortest novels, amounting to 110,000 words. It is also the only Dickens novel that doesn't feature a scene in London.

The title of the novel is a reference to the phrase 'hard times' meaning 'to suffer economic difficulties'. Hard Times is a social commentary on the effects of the Industrial Revolution on society. Charles Dickens was said to be inspired by a trip he took to Preston, an industrial town in the north of England. Dickens warns of the dangers of rapid industrialisation on the community and how labourers in the industry can become dehumanised as a result.

Hard Times: plot summary

Book the First: Sowing

In the first book of the novel, we are introduced to the Gradgrind family. Thomas Gradgrind is a former merchant who is recently retired. He has two children, Tom and Louisa, who he raises with little frivolity or extravagance. Thomas Gradgrind is a pragmatic man who has an unerring faith in facts. In his retirement, Gradgrind Sr. founded a school in the industrial town of Coketown, where the Gradgrinds live. He takes in one pupil from the school after her father disappears – Sissy Jupe.

As the Gradgrind children grow older, Tom becomes hedonistic and self-involved, while Louisa feels that her life seems hollow. She marries Josiah Bounderby, the owner of a factory in Coketown who is twice her age. Bounderby takes pride in being 'a self-made man' (chapter 4) and is a friend of Thomas Gradgrind. Bounderby owns a bank, where the younger Tom Gradgrind becomes an apprentice.

Book the Second: Reaping

Most of the poor in Coketown are factory workers. One of these workers is Stephen Blackpool, who is unhappy in his marriage to a woman who is often drunk and away. He finds himself falling in love with another factory worker, Rachael. Stephen seeks Bounderby for advice about getting a divorce, but he is told this would be unlikely because he is poor. While leaving, Stephen meets an old lady named Mrs Pegler who seems oddly attached to Bounderby.

Over time, Gradgrind becomes a Member of Parliament and is visited by a sophisticated Londoner named James Harthouse. He has come to Coketown as a political apprentice under Gradgrind and takes a liking to Louisa. With the aid of the former aristocrat, Mrs Sparsit, he plans to seduce Louisa.

The workers of Coketown try to start a union, and Stephen refuses to join. He is then fired by Bounderby for not spying on his colleagues. Louisa is impressed by the integrity shown by Stephen and gives him money. Tom witnesses this and tells Stephen to wait for aid outside the bank every night. None arrives, and eventually, Stephen leaves Coketown. The bank is robbed, and Stephen is the prime suspect due to his lingering around the bank.

Harthouse declares his love for Louisa, who then decides to leave and confront her father. She tells Grandgrind how he raised her to be confused and loveless, and how she regrets her marriage to Bounderby. After her honest judgement, Louisa collapses and Gradgrind considers his philosophy of self-interest.

Book the Third: Garnering

Out of her love for Louisa, Sissy tells Harthouse to leave Coketown. Bounderby, who is furious at the possibility of Louisa leaving, steps up his pursuit of Stephen. Meanwhile, Stephen returns to Coketown to clear his name, but he falls down a pit known as 'Old Hell Shaft' (chapter 6). Louisa and Rachael manage to find Stephen before he dies. It becomes apparent to the Gradgrinds that it was Tom who robbed the bank, and they try to sneak him out of Coketown with the aid of some circus performers.

Despite some obstacles, Tom is smuggled out by the circus ringleader. We discover that the old lady, Mrs Pegler is, in fact, Bounderby's mother, revealing that he is not a self-made man after all. Gradgrind devotes himself to charitable efforts, while Tom also learns his lesson and denounces his previous behaviour. Louisa never remarries but goes on to live with Sissy and her loving family.

Hard Times: themes

Dehumanising effects of industrialisation

Charles Dickens' novel warns that the rapid rise of the Industrial Revolution would have an adverse effect on society. In Hard Times, industrialisation threatens to dehumanise the community, from the labourers in the factory to the industrialists themselves.

This theme is exemplified in the actions and philosophy of Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind believes in rationality and facts, and he raises his children with little frivolity or joy. This causes the Gradgrind children to grow incapable of feeling for and with their fellow humans. Louisa feels her life is hollow, and she marries Bounderby without any romantic feelings towards him. Tom is emotionally detached and robs Bounderby's bank, framing Stephen Blackpool while doing so.

HardTimes, and old industrial town, StudySmarterAn old industrial town. Pexels.

Josiah Bounderby, a disciple of Thomas Gradgrind and factory owner, further illustrates these fears. Bounderby regards his workers much like the machines in his factory and exploits them as such. The workers in Bounderby's factory lead dull lives with little joy, their existence almost resembling a production line.

Gradgrind's school follows his own thoughts on education, preferring reason to imaginative thought. Gradgrind has an unerring belief in fact, and he wishes to instil this in the pupils of his school, making it resemble Bounderby's factory as a result. The only character not to be affected by the rise of industrialisation is Sissy Jupe, who was raised by circus performers.

Hard Times: quotes

'Now you see, Tom,' said Mr. Harthouse [...]; 'every man is selfish in everything he does, and I am exactly like the rest of my fellow-creatures.'

(Book 2, Chapter 7)

Here, Harthouse is explaining his reasoning for explicit self-interest. This is a trait enforced by his time with Thomas Gradgrind. Many of the industrialists in the novel are represented as having selfish interests at heart. Sometimes, as in Bounderby and Tom's cases, this is for financial gains. In other cases, such as Harthouse's, this is for romantic interests.

Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life.

(Book 1, Chapter 1)

In the opening lines of the novel, we are introduced to Thomas Gradgrind's philosophy of rationality and fact. It also gives the reader a glimpse at what education at his school may be like. Later, Gradgrind states that 'nothing else would service them' (chapter 1), his thinking being that, through knowledge of facts, children are best placed to succeed.

Look how we live, an’ wheer we live, an’ in what numbers, an’ by what chances, an’ wi’ what sameness; and look how the mills is awlus a-goin' [...].

(Book 2, Chapter 5)

Here, Stephen Blackpool makes a speech to Bounderby and gives the reader an insight into what the labourers' life is like. His speech mirrors the monotony of factory life with its use of repetition. Further in the speech, there is a clear distinction between the 'you' of the rich and the 'us' of the labourers. This distinction is made more apparent by Stephen's use of dialect. Stephen represents the poor workers and uses colloquial language. Whereas the middle classes such as Bounderby, representing the rich, use 'proper' English.

There is also resignation in Stephen's speech, noting that the mill will 'awlus a-goin' despite what happens to the workers. This hints at how much Stephen feels he and his fellow workers are worth to the mill owners. Their lives and actions have little effect on the industrialisation around them. Further stressing the theme of dehumanisation in the novel.

Hard Times: significance

Hard Times was one of the first novels to explore the exploitation suffered by the working classes following the Industrial Revolution. Its commentary on education alerted readers to the need for educational reform, which would then occur in 1870. The novel is known to be a favourite of the social realist dramatist, George Bernard Shaw,1 and its influence can be found in the works of authors such as George Orwell and D. H. Lawrence.

Hard Times - Key takeaways

  • The novel Hard Times was written by Charles Dickens in 1854.
  • Hard Times was originally published in serial form in Household Words.
  • The novel is set in a fictional northern town during the industrial revolution.
  • The book was said to be inspired by Charles Dickens' visit to Preston.
  • Hard Times was one of Charles Dicken's shortest novels.

1 George Bernard Shaw. 'Introduction.' The Waverley Edition of the Works of Charles Dickens, vol. 17, 1911.

Frequently Asked Questions about Hard Times

Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times after a visit to the industrial town Preston.

The title Hard Times is a reference to the phrase meaning to suffer economic difficulties.

Hard Times tells the story of Thomas Gradgrind and his children and their lives in Coketown.

The novel, Hard Times is one of Charles Dickens' shortest novels, just over 100,000 words.

Hard Times was first published in serial form in 1854. It was published in novel form later that year.

Final Hard Times Quiz


Why did Charles Dickens write Hard Times?

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Charles Dickens wrote Hard Times after visiting the industrial town of Preston.

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What is the meaning of the phrase 'hard times'?

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The phrase 'hard times' is to suffer economic difficulties. 

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What is the plot of Hard Times?

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Hard Times tells the story of Thomas Gradgrind and his two children Tom and Louisa.

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What is the main theme of the novel Hard Times?

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The main theme in the novel Hard Times is industrialisation and its dehumanising effects.

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Where is Hard Times set?

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The novel Hard Times is set in the fictional town of Coketown.

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What real-life place was the inspiration for the fictional Coketown?

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The northern town of Preston was the inspiration for Coketown

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Hard Times was originally published in which magazine?

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Hard times was originally published in serial form in the magazine 'Household Words'.

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When was the novel Hard Times published?

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The novel Hard Times was published in 1854

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'Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts' is a quote from which character?

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'Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts' is a quote from Thomas Gradgrind.

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Who did Thomas Gradgrind adopt after being abandoned by her father? 

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Thomas Gradgrind adopted Sissy Jupe after she was abandoned by her father.

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