Hard Times by Charles Dickens


Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854), is a classical fictional story set in the Coketown, England and deeply addresses the current life by then, by satirizing the economic and social conditions of the English society during that era. The book stands out as unique or rather the most unusual of Dickens’s novels. Firstly, it is unusually shorter than any of his works and does not contain a preface or illustrations. It was also unusual that the book was not set in the traditional London set up, but rather in the fictional industrial Coketown. It was widely believed that Dickens published this novel to boost the sales of his weekly periodical–Household Worlds– which had dipped, a move which worked for him.

The story revolves around a wealthy and retired Thomas Gradgrind living in the industrial Coketown. Mr. Gradgrind had a strong devotion to a philosophy of self-interest, rationalism, and fact and in addition raises his children, Tom and Louisa in line with this philosophy and prohibits them to try and follow imaginative or daring desires. He also founds a school and offers to help Sissy Jupe, an intelligent and kind girl, after her father, disappeared. Gradgrind’s children grow and Tom becomes a self-centered and selfish individual while his sister Louisa struggles with the reality of life and the constant feeling that she was missing something important in her life.

Ultimately, Louisa marries Josiah Bounderby, who is a great friend of her father, a banker and wealthy factory owner, who was twice her age. The book reveals Bounderby as an arrogant individual who claimed to be self-made; after he alleged that he was abandoned by his mother in the gutter while he was still an infant. As a result of Bounderby’s close association with Gradgrind’s family, Tom is apprenticed in the bank. On the other part, Sissy decides to stay at home, at Gradgrind’s place to continue looking for younger children.

Meanwhile, in Coketown, there was one impoverished “Hand”—the poor laborers who worked in the factory plants. One of them was Stephen Blackpool. He is in love with Rachel, who was another fellow Hand the town. Unfortunately, he is blocked from uniting with her in marriage as he is married to a certain drunkard and despicable woman, who disappear for days, weeks, months or sometimes years. Stephen decides to visit Bounderby to seek divorce in order to get a chance for a union with Rachel. However, he is disappointed to learn that it was only a preserve for the rich. While outside, he witnesses Mrs. Pegler, an elderly lady with a very strong resemblance to Mr. Bounderby.

Then, there appears James Harthouse, a rich young man residing from London who arrives in the town to commence his career in politics as a follower of Gradgrind, who was an MP. He develops intense feeling in Louisa and tries to win her heart with silent help of Mrs. Sparsit, who was a former influencer and who had fallen from grace and resorted to working for Bounderby. The workers try to form a movement, which Stephen opposes for they would raise tensions with their bosses. He is kicked out and sacked by Bounderby after he declines to act as a spy on the group. He is encouraged by Tom to stay outside the bank for several nights to wait for aid which never arrived. He eventually leaves Coketown to seek a new job, and the bank is immediately robbed, leaving him as the main suspect.

Mrs. Sparsit experiences Harthouse express his love for Louisa as she eventually realizes how faulty his father’s philosophy was. Tom was the man behind the bank robbery and he manages to escape England and dies in exile, Stephen dies after falling in the mines, Mrs. Pegler was the real loving mother of Bounderby, and Bounderby himself dies a lonely death in the streets of Coketown while Grandgrind denounces his philosophy after hard-learned lessons.

 The Themes

Themes are the central ideas behind every literary work. They are the main ideas and the epicenter of the story that carries the main meaning of a narration or any creative work of an author. In many literary works, writers have a common tendency of addressing similar themes or ideas, which could have been driven by the social set up and the prevailing economic situations at the moment the book or the literary work is created. In the past centuries, political tensions, social setups, culture and economic conditions formed a very strong basis for the creation of artistic stories. Most writers employ different styles to achieve their objectives.

In this novel, Hard Times, Charles Dickens utilizes an extraordinary use of satire to craft a story centered on the criticism of the then-current prevailing political ideology, the utilitarianism. However, while the Dickens’s main idea targeted a specific objective, there are many other themes that are revealed in his work which targeted the social and economic aspects of the English society in the 19th century. From a philosophical point of view, utilitarianism and classical economics dominate the themes’ list. There is also creativity and imagination; however, many themes touch on historical events that have played a significant role in transforming the current British Society.

Themes like wealth and power, women and femininity, morality and ethics, love, marriage, Education, Fancy versus fact, the mechanization of human beings, are some of the historically related items that have had an interesting record since the 19th century. For instance, laws in marriage in the contemporary British society are very different from that of the 19th century. Similarly, while wealth and power still go hand in hand, and the wealthy controls the economy, their direct influence is not as conspicuous and open as it was in the past societies.

Theme One: Wealth and Power

The book illustrates power as the one lying with the topmost people in the society with no self-awareness. Wealth and power lied with the people on the top positions in Coketown. This is the hilarious way the people in power are highlighted…“Time hustled him into a little noisy and rather dirty machinery, in a by-corner, and made him Member of Parliament for Coketown: one of the respected members for ounce weights and measures, one of the representatives of the multiplication table, one of the deaf honourable gentlemen, dumb honourable gentlemen, blind honourable gentlemen, lame honourable gentlemen, dead honourable gentlemen, to every other consideration…” (Dickens, 1854).

In this novel, the power is exhibited in various ways. While wealth requires hard work and shrewd business skills to acquire, power on the other side could even reside with the poor. However, the poor do not have one main aspect that supplements power, and that is wealth. For instance, the “Hands” attempted to mobilize each other for a strike against the factory owners. With their togetherness, it is a powerful force that could be unstoppable. However, the wealthy have the control using their riches. It is, therefore, obvious that, without wealth, the power of the poor diminishes quickly and the rich regains their authority.

In the contemporary societies, we still witness a vast obsession with power and control, politically and socially even among nations. The wealthy nations control the poor ones and according to Susan (2017), power is the source of satisfaction and the author relates increasing power to the increasing wealth. In the novel, the gap between the rich and the poor is extremely wide. Although there was a common notion among the wealthy that the poor could pull themselves up by their bootstraps, it was ironical because they did not want to see the less fortunate acquire privileges that involved exception from paying off the taxes.

Theme Two: Women and Femininity

Women are an important and integral part of any society across the world. However, they have been a subject of controversies from their treatment by the men and the society at large. In the world, the position of a woman in the society differs from one place to another depending on their cultural practices and the roles accorded to them to perform as opposed to men. Many societies consider a woman as the nurture of the bodies– that of her children and the husband, but not of their brains. In many societies in the ancient times, women were prohibited from attending men’s functions. Some societies still practice such trends even in the modern world.

However, the novel tries to underpin the significance of femininity. While women’s position should not entirely be centered on the roles revolving taking care of the family welfare and nurturing children, it is important that they have that feminine awareness with them. Even Gradgrind realizes just what a grown woman Louisa has become… ‘My dear Louisa, you are a woman!’ She answered with the old, quick, searching look of the night when she was found at the Circus; then cast down her eyes. ‘Yes, father.’ ‘My dear,’ said Mr Gradgrind, ‘I must speak with you alone and seriously…” (Dickens, 1854).

In relation to women’s role in the modern world, the British society has changed tremendously about the treatment of women. In modern societies, women have special places, they have their rights, and many of them are occupying prestigious positions that were once only reserved for men. However, when you review Gradgrind’s case and his daughter Louisa, it is easy to deduce that there is much significance in allowing women gain their emotional statures and femininity, as this could prove crucial in their lives at a later stage, be it in marriage or anywhere else.

Theme Three: Morality and Ethics

Historically, morals and ethics have been at the center of the behavioral patterns in many societies across the world. The definition of morality may differ from one community to another. Likewise, what may be considered moral in one society could be considered immoral in elsewhere. However, there are some universal morals and ethics that most people agree and observe the world. In the novel, Dickens highlights elements of morality, for instance, when Mrs Sparsit declines to gamble on religious basis… ‘he looks to me as if he gamed.’ ‘It’s immoral to game,’ said Mrs. Sparsit. ‘It’s ridiculous, ma’am,’ said Bitzer, ‘because the chances are against the players.” (Dickens, 1854).

The people Dickens consider villains are lacking in empathy, altruism, and generosity. According to him, these are the founding pillars of human associations. He insists that there is no way one can compare these qualities with any other quality. With them, any person is equipped to survive and persevere in any conditions. Without them, a person is doomed and ends up lonely and miserable. In the text, people with seemingly undesirable characteristics end up badly. Tom, Louisa, Gradgrind, and Bounderby all face inevitable changes that completely change their lives and some of them were much influenced by their behavior.

Morality and ethics surely are great for living. Nonetheless, the world has witnessed rapid changes in the behavioral patterns. In contemporary Britain, there is a different picture of morality and ethics. The world has evolved, and while during the 19th century, people like Bounderby did know their actions were unethical, in the modern society, it has become difficult to differentiate between the moral and immoral or ethical and unethical. It is increasingly becoming a common practice, whereby people pay less attention to morality in the modern world just as it was in the Hard Times era.

 Theme Four: Marriage and Family

Marriage and family are two great institutions of life. They demand dedication and true commitment for them to prosper. Historically, marriage has been practiced for many years and the family is the greatest single unit of social set up. The relationship between marriage and family are intertwined. Marriage is significant as it leads to the starting of a family. Some communities practice different marriages\ types. Polygamy was a rife practice in the ancient times, but it is has declined considerably.

In the novel, one evident thing is that there is no a happy marriage. Most of them are embroiled in conflicts and some loveless affairs. For instance, Stephen needed another wife because his wife was always unavailable… “I ha’ coom,’ Stephen began, raising his eyes from the floor, after a moment’s consideration, ‘to ask yo yor advice. I need’t overmuch. I were married on Eas’r Monday nineteen year sin, long and dree. She were a young lass- pretty enow- wi’ good accounts of herseln. Well! She went bad- soon. Not along of me. Gonnows I were not a unkind husband to her.”… (Dickens, 1854). Stephen tries to get Rachel to replace his absent wife.

Many issues crop up when one reviews the marriage and the family lives of the couples in the Hard Times. Marriage as an institution is a complicated affair and requires a careful approach. One must marry the person she or he loves. With love as the building block, it is easy for one to have a successful union. Similarly, the novel reveals a very important pertinent issue about the marriage law in Britain. Stephen was denied divorce application by Bounderby because it was only for the wealthy. In the current system, that has all changed and the recognition of marriage as one of the most important stages of human life has even increased (Anderson 1976). The relationship between marriage and family is, therefore, a historically recognized association.

Theme Five: Mechanization of Humans

Dickens sums up the Coketown society dramatically… “Time went on in Coketown like its own machinery: so much material wrought up, so much fuel consumed, so many powers worn out, so much money made. But, less inexorable than iron, steel, and brass, it brought its varying seasons even into that wilderness of smoke and brick, and made the only stand that ever was made in the place against its direful uniformity.” (Dickens 1854).

Many workers were treated with less respect and the novel reveals a 19th century England trying to convert human being into machines. The proponents of these injustices, Bounderby and Gradgrind had a common view of people and the work process. While Grandgrind teaches his children about the facts, Bounderby is busy treating his factory workers as emotionless objects. More significantly, the author outlines a parallel semblance between the Hands and the Gradgrind children, in that they both lead uniform existences, untouched by pleasure. The children’s fantasies, just like that of workers are dulled and they too become mechanical.

The rapid developments and changes have witnessed many changes in the labor sector, however. Currently, in the UK, the labor movements have greatly concentrated on the laws that protect the welfare of the workers (Colling 2009). Therefore, this means that protection is guaranteed from exploitation and mistreatments.

The current society has evolved from the labor injustices of the 19th century. It has evolved from the times when the likes of Gradgrind believed that human being beings could be totally controlled, governed, measured and quantified, with is school attempting to turn children in those little machines he believed so much in. The author also highlights the dangers of converting a human into machines and suggests that without imagination and compassion, this life could not be bearable.

Theme Six: Fancy versus Fact

The conflict between fancy and fact is evident in the early stages of the novel. Gradgrind prohibits any kind of fancy or imaginative forms approach of thought. His philosophy was centered on the facts, statistics, logical deductions and scientific investigation of the statistics… “Thomas Gradgrind, sir. A man of realities. A man of fact and calculations. A man who proceeds upon the principle that two and two are four, and nothing over, and who is not to be talked into allowing for anything over.” (Dickens 1854). However, this was an approach that ruthlessly killed the spirits and souls of his pupils and students, and event changed them into machine-like, mechanical figures.

On the contrary, Sissy Jupe, who was the family member of circus constantly disobeys the teachings of Gradgrind and engages in fancy practices. She eventually helps in raising Tom’s and Louisa’s sister in a more loving and complete upbringing as compared to any of her siblings. However, Gradgrind’s factual approach adopted Sissy Jupe and with the combination of the fact and the fancy in upbringing Gradgrind’s younger daughter, also highlighted how a blend of facts and fancy could form such complete results.


Hard Times is a classic book that addresses many historically connected occurrences of the 19th century and the current situations in the same societies, especially in Britain. The author has highlighted significant themes that address both social and economic aspects of the society. He satirizes his work and brings out a general argument that life is much better when approached in a more humanly way. He discourages selfishness and promotes understanding of one another’s needs as the only way to live a complete life.


Anderson, Michael. “Marriage Patterns in Victorian Britain: an Analysis Based on Registration District Data for England and Wales 1861.” Journal of Family History, 1976.

Colling, Trevor. “Court in a trap? Legal Mobilisation by Trade Unions in the United Kingdom. .” Warwick Papers in Industrial Relations Number 91, 2009: 2-30.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. 1854.

Susan, Sample. “Power, Wealth, and Satisfaction.” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 2017.