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Mr. Gradgrind is married to Mrs. Gradgrind and they have 5 children, Louisa, Tom (later whelp), Jane, Adam Smith, Malthous.  Text focuses on Tom and mainly Louisa, who Gradgrind teaches, with the other children only facts.   Louisa in "Book 1: Sowing" marries Josiah Bounderby, her father's boss of sorts, who gives over the top descriptions of his apparently horrid childhood.   Louisa and Bounderby use their honeymoon to check in on some "Hands" or people that work in the factories, notably one Stephen Blackpool who refuses to join his local Union.  In addition to turmoil at work, he is married to an old woman who returns during the novel from being exiled.  Stephen tries to get out of the marriage so that he can be with Rachael but due to his unfortunate stance on economic scale he is unable to do so.  Mrs. Sparsit spies on James Harthouse and Louisa, as Harthouse attempts to lure Louisa into an affair. Sissy (daughter of a circus performer, is taken in by Gradgrind and when Mrs. Gradgrind dies, she takes over a motherly role) sends Harthouse away and Louisa ends the novel alone, never remarried, but now understands what her mother never did, why fancy has an important role in a life of fact.

Themes and Motifs

Walking along the grimy alleyways of 19th Century England’s industrial cities, you’re likely to run face to face with a potential Dickens theme at every corner!  If you do?  Ask yourself these questions, before, or after, reading Hard Times, and see if you can identify important thematic clues.

The central family of the novel is the Gradgrinds.  In many of Dicken’s works, characters names reveal information about how they relate to the themes of the book.  What could Gradgrid mean? Remember how each member of the family is unique, and might enable the name is different ways!

Sissy Jupe, despite her absences, is a central figure of the plot who comes under the direct control of Mr. Gradgrinds’ fact-based philosophy.  Do you consider her to become an actual Gradgrind?  Consider her affect on the younger daughter, Jane.  What might the significance be that Sissy Jupe came from a circus and ended up with Gradgrinds, and had the effect that she did?

As you get to know Mr. Bounderby, does your impression of him better or worsen?  Where did he come from in the world?  How did he get to where he is?  What does he think and say about those who started out in the same manner as he did?  Does your impression of Mr. Bounderby, coupled with his treatment of the Hands, suggest any major point that Dickens is trying to make?

Stephen Blackpool has two big problems in Hard Times, his destitute and alcoholic wife, and the fact that he refuses to unionize, ultimately losing his job.  Does Dickens portray him as more fact or fancy? What did you think about Blackpool when Rachel saves his wife’s life?  How does your opinion of Blackpool change when he refuses to join the strike?  As a Hand, Blackpool appears in contrast to most of the other factory workers, how does his life relate to the lives of Louisa, Tom, and Sissy?  Does that suggest any themes?

Hard Times makes several references to the passage of time.  Is time portrayed as a positive or negative force?  Or rather, does it seem to help or harm people’s situations?

James Harthouse plays a unique role in the plot because of his apathy, whereas many characters feel strongly about at least one important issue.  What is the purpose of having a wealthy aristocrat and seducer who subscribes to neither fact nor fancy?  Does his wealth and status in society play a role in how we are to perceive him?

Women command a strong presence in Hard Times, often acting as the agents of change as we see with a grown Louisa, as well as the effect of Sissy over time in the Gradgrind home.  While women appear powerful in this sense, their marriages are often lackluster.  What is Dickens suggesting about women in this industrial society?  Are they cast as taken advantage of or are they the ones taking advantage?  Consider Ms. Sparsit and Rachel, then ask yourself, is there really a significant difference in the roles of men and women.

Fact or Fancy - Character Overview

Character Ratings: In "fact" and "fancy".

In the beginning of Hard Times, Mr. Thomas Gradgrind outlines a specific rubric for the quality of a human being. He sets a precedent, through one fundamental requirement, that defines the nature of “effective” people. It is on this principle that he operates, and how he perceives the entire make up of Coketown, in the early portion of the book. Below is the early requirements for the citizens of Coketown:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts are alone wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will every be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”      

“In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!” (9)

It’s the idea that nothing can be for certain unless it is indeed for certain. More clearly, nothing can be worth anything without the means to measure, quantify, and calculate it. The people of Coketown must operate on fact, they must be reasonable, factual animals. Early the work he contrasts this definition of “fact” with the pointless nature of “fancy” he says: 

“You must discard the word Fancy altogether! You have nothing to do with it. You are not to have, in any object of use or ornament, what would be a contradiction in fact; you cannot be allowed to walk upon flowers in carpets. You don’t find that foreign birds and butterflies come and perch upon your crockery... You must use, for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible proof and demonstration. This is a new discovery. This is fact. This is taste.” (14)  

However, as the work continues, Thomas Gradgrind’s opinions shift. His previous ideal of factuality and precision is deteriorated, his old notion of “fancy” as superfluous, flamboyant, and silly, also goes. Motivated by the realization of Louisa, Gradgrind comes to embrace fancy, he changes his ways. As Gradgrind states in book III: 

"I appear to myself to have become better informed as to Louisa’s character. than in previous years. The enlightenment has been forced upon me, and the discovery is not mine. I think there are- Bounderby, you will be surprised to hear me say this- I think there are qualities in Louisa, which- which have been harshly neglected, and- and a little perverted. And- and I would suggest to you, that- that if you would kindly meet me in a timely endeavor to leave her to her better nature for a while- and to encourage it to develop itself by tenderness and consideration- it- it would be the better for the happiness of all of us.” (234)        

With this shift in mind, the character below are assigned two ratings from 1 to 10. The first score, in red, is how the character would operate in Gradgrind’s original society (factual). The second score, in green, is how the character operates in a fanciful realm. 

Mr. Thomas Gradgrind

Early in the novel, he is the foremost proprietor of the factual human being. He has started a school to teach it, formulated his own children to model it (pg. 9), and in fact, is: “A man of realities. A man of fact and calculation.” (pg.10) He is a man that finds no good in the silliness of the circus (pg. 23) and speaks with a voice: “which was inflexible, dry, and dictatorial.” (pg.9). Furthermore, he is so based in fact that his face holds its characteristics described as: “an unbending, utilitarian, matter-of-fact face...” (pg. 99) He hates fancy things such as flowers on carpet and horses on walls (pg.14), and he holds himself under the strict guidelines of the calculable.  This man is the epitome of everything he wishes to create. He is the model, the precedent, the living, breathing, representation of perfection. (As defined by his own definition and standard.)


With the passage listed above, the “Gradgrind system” also changed he was moved from a perfectly factual being, into the form of a fancy embracing father. We observe in book III a Thomas Gradgrind that has been moved with sympathy and notices the flaws in his old ways. For example, he asks his once prized student Bitzer if he has a heart, and questioningly suggests: 

“‘Is it accessible,’ cried Mr. Gradgrind, “To any compassionate influence?’” (277)

He is even seen to be sitting in the chair of a performance clown, (273), and before this assigns Sissy with duty of looking after Louisa as a sort of “attendant of fancy’. Despite, his previous ways, Gradgrind has changed. He outlines a sort of optimistic outlooks that supports the necessity of fancy, and seeks to fix his misdeeds. This proprietor of the original factual philosophy, transition from fact to fancy underscores the central theme of Dicken’s work. A theme that speaks for childish fancy, but does not rule out change in the mass of the “factual”. 


Mr. Josiah Bounderby

Bounderby is an interesting folk, rising out the streets where he once was a self proclaimed vagabond and scoundrel  (22), he is a self made man (20). A man that indeed made himself with the ideals of fact in mind. He is observed being the: “bosom friend” (20) of the ideal ‘factman’, Gradgrind, and has removed from himself things that are not fact such as sentiment and soft material (20). He speaks badly about non-factual things such as imagination: “Idle imagination, A very bad thing for anybody...” (25) Also, he is seen to be “eminently practical” (29) and a rough man (32) One of his leading attributes is his understanding of the value of time as he boastfully proclaims (35) and he doesn’t understand pointless things such as slang (37). Even more telling, about his attention and observance of fact, is his desire and marriage to Gradgrind’s daughter. Only a man with a real love for fact would wish to marry the creation of Mr. Gradgrind and the only partner suited for such a man could be the creation of Mr. Gradgrind. However, one point does hinder his otherwise severe attention to calculable things: his embellished and fanciful stories of his past. His, non-fact based, tales of his life before fact. He wasn’t always a man of fact, and his telling of his history displays this.


Bounderby, as seen in his previous rating, was a champion of the Gradgrind ways throughout the work. He combatted the imaginative mind of his once wife, Louisa, and always proclaimed his existence as a self made man. However, he did not take well to the Gradgrind shift of perception. After the speech in which Gradgrind announces his change of philosophy, Mr. Josiah Bounderby reacts in the following way:    

“The blusterous Boundry crimisoned and swelled to such as extent on hearing these words, that he seemed to be, and probably was, on the brink of a fit.” (234) 

Furthermore, he is witnessed stating his obsession with the factual ways far in the third book, the book that most characters changed their ways. Bounderby gives a ranting speech in which he outlines his fundamental obsession of the “old ways”: 

“I am a Coketown man. I am Josiah Bounderby of Coketown. I know the bricks of this town, and I know the smoke of this town, and I the Hands of this town. When a man tells me anything about imaginative qualities, I always tell the man, whoever he is, that I know what he means. He means turtle-soup and venison, with a golden spoon...” (234)     

His highlighting of the old “imaginative qualities” (turtle-soup and venison, with a golden spoon...) Underscores the idea that he is firmly set in the old Gradgrind philosophy, he is a character that was to stubborn, or to stupid, to change allow fancy. 


Louisa Gradgrind

Louisa Gradgrind is the creation of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind and Mrs. Gradgrind. She was formulated under the specific circumstances of the old Coketown. She was denied the wonder of poetry and fiction, and was often seen starting into fires or other situations in which she was horribly numb:  

“Lousia languidly leaned upon the window looking out, without looking at anything...” (26)

At the point in the novel when she is married to Bounderby, a forerunner for the value of fact, she has basically given her imagination away. She is acting completely factual and completely under her father’s terms. Early in the work she is described as:

“There was an air of jaded sullenness in them both, and particularly in the girl: yet, struggling through the dissatisfaction of her face, there was a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow...” (19)     

It is this internal struggle that fuels the work, it the fundamental yearning for fancy invested in Lousia. Before the change of her father, after her opposition and approach of him, she is a factual, reasonable human being. Before the events of Hard Times really take off, she is factual and miserable. 


Lousia is the catalyst for her father’s change of heart, and birth of his mind, her “coming out” from fact and into fancy marks the moment in the work that the “old Coketown” is gone. She is freed of Mr. Bounderby, and the reader observes a honest, and enlightening conversation with Sissy in which Dickens states:

“In the innocence of her brave affection, and the brimming up of her old devoid spirit, the once deserted girl shone like a beautiful light upon the darkness of others.” (220)

It is at this point when the product of the old factual system is broken, and changed, into the spirit of Sissy’s fanciful ways. It is at this point when her unhappiness is attached to the flaws of her father’s mind set and fancy is invited in. By the end of the work, Louisa never remarries but she creates a different future. She has escaped fact, and although it was a long time coming, she also helped void the old Gradgrind ways. We observe at the end of the novel, Louisa peering into the fire:       

“Here was Louisa on the night of the same day, watching the fire as in the days of her yore, though with a gentler and humbler face.” (286)   


Cicilia (Sissy) Jupe 

 Sissy Jupe is employed as a representation of what is considered ‘Fanciful’ in Gradgrind’s system of education.  The exemplary quote that Sissy delivers when asked whether or not she would have a flower patterned carpet in her home is, “If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers.” (13) and that, “They wouldn’t crush and whither… They would be pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy-“(14)  Through this direct conflict with Gradgrind and M’Choakumchild, Dicken’s shows Sissy as completely at odds with an only factual and systematic view of the world. Sissy, instead of having a great capacity for facts and figures, is instead gifted with large amounts of empathy and human understanding. Mr. M’Choakumchild describes her as having, “a very dense head for figures; that, once possessed with a general idea of the globe, she took the smallest conceivable interest in its exact measurements; that she was extremely slow in the acquisition of dates, unless some pitiful incident happened to be connected therewith..” (58), showing Sissy more inclined to an emotional understanding of the world, instead of a factual one


Sissy Jupe, stands throughout the work as the epitome of “childish fancy”, as observed in her “factual rating”, she has no sense, nor concern for fact. For this, she is a sort of static character. A character who’s philosophical ideals remain constant, and are eventually accepted by the changing nature of Gradgrind. This is observed when he labels her the “attendant of fancy” for Louisa (234). Cicilia is the new Coketown, she is in direct opposition to the old Coketown. A new Coketown where she is embracing the philosophy she held throughout the novel, we observe:   

“But, happy Sissy’s happy children loving her; all children loving her; she, grown learned in childish lore; thinking no innocent and pretty fancy ever to be despised; trying hard to know her humbler fellow-creatures, and to beautify their lives of machinery and reality with those imaginative graces and delights, without which the heart of infancy will wither up, the sturdiest physical manhood will be morally stark death...”  (287)

Sissy is fancy. 


Old Stephen Blackpool:

A forty year old factory Hand and "a man of perfect integrity" (73). His integrity is shown throughout the novel as he attempts to help his fellow Hands in the factory. However, it seems in Coketown, or according to Mr. Gradgrind, that integrity is a matter of fancy.  He is also frivolous enough to request something as absurd and fact-breaking as a divorce from the Old Woman so that he can be with Rachael. Stephen is appalled with the fundamental factualism of Coketown and describes the situation evolving as being a "muddle" and also claims that "If Mr. Bounderby had ever know'd me right-if he'd ever know'd me at aw-he would'n ha' took'n offense wi' me" (pages 77 and 264).


Due to Stephen’s framing, he was absent for sometime during the novel. He was absent when the old “Gradgrind tradition” was found faulty. He was absent when Mr. Gradgrind made his realization that fancy needs to have a place in society. On his way back to Coketown, Stephen fell into a mine shaft, he died from his injuries. However, had this death not occurred, one can assume that this Dicken’s character, a man who had “perfect integrity” early in the work, would have found a place in the new Coketown. A place that allowed to leave his wife and act upon his “fancy” love for Rachael. 

Portrait of Charles Dickens

Portrait of Charles Dickens from 1858, only 4 years after Hard Times was published.


Charles Dickens was born on February 7th, 1812. He was born in Portsmouth, England and also published under the pseudonym "Boz". He is the son of John and Elizabeth Dickens.  John worked at a clerk in the Naval Pay Office. Because he was not smart with the family’s finances he landed himself and the rest of the family, besides Charles, in debtor’s prison.  Charles was sent off to work in Warrens Blacking Factory so he could make money for the family. After Charles’ father received a great amount of money from his mother’s death the family was let out of prison. However, Elizabeth wanted Charles to keep working at the factory. This most likely contributed to his view that men should rule the family and women should stay in the home.  Dickens felt resentment towards his mother and the working conditions he faced while working in the factory. This contributed to his writings about the working-class and factory life. Utilitarianism was popular during the time when Dickens wrote Hard Times. Dickens saw that schools were encouraging the students to become mill workers. The teachers focused on facts and corrupted the student’s imagination.

Published by Bradbury and Evans in serial installments in the magazine Household Words between April and August 1854.

Resources and Links

For a free crossword puzzle to test your knowledge of Dickens' Hard Times, click HERE!

Hard Times (1977) from the series by Granada Television.
The Very Devil: A quote from Hard Times with an intriguing twist.
Circus Horses: A representation of fancy, and part of Sissy's father's occupation.
An animated portrayal of Thomas Gradgrind.
 A modern parody of a character type similar to Josiah Bounderby.
Additional Materials

Library resources accessible to U of Iowa students:

19th Century British Library Newspapers
19th Century UK Periodicals
British Periodicals
British Newspapers 1600-1900

Online resources: For an overview of the Victorian period, try

For more information on the Industrial Revolution, visit

Image Gallery

One image of a factory in 1888
Another image of a factory


This site was created in the fall of 2010 by Sawyer Avery, Kyle Francois, Steve Pasdiora, Chelsea Stieber, and Lisa Woodrow.

Images without direct citations were found using Wikimedia Commons.

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