Thomas Gradgrind – the local teacher and politician, tries hard to exert Utilitarianism and force it on everybody around him
Mr. Choakumchild – teacher, teaches children facts and only facts
Mr. Josiah Bounderby – rich businessman, banker, and salesman, owner of the factory, He has no moral or regard for human suffering, he exploits and humiliates the factory workers
Louisa – Mr. Gradgrind’s daughter, her father raised her on facts, married to Bounderby
Cecilia (Sissy) Jupe – daughter of a circus performer, adopted by Mr. Gradgrind, represents the balance between fact and fancy, her story has a happy ending
Tom (the Whelp) Gradgrind – Mr. Gradgrind’s son and Louisa’s brother, egoistic and immature, has problems with debt and gambling, ends up alone and away from home
Stephen Blackpool – one of the factory workers, he is fair, good and honest, has an alcoholic wife, falsely accused for robbery, ends tragically
Mrs. Sparsit – Bounderby’s landlady, used to be very rich, she’s a spy
James (Jem) Harthouse – represents fading aristocracy, bored with life, finds Louisa enigmatic and seduces her
Bitzer – a product of fact school, only self-interest is important to him
In Hard Times Dickens sharply criticizes the poor living conditions of the working class in industrial towns. He depicts life in a fictive industrial town Coketown as a symbol for a typical industrial town in Northern England of that time. It is a place full of exploitation, desperation, and oppression. Soot and ash are all over the town; it is a dirty and suffocating place.
The workers have low wages and work long hours. The work begins before sunrise, the production is important and there is no regard for the rights and suffering of the low class. Children in school are taught according to Utilitarianism philosophy – they should accept and live according to facts and facts alone, they are not allowed to fantasize or think for themselves.
In Coketown, machines cause great pollution. Industrial workers have no chance of progress in life. The upper-middle-class ignores their misery (Bounderby) and denies imagination and creativity (Gradgrind). Utilitarianism exerts the mechanization of society and the human mind. The character of Sissy Jupe represents the personification of fact vs. fancy conflict, she tries hard to learn facts, but is unable to, she freely thinks and imagines. She is the most stable character because she succeeds to find a balance between the two. Dickens points out the flaws and limitations of the newly created industrial society and the necessity of social reform.
This novel is deeply conservative in its concept of women. The Victorians believed that women embodied the traits of compassion, moral purity, and sensitivity; they idealized the redemptive powers of femininity, so in Hard Times we have the female angelic types – Sissy and Rachael.
Sissy is innocent and has the desire to serve because of her belief in humanity. She’s compassionate and tender-hearted, she brings salvation from facts. Because of her goodness, she is rewarded with a happy life. Rachael is hard-working, compassionate, morally pure, and sensitive. She is a nursemaid to Stephen’s hateful wife; she improves the lives of those around her.
Then, there is Louisa. Gradgrind removes the burden of ideal femininity on his daughter but outside her family, she’s unable to fulfill the idealized role of mother and wife. Her emotions are dormant and hidden until they burst out in the end, but she gets lost because she doesn’t know how to deal with her emotions. Louisa and Sissy point out the flaws of fact-philosophy.
There is also a type of degraded woman embodied in Stephen’s wife. She is monstrous and barely human, has to be kept hidden. Women in this story often see things more clearly than men and remain strong and composed in a crisis situation.
Utilitarianism is the philosophy that leaves nothing to the imagination; everything is to be explained with the help of logic and facts. The goal of every individual should be to receive the most pleasure out of life. Utilitarianism intercedes for utility, well-being, and pleasure in life. From the beginning of the novel, Dickens introduces us to the utilitarian way of thinking. Gradgrind and Bounderby are the most outstanding representatives of the utilitarian philosophy.
Children are taught factual school from an early age (Louisa, Tom, Bitzer). Gradgrind thinks that only facts are important in every situation,e.g. for him love is not the major issue in marriage. Louisa gets free of the fact school in the end, but cannot stand up to the world of fancy and imagination because she’s taught the opposite all the time. Tom commits every action out of self-interest.
At the end of the story, when Louisa comes desperate for her father, Mr. Gradgrind says that he never knew she was unhappy; he wasn’t able to identify his child’s emotions. Everything he believed in is shattered, but he wants to make it up to Louisa. The whole system falls apart when Gradgrind loses confidence in it.
On the other side, Bounderby keeps a firm belief in the system, so in the beginning and in the end, he’s in the same situation (a bachelor), his character doesn’t go through personal development. He represents the ideology of facts, but himself lives in an illusion of a self-made man.
Sissy accepts the situation she found herself in, but never accepts the factual world, she keeps her inner value, she is the mediator between two worlds (fact and fancy). Stephen is the opposite of the ideology of facts – he is genuine, driven by feelings, and not spoiled by any political or ideological opinions. Stephen/Bounderby represent the ideologies, Sissy/Gradgrind hold them together.
In Hard Times, Dickens is subjective and influences the shaping of the reader’s opinion, he’s against the Utilitarian system, against egoism, and lack of imagination.