Surveillance and KnowledgeOne of Dickens's major themes centers on the idea of surveillance and knowledge. As is the case in other novels by the author, there are characters who spend time keeping secrets and hiding their history and there is another set of characters who devote themselves to researching, analyzing and listening in on the lives of others. Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Gradgrind are both masters of surveillance but Sparsit is more gossipy while Gradgrind is more scientific. Another operator to consider is James Harthouse who devotes himself to the task of understanding and "knowing" Louisa. From all three of these characters we get the idea that knowledge of another person is a form of mastery and power over them. Besides Louisa, Josiah Bounderby is another victim of surveillance. Without knowing what she has done, Mrs. Sparsit manages to uncover the secret of Bounderby's upbringing and his foul lies about being a self-made man.
"Fancy" vs. "Fact"The opposition between "fancy" and "fact" is illustrated from the earliest pages of the novel. Clearly, the Gradgrind school opposes fancy, imaginative literature and "wondering." Instead, they encourage the pursuit of "hard fact" and statistics through scientific investigation and logical deduction. But the Gradgrinds are so merciless and thorough in their education that they manage to kill the souls of their pupils. Sissy Jupe and the members of Sleary's circus company stand as a contrast, arguing that "the people must be amused." Life cannot be exclusively devoted to labor.
FidelityThe theme of fidelity touches upon the conflicts of personal interest, honesty and loyalty that occur throughout the novel. Certainly, characters like Josiah Bounderby and James Harthouse seem to be regularly dishonest while Louisa Gradgrind and Sissy Jupe hold fast to their obligations and beliefs. In Louisa's case, her fidelity is exemplified in her refusal to violate her marital vows despite her displeasure with her husband. Sissy's exemplifies fidelity in her devotion to the Gradgrind family and perhaps even more remarkably, in her steadfast belief that her father is going to return for her seeking "the nine oils" that she has preserved for him.
EscapeThe theme of escape really underscores the difference between the lives of the wealthy and the lives of the poor. In Stephen Blackpool, we find a decent man who seeks to escape from his failed marriage but he cannot even escape into his dreams for peace. On the other hand, we find Tom Gradgrind who indulges in gambling, alcohol and smoking as "escapes" from his humdrum existence. And after he commits a crime, his father helps him to escape through Liverpool. Again, Louisa Gradgrind desires a similar escape from the grind of the Gradgrind system, though she resorts to imagined pictures in the fire rather than a life of petty crime. Finally, "Jem" Harthouse rounds out the options available to the nobility. With all of his life dedicated to leisure, even his work assignment is a sort of past-time from which he easily escapes when the situation has lost its luster.
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