Hard Times

Hard Times Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters 11-16

Chapter Eleven: No Way Out

The next day, Stephen Blackpool is back at work, bent over his loom. He is depressed about the woman who has appeared in his room but he does not let this get in the way of his work. His work began early in the morning when it was still dark outside but as it grows later, the lights are shut off and it begins to rain outside. When Blackpool has his lunch break he takes his piece of bread and walks towards Mr. Bounderby's house to seek some advice. Bounderby is the owner of the factory. Stephen finds Bounderby at lunch eating a lavish meal and Mrs. Sparsit was sitting in the room as well, but she did not eat lunch by habit.

Bounderby asks Stephen what his problem is, noting that as an employer he is glad to say that he has never had any problem with Stephen. Unlike many of the other workers, Stephen isn't looking for luxuries like "turtle soup and venison." Bounderby is pleasantly surprised when Stephen confirms that he has not arrived to make a complaint. He only wants advice. With permission, Stephen begins his story.

The woman who apprehended Stephen the night before was the same woman that he married nineteen years previous. He was very good to her, but she became a drunkard and sold the furniture and refused to work. After some time, she disappeared and no one heard anything from her. As a decent gesture, Stephen looked for a way to provide for her without being attached to her lifestyle. For the previous five years, he paid her money to stay away from him and it worked until now. Bounderby does not have very much advice though he does agree that Blackpool is in a very bad situation. Stephen wants to know how he might be rid of the woman and Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit are both offended.

Stephen would much rather be with Rachael but what he learns from Bounderby is that any sort of annulment or divorce or separation from the drunk woman is going to cost a good deal of money‹far more than Stephen will ever have. Bounderby goes further to express his disappointment in Stephen's "unhallowed opinions" and the fact that he would air them in front of a decent lady like Mrs. Sparsit. Stephen does not linger at the scene; he thanks Bounderby for his time and exits.


The narrative structure of the novel often uses various chapters as parallels or as cause-and-effect sequences. In this case, "No Way Out" might be compared to "A Loophole" in the same way that we can contrast the lack of freedom suffered by the poor (Stephen) and by children (Tom and Louisa Gradgrind). It is also worth noting that for all of Mrs. Sparsit's hypocrisy, she parallels Stephen Blackpool as the spouse of a drunk (her husband died of alcoholism in France). Finally, on the subject of marriage, Stephen's fate foreshadows Bounderby's marriage (presented at the end of Book One) and by the end of the novel, Bounderby will find himself in a similarly awkward situation.

The tone of this chapter is incredibly negative in regards to Sparsit and Bounderby. While they weren't the favorite characters before this point, Dickens' characterization is really a social commentary on class conflict and the difference between the lives of the rich and the poor. While Sparsit is described as a "fallen lady," there are more intense images of verticality in the lives of the poor: the serpent, the rising smoke, Lucifer the fallen angel and the grim, black ladders attached to each house. Each of these images becomes an explicit symbol of how easy it is for the poor to fall farther into the dumps. On the one hand we have Blackpool whose steady fall throughout the novel is simply on account of his already being down and having no other direction in which to travel. On the other hand, characters like Bounderby and Sparsit will also suffer their own social "falls" but it will be on account of their hubris, excessive pride.

Chapter Twelve: The Old Woman

When Stephen leaves Mr. Bounderby's house he is greeted by an old woman who is very clearly come from the country on a journey. Stephen is at first distrustful of her but he remains polite despite the disappointment of the last two days. The lady asks Stephen if she has seen him exit "that gentleman's house" and Stephen answers that she has. She describes Bounderby and asks if this is the man Stephen has seen. When Stephen answers her in the affirmative, she thanks him warmly.

She continues walking with Stephen and it seems that the very aspects of Coketown that make life all the harder for the residents are the very monstrosities and large attractions that she finds exciting. She has walked nine miles to arrive in town and this is a trip that she makes once a year. This only adds to her mystery and Stephen is puzzled by her insistence that she comes to town each year so that she might see the gentlemen. She is specifically interested in seeing Mr. Bounderby and she hopes that she will be so lucky though this seems doubtful.

Stephen tells the woman that he works in the factory and when she asks him if he is happy he replies that everybody has their troubles. She has expected that he would say he was very happy‹for he is living in the town and not in the country‹and Stephen does not want to disappoint her, though he cannot lie and feign happiness. Stephen does say that his troubles are at home and that they do not follow him to the factory where, under Bounderby, everything is regular and orderly. When Stephen tells the old lady that he has been a continuous worker at the loom for twelve years, she exclaims her pride in him and insists upon kissing him: "I must kiss the hand that has worked in this fine factory for a dozen year." It is clear at this point, that the old lady is a little eccentric but she certainly means no harm and Stephen, being a decent man himself., obliges her as best he can.

Though they part ways when they finally approach the factory and Stephen must return to work. Back at his loom, Stephen is in awe of the old woman and the "harmony" that surrounds her. In the midst of the loud noises and the smoke of the factory, Stephen's thoughts easily fall into a negative slump. At the end of his work-shift, he looks for Rachael but he does not see her. He remembers when they were both young and it is obvious that they would have been far happier together than they have been, separate. Stephen does not want to return to his home; he does not know what he will find there. But in the end, "he went home for shelter."


The old woman character is one of Dickens' specialties, appearing in more than a few of his novels. As in the others, she is a woman from the country who is on a pilgrimage, which is usually a religious trip. In spite of her mystery, her kiss upon Stephen's hand is a symbolic blessing. There is a simple contrast between the country woman and the city men that excite her. Her connection to Bounderby is not yet known, but it is very important and will be easy to guess well before it is revealed. It is ironic that she considers the men of high standing to be "gentlemen" when we have learned that they are anything but gentle, but the pilgrim demonstrates that she can see past appearances by finding the value in Stephen Blackpool.

The suspense of the chapter is mainly fueled by questions of the woman's identity and how she is able to know Bounderby so well as to describe him as "portly, bold, outspoken and hearty." Again, the theme of surveillance is established, for the lady has only come to town to deliberately watch strangers. Nonetheless, her honesty and the fact that she does sneak up and spy on others are all reassuring.

Chapter Thirteen: Rachael

There is a candle burning in the window of Stephen's room. While Stephen sits he thinks to himself about the larger philosophical questions and mysteries of life and death‹not in an academic way, but in terms of application to his own life. He thinks of all of the people who die despite the fact that they loved others dearly and are dearly missed. In contrast to them all, his drunk wife is loved by no one and loves no one‹yet she lives and survives her own undoing to cause pain to others.

Stephen and his wife are not alone for Rachael is also in the room, tending to the drunken woman. The woman is not in a very good state and Rachael is glad that Stephen has finally come home. A doctor had been by earlier and Rachael reminds Stephen that they all have an obligation not to judge the woman because they are all sinners. Stephen repeats that he is grateful that Rachael is there because he cannot guarantee that he would be able to overcome his desire to do harm to himself and/or his wife. Both Rachael and Stephen are half asleep and Rachael agrees that she will stay with Stephen until three in the morning. Then she will return home.

Stephen sees a bottle on the table; it is mostly empty but it causes him to tremble. Rachael sees that he is in a fit of trembling and she moves to see that he is not feeling too ill. Stephen assures her that he is simply having a fright and that he will soon be better. As he falls asleep, Stephen enters into a "long, troubled dream" that continually blurs with the sad reality surrounding him. He sees himself at his own wedding, happily preparing to marry, except the woman is not Rachael and there is a protest started by one of the witnesses of the wedding. In his half-asleep state, Stephen sees his wife make a move for the bottle on the table but Rachael wakes up in the nick of time. There is a struggle and the drunk woman grabs Rachael by the hair, but Rachael overpowers her and destroys the bottle. Stephen is convinced that Rachael is an angel but she insists that she is not. Still, she is definitely a benevolent force in Stephen's life.


The most important symbol in the chapter is the candle that represents Rachel's presence in Stephen's room and in his life. As a candle, Rachel brings light (clarity and understanding), warmth (love) and constancy (permanent devotion). Along with Sissy Jupe, she is part of the motif of young women who have maternal, caring qualities because they are poor and live hard lives. This is part of Dickens' trademark sentimentality but it is serious enough to establish the contrast between Rachel's candle and the black ladder that is an image of death.

Death is one of the focuses of the chapter, with Stephen's wife only barely recovering from what was almost her deathbed. In a metaphor, death is reduced to the operations of chance and fate in a card game: it "dealt out an unequal hand." Stephen's unequal hand is in the fact of his living-death. He is trapped in between sleep and being awake. Even worse, he can find "now way out" of his present situation in either of these conditions. Alcohol and dreams are both symbolic escapes, but in this case, the alcoholism of the wife has dried out the dreams of the husband.

Chapter Fourteen: The Great Manufacturer

Time goes on in Coketown and Mr. Gradgrind notes that as the months and years go by, his children are growing into young adults. He decides that his son, Thomas, should join Bounderby's Bank and find work. Gradgrind has kept up his education of Sissy, but he ultimately concludes that any further education would be useless. She has learned all that she is capable of learning and this has not been very much. Sissy is in agreement and she is sorry that she has disappointed Mr. Gradgrind. She begins to cry, but Mr. Gradgrind consoles her by complimenting her: she is "affectionate, earnest, good" and this will have to be good enough. She is very useful to Mrs. Gradgrind and she keeps the family in better spirits than otherwise and so she can remain a part of the household.

Gradgrind is disappointed that Sissy still clings to the bottle of nine oils and while he does not have contempt for her ignorance, he does admit to himself that he does not know precisely how to categorize Sissy. His thoughts are mostly focussed on Louisa. He finds her one evening and informs her that he would like to have a serious conversation with her in the morning. A bit later, Tom comes into the room and asks Louisa if she knows what the conversation is going to be about. Tom informs her that their father is in talks with Mr. Bounderby though the subject is still undisclosed. Tom wins Louisa's unsuspecting assurance that she will do whatever she can to help him. He then leaves her to her solitude, meeting up with his friends.


This chapter is the foreshadowing of Louisa's marriage to Mr. Bounderby. Obviously, this is a disappointing union of contrasts. Louisa is young while he is old and her desires for freedom are going to remain suppressed in his house. Symbolically, the presence of a wilderness as opposed to the cycle of seasons reflects the lack of fertility and the end of growth for Louisa. From her youth, she threatens to become a bitter old woman. At the very least, her marriage is heavily foreshadowed as a failure.

Tom calls his sister a "capital girl" and this is a reiteration of the imagery of economics applied to emotional and human subjects. Louisa is "capital" because her marriage presents the potential for profit. Similarly, the children's education at the "Mill" and the "Bank" of learning, transforms them into products and economic laborers. Finally, there is the irony of the old woman who is a spinner of Time. She is the archetype of the Fates offering a lifetime as a thread to be cut. But in contrast, Bounderby has a weaving factory in which Stephen Blackpool is a skilled power-loom weaver. The motif of weaving operates on yet another level when Dickens compares nature's weaving (creation) of Stephen Blackpool (a human being) as superior to the mere spinning and weaving of the goods that Bounderby sells.

Chapter Fifteen: Father and Daughter

Mr. Gradgrind sits in his room which is designed very much like an Observatory. He has spent many ours in this space contemplating and studying human habits and destinies. He prepares to have his serious discussion with Louisa, who insists upon remaining dispassionate throughout the entire encounter. Gradgrind tells his daughter that she is the subject of a marriage proposal‹and Louisa does not respond. Gradgrind expects Louisa to convey some emotion, but she is entirely stoic and reminds Gradgrind that her upbringing has prevented her from knowing what emotions to express.

Gradgrind explains that it is Mr. Bounderby who has made the marriage proposal and Louisa refrains from registering any emotional response. When her father asks her what she intends to do, Louisa turns the question back to him and asks him what he thinks she ought to do. Gradgrind looks at the situation analytically and dismisses the fact of Bounderby being fifty years old. The marriage has little to do with love and is simply a matter of "tangible Fact." In the end, the decision is for Louisa to make. But as she does not see that any opportunity will bring her happiness she realizes that it does not matter what she does. She continually repeats the phrase "what does it matter?" and this frustrates Mr. Gradgrind.

In the end, Louisa is still emotionless and she replies: "I am satisfied to accept his proposal." Mr. Gradgrind is very pleased and he kisses his daughter on the forehead. When Mrs. Gradgrind hears the news she is happy but then she works herself into a fit and soon passes out. Sissy Jupe is present and she is, perhaps, the only one who is able to sense the difference in Louisa. Louisa keeps herself at a distance and is "impassive, proud and cold." Sissy feels a mixture of wonder, pity and sorrow for Louisa.


The reference to Bluebeard and Mr. Gradgrind's office room being full of "bluebooks" is a combination of irony and allusion. At the very least, the very mention of Bluebeard, a villain from a child's fairy tale story, foreshadows the marriage drama that unfolds and it is a reminder of the war against "fancy" and "imagination" that the Gradgrinds have embarked upon. Bluebeard was a dreadful knight who promised a wonderful life to each of his wives until their curiosity overcame them and they were encouraged to search through a hidden closet in the back of his castle‹a closet that contained the dead bodies of his former wives. Surely this is not a good harbinger for Louisa's upcoming marriage.

Mr. Gradgrind is a bit of an ogre. Certainly, he and Bounderby have had Louisa under heavy surveillance and observation for some time. Gradgrind's office is as symbolic an observatory as it is a literal one. The characterization of Louisa reflects the power and politics between Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby. She becomes a debased human being in a way, the mere "subject of a proposal." She is weakened but in a reversal, she is the one who stands "impassive, proud, cold" and is above all. The father is beaten at his own game of stoicism and if anything, this chapter marks the beginning of the blindness motif that will come to identify Mr. Gradgrind and his inability to understand the human soul.

Chapter Sixteen: Husband and Wife

The concluding chapter of Book One unites Louisa Gradgrind and Mr. Josiah Bounderby in marriage. Bounderby's first task before the marriage was to inform Mrs. Sparsit. She is offered the option of continuing in the household but she decides that such an arrangement would be improper and Bounderby makes finer arrangements for her elsewhere. He expected that Mrs. Sparsit would be overcome by shock and might pass out but she is hardly surprised and in fact, there is a hint of condescension in her tone. Bounderby assures her that her new position elsewhere will not result in a further fall in societal position.

The eight weeks between the proposal and the wedding are hardly romantic and are entirely fact-based. It is more of a business transaction than anything else. The wedding ceremony is adequately dry and Bounderby makes a long-winded speech. He is very honored to be married to the daughter of as fine a man as Mr. Gradgrind, who is after all, a member of Parliament. He offers best wishes that every man may find a wife as good as his and that every woman may find a husband as good as him. After the wedding, the Bounderbys are due for a honeymoon in "Lyons." Tom sees his sister off and in his happiness‹for his position at the bank is certainly secured now‹he is unable to detect her disappointment.


If this chapter confirms what we have learned from the stories of Mrs. Sparsit and also Stephen Blackpool it is an argument of social commentary: the politics of the social scale are mediated more by marriage than by any other one thing. This also presents an interesting contrast between Mrs. Sparsit and Mr. Bounderby. Her fake show of sympathy foreshadows the eventual unhappiness of the marriage. Who exactly is the "victim?" As Book I ends, we are left to compare the "jolly" state of Bounderby and the more "desperate" condition of Blackpool.