Hard Times

Hard Times Summary and Analysis of Book I, Chapters 6-10

Chapter Six: Sleary's Horsemanship

Sissy Jupe lives in a public house called Pegasus's Arms and this is where she leads the two men. The inscription at the entrance suggests that the public house is a place where alcoholics congregate and Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind are clearly out of their element. The decorations of the public house are theatrical and the joviality of the scene is all the more clear when Merrylegs appears. Sissy is surprised to find that her father is not in the room that they share. He had sent her on an errand to retrieve the "nine oils" as an ointment for his pain. Looking through the room, Sissy finds that the trunk is empty and she is suddenly fearful.

The other members of the performing group also live in the public house and they try to explain to Sissy that her father has abandoned her. He has not left out of ill will, but because he thinks that she will have a better life without him as her guardian. It was with this intention that he had her enrolled in Mr. Gradgrind's school. Mr. Bounderby is morally enraged that a man would actually desert his own daughter. She has no other family in the world. One of the members of the group, E. W. B. Childers, does his best to defend Signor Jupe's honor. Jupe's honest intention was to give his daughter a better life and while he wanted to stay with her, he did not believe that he was anything more than a hindrance.

This certainly changes Mr. Gradgrind's plans‹as he had originally come to the public house with the intention of dismissing Jupe from the school. Despite Bounderby's opinion, Gradgrind does not think it is in good taste to abandon Sissy after she has already been abandoned. Gradgrind gives her a choice to make on the spot: either she can stay with the Sleary performing group, remain in Pegasus's Arms and never return to his school, or she can leave Sleary's company, live with the Gradgrinds and attend school. If she chooses this option, of course, she is forbidden to have extended contact with the performers‹though they are the only people that she knows.

It is a difficult decision for Sissy to make but at the urging of Josephine Sleary, Sissy chooses to leave Pegasus's Arms and join the Gradgrinds. While the performing group mourns Sissy's loss, they are also joyful and they remind her that even though this is a harsh moment, life will be better for her. Sissy is losing a family and also a future vocation (as a performer) but when she remembers her father's wishes, Sissy sees that it is right for her to join the Gradgrinds‹if only for the sake of obeying her father in absentia. Sissy becomes very emotional and Josephine comforts the crying child. While Bounderby is short on patience, Mr. Gradgrind is not emotional, but he is not without pity. Even though he knows that Signor Jupe is never coming back to find Sissy, he indulges her child-like faith and allows her to carry the bottle of nine oils with her. The leader of the performing group tells Sissy that the bottle is heavy to carry and will be of little use to her. But Cecilia is convinced that her father will return to find her and that when he comes for her, he will want the bottle (She is not even convinced that he has deliberately left her‹though all facts suggest this is the case).


Both the dog, Merrylegs, and the name of the public-house‹Pegasus's Arms‹are symbols of the "fancy" that Sleary's company offers, in contrast to the world of hard facts and figures. The additional cast includes a "Centaur" and a "cupid" which are also allusions to the same Greek mythologies that spawned the "Pegasus." It is certainly ironic that Bounderby, a man who has claimed to have been abandoned in his youth, would now be the advocate of Sissy's rejection and abandonment. His hypocrisy is certainly one of the main targets of Dickens's social commentary.

Mr. Sleary is one of Dickens's caricatures. His loose eye and his lisp make him appear as ridiculous as circus performer might be expected to be. Still, he does have a few words of wisdom to offer and especially later on in the novel, Mr. Sleary is an archetypal fool who is actually wise.

Chapter Seven: Mrs. Sparsit

Mrs. Sparsit is the housekeeper for Mr. Bounderby‹as he is a bachelor and in need of someone to keep his house tidy. Mr. Bounderby especially relishes the arrangement because Mrs. Sparsit was once a "highly connected" lady and she had seen better days. But she had fallen on "hard times" after marrying young and being widowed by a man who left her only debts and little fortune to rely upon. Bounderby's boasting often dwelled upon the difference between their stories‹for he was low-born and moved himself up in society and she was high-born and now she is his housekeeper.

Mrs. Sparsit is a very good housekeeper and in spite of Bounderby's often uncivilized manner, she always retains the graces that befit a lady of her standing. Bounderby discusses both Louisa and Cecilia Jupe and it is clear to see that he is very interested in Louisa but not at all amused by the idea of the Gradgrinds "bringing up the tumbling-girl." There is the hope that Cecilia might be a good influence on Louisa‹by providing her with a perfect example of all that can go wrong when one is not rooted in a disciplined upbringing. Bounderby thinks that if anything, Cecilia will corrupt Louisa.

Concerning young Tom Gradgrind, Mr. Bounderby decides that at some point in the near future, after the young man has further progressed in his studies, he will make a job for him at the bank. When Mrs. Sparsit attempts to interpose an opinion, Bounderby reminds her that she knows very little about these subjects because she has grown up in "devilish high society" though she has done very well at accommodating herself to the changes life has dealt her. Cecilia and Gradgrind are both present and Gradgrind overlooks Cecilia's social awkwardness and makes his final decision to bring the girl into his household. He announces that she will be "reclaimed and formed" and that her previous education‹reading stories about fairies, dwarves and hunchbacks‹has come to an end.


Characterization is very important in this chapter, which center on the character for whom it is named. Mrs. Sparsit's name can be read as a combination of the words "sparse" and "sit." Throughout the novel, the reader will find that Sparsit is almost always described in terms of her posture (and she is usually sitting). Her character and her history are riddled with contradictions and contrasts. There is, for example, the irony of her husband dying of alcoholism ("brandy") in the midst of French decadence (the port city of Calais). And yet, Sparsit is to be considered as a moral example and as for power, she is both a "conqueror" and a "princess."

Bounderby is described with various symbols of his own power; chief among them are his portrait and his bank documents. The portrait is an especially interesting symbol as it is a likeness of Bounderby and is also an artistic image. Why should Bounderby be so interested in an artistic rendering of himself? Perhaps it is because the portrait is not an element of fancy, but is an extremely accurate representation. It is, essentially, a second Bounderby.

Finally, there are a few instances of hyperbole in this chapter, as seen in much of Gradgrind and Bounderby's dialogue about Cecilia Jupe. The reference to Fairies, Dwarves and the Hunchback as "destructive nonsense" is a little extreme. But this hard line of reasoning does situate Jupe's experience within the themes of education and conversion. It is interesting to note that Cecilia is to be "reclaimed and formed" both intellectually and morally.

Chapter Eight: Never Wonder

This short chapter is another one of Dickens' interludes: "Let us strike the key-note again, before pursuing the tune." About six years previous, Louisa was overheard using the phrase "I wonderŠ." And her father forbade her from wondering. Between Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. M'Choakumchild all of the youthful impulses to wonder have been notably suppressed. The children born in Coketown are "unlucky infants" and all of the social bodies agree on the single point that these children are never to learn how to "wonder." Instead they are to focus on "trust" and "political economy."

The town library was sometimes the source of Gradgrind's dismay‹when readers opted for literature rather than geometry and drama instead of statistics. This sort of existence has become unbearable for the young Gradgrinds. Tom tells his sister: "I am sick of my life, Loo. I hate it altogether." He and Louisa are both sulking in their room and Tom insists that Louisa is the only person in his life who is capable of making him happy. Everyone else has fallen under the sway of dullness but Louisa has managed to keep a spark of the interesting alive.

Louisa looks at the shadows on the wall and she looks into the fire and she is able to almost spin stories out of what she sees. Thomas cannot see what she does, but he does listen to the things that she says while she looks into the fire. Looking into the fire causes Louisa to wonder. And when Thomas notes her admission, Louisa replies that she has always had "unmanageable thoughts." Mrs. Gradgrind has been listening at the door and she re-iterates the warning issued six years previous. Louisa is not to wonder and Thomas is not to encourage his sister to do something he knows will worry her father. Louisa has angered and disturbed Mrs. Gradgrind to the point where she says: "I really do wish that I had never had a family, and then you would have known what it was to do without me!"


Chapter Eight is more important within Dickens' philosophical context than in the actual "story" that is being presented in the novel. Certainly, the characters are affected by the course of events, but when Dickens writes of returning to the "key-note" this is a hint that he is returning to look at the major themes and contrasts that have been presented thus far. In a sense, it is a summary of the major ideas in conflict. An example of this conflict can be seen in the library; ironically, Gradgrind does not approve of the establishment. Dickens develops this point by contrasting "Defoe" versus "Euclid" and "Goldsmith" versus "Cocker." These references basically reiterate the fact that Gradgrind does not like literature (Daniel Defoe is the author of such classic fictional works as Robinson Crusoe and [?]Goldsmith is a famous British playwright. Euclid, on the other hand, is an ancient Greek who basically invented geometry and [?]Cocker is [?]).

The battle between the literary agents of "fancy" and the hard mathematical analysts can be seen again in Dickens' archetypal use of fire imagery to convey the sense of the storyteller (in this case, Louisa Gradgrind‹but also, in a larger sense, Dickens, no?) as a somewhat magical, more modern version of the ancient oracles. In Greek myth, oracles were ordained priest-like figures who were usually female and known for looking into the fire and "reading the signs." Incidentally, this scene of a sister reading the fire to her younger brother is repeated in another one of Dickens' novels, Our Mutual Friend. The fire can be a symbol of the hearth, of familial warmth and love between siblings but we find here is that this warmth is largely frustrated.

The contrast to Fancy and imagination comes with the lingering cold, despite the fire. In a metaphorical sense, we can describe the Gradgrinds' family life as very cold and lacking in emotion. An important distinction can be made between coldness and hate, indifference and dislike. The parents neither hate nor dislike their children, but they are emotionally cold, indifferent and distant. In opposition to emotion and "wonder," they prefer science. We see mechanical imagery in the way that Louisa and Tom describe their emotions (as a coiled "spring," for example) and in the lack of freedom and repression of emotions. In a way, repressing ones true emotions, feelings and desires is a form of dishonesty and this chapter foreshadows later scenes in the novel, where Louisa's repression becomes a matter of loyalty and fidelity (a key theme of the novel).

Chapter Nine: Sissy's Progress

Sissy did not have an easy time of things and she continually considered running away. The belief that her father would be unable to find her was the only thing that kept her in Gradgrind's custody. Gradgrind has some pity for the girl, mainly because he questions whether any amount of education will undo the damage that has been done. Sissy tells Louisa that she is luck to have been so trained at an early age, but Louisa replies that she is not necessarily the better for it. Sissy is able to help Mrs. Gradgrind with tasks and chores and she is able to keep Louisa in a cheery mood but mistakes "seem to come natural" to her when she is in the classroom.

When Mr. M'Choakumchild is teaching National Prosperity, Proportions and Statistics, Sissy always answers incorrectly. Her responses are based more on compassion that on calculation. Louisa asks Sissy about what her life was like before and she learns that the girl's mother died when she was very young. Talking about her father, Sissy admits that he has left her‹but he has left her for her own good. He traveled as a clown but as he got older his skills weakened. Sissy worries that it was partly in embarrassment that her father left her‹and the traveling company as well.

Sissy remembers that her father loved when she would read stories to him, though these same stories she is forbidden to speak of in the Gradgrind's house. Sissy begins crying, while she is telling these stories to Louisa. Their conversation is interrupted when young Tom enters the room and announces that Bounderby has arrived, and that if Louisa will make an appearance than Bounderby will take Tom out to dinner. Sissy often asks if her father has sent her any letters but none have arrived. Again, Mr. Gradgrind is dismayed by Sissy's slow learning.


The characterization of Cecilia Jupe as a student who is trying to make "progress" in her relations with the Gradgrinds relies upon an allusion to the epic, Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. As this work is about a very devout character (named Christian) who tries to get to Heaven (called the Celestial City) and avoid sin (in such places as the Slough of Despond), you could say that Dickens' use of this "Progress" is intended as irony. The reference to Bunyan's work might not be obvious but once it is pointed out, the reader should consider the different types of "progress" that might exist. Dickens lived during the great "Industrial Revolution" of Great Britain and the Gradgrinds are certainly part of this revolution. Still, Dickens suggests that this economic and scientific progress should be matched with moral and artistic progress.

Without being as religiously explicit as Bunyan, Dickens tries to show that Cecilia has made moral progress in a way that the Gradgrinds have not. For example, there is the metaphor of Mr. Gradgrind's eye as a "wintry piece of fact." It is hard and dead (the archetype of winter) but Cecilia can make progress, and can grow for she is attached to images of spring, youth and life. As one of the major themes in the novel focuses on education and conversion, we might ask ourselves what the Gradgrinds (especially Louisa) could learn from Sissy and how this progress might make their lives better. Dickens contrasts Sissy's concern for others with "political economy"‹an academic subject that should answer questions in order to take care of a society and its citizens.

One of Dickens' literary qualities that does not appeal to modern readers is his overly sentimental treatment of certain characters. Hopefully, the sentimentality does not significantly obscure some of the subtle points that Dickens is making when he seems to making the same point over and over again. There are many ways in which Sissy is a contrast to the Gradgrinds, but there is the hidden detail of her father being a circus clown, basically, yet being a better father than Mr. Gradgrind. Later on in the novel, Dickens will again use the stock character of the fool in order to show true wisdom. The constant battle between "Fancy" and "Fact" is complicated by the varying degrees of honesty, truthfulness and accuracy. While Mr. Gradgrind always insists on "Fact" and we can assume Dickens to prefer "Fancy," Dickens does try to show that the preference for one or the other is a matter of choice and opinion. Regardless of which is better, both are necessary and life is miserable without the both. In terms of social commentary, Sissy's sobbing over being denied the stories she loves ("the wrong books") is an example of censorship, and yet another example of the themes of surveillance and watching that fascinate Dickens.

Chapter Ten: Stephen Blackpool

The story turns to the workers of Coketown, a group of laborers known as "the Hands." Among them lived a decent man named Stephen Blackpool. He is forty but he looks much older and has had a hard life. In fact, those who know him have nicknamed him "Old Stephen." Stephen has very little as far as intelligence or social graces and he is very simply defined as "good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity." After his long hours in the factory, once the lights and bells are shut down, he looks for his friend Rachael. On this night, he cannot find her but just when he is convinced that he has missed her, she appears.

Rachael is also a laborer, she is thirty-five years old and she is a gentle, caring person. They have been friends for many years and Stephen takes consolation in this. Whenever his life seems unbearable, Stephen knows that Rachael will make him feel better. She repeatedly advises him that when life is as unpleasant as theirs, it is better not to think about it at all. They walk together towards the part of town where they both live. Here, the houses are extremely small and dirty. Stephen does not even live in a house‹he lives in a small room above a shop. He tries best to keep things as orderly as possible and he is always courteous in regards to the woman who rents the small room to him.

It seems that this night is full of bad luck for Stephen. He enters his room and he stumbles against a wretched figure that frightens him. A drunk and disabled woman is in his room and she is apparently someone that he knows. As the chapter ends, she laughs at Stephen scornfully. She has returned from some part of the past to ruin his life and give him even more to worry about. She passes out in a drunken stupor and Stephen is left to his misery.


Dickens' portrayal of Stephen Blackpool is a form of characterization that basically equates the figure and the scene. Stephen is the personification of his town and the symbol of the downtrodden working-class. The name "blackpool" relies upon basic negative imagery to suggest Stephen's dim prospects. This is entirely true and unwavering: only bad things happen to Stephen even though he remains an incredibly virtuous person throughout his adversity. Both Stephen and Rachel fit into Dickens' sentimental depiction of the working-class as more decent and morally fit than their alleged superiors. The drunken woman at the end of the chapter is a reminder of reality, that not all poor people are also decent.

The city is described using the imagery of a hell-like place. It is confusing, ugly and full of smoke. In one passage, the description of the scene contains an allusion to the "Labyrinth" of Greek mythology‹a maze in which a vengeful monster (called the Minotaur) lived. Coketown is a labyrinth in that it is maze-like; each building and street identically resembles the squalor and misery found in all of the other poor-houses and alleys. There is the irony of the factories being described as "Fairy palaces" featuring bells, an elephant and a serpent. Not only are the factories instances of fact versus fancy (and fairies) but there is nothing innocent nor anything harmless about these "Fairy palaces." The "titanic shadows," the serpent and the threatening words of the drunken woman complete the symbolism of looming threatening danger. In drunkenness, just as in a maze, everything looks the same and everything is unclear.