Hard Times

Hard Times Summary and Analysis of Book III, Chapters 6-9

Chapter Six: The Starlight

Sunday morning, Sissy and Rachael begin their walk into the country as planned. While they are walking they decide to follow various paths to see if there are any traces of Stephen. Rachael finds his hat and sure enough, the name Stephen Blackpool is printed inside. Sissy looks to see if there is any blood on the hat and fortunately there is no sign of violence. After looking around the area for more clues, they find an old pit and at the bottom of the ditch they see Stephen's body. It is unclear whether he is dead or alive. They split up and go for help, running into the neighboring village and rousing as many people as possible. A messenger is sent to Coketown with a message for Louisa.

The village people are aware the pit, known as Old Hell Shaft, and it is not clear whether or not Stephen is going to survive. By the time that Mr. Gradgrind, Louisa, Tom and Mr. Bounderby arrive on the scene, there is already a crowd. A surgeon is waiting on the side and the men have made a sort of pulley that will lower one man into the shaft and he will then bring Stephen back up with him. After a few minutes, the man announces that Stephen is alive but badly hurt. His body is so twisted that they do not know the best way to get him out of the pit, but they eventually do.

When he is out of the pit, Stephen is set on a bed of straw and given something to drink. It is clear that he has survived but he is not going to live for much longer. He sees Rachael and thanks her for her devotion and her efforts to prove his innocence. He explains that he had taken a shortcut to arrive in town faster but he was not aware of the shaft and accidentally fell. He adds that he worries that there may have been some plot between Louisa and her brother, but Louisa assures him that she has not wronged him in the slightest. As he approaches death, Stephen is confident in his innocence and he asks Mr. Gradgrind to take the obligation of defending him and proving his innocence. As Stephen dies, a bright star lights up the sky and the crowd mourns the death of a good man.


Stephen Blackpool's story is one of many "dismal stories" that concern the "Old Hell Shaft." The characterization of Blackpool may be troubling because Blackpool's decent character is juxtaposed with his steady descent, bad luck, ill treatment and miserable fate. His name‹Blackpool‹seems to have foreshadowed his fall into the ditch. And while few images are as negative as "the Old Hell Shaft" there is a more uplifting contrast in the starlight that appears at the end of the chapter. This is a redemption and restoration of Stephen's good name. Despite his bad luck, he has remained a pure person and the symbol of the starlight is as heavenly as the Old Hell shaft as not.

To the degree that Blackpool was "stoned" by his friends, his story also parallels that of his namesake, St. Stephen who is considered to be the first Christian martyr. The saint also saw a heavenly image at the scene of his death, and was similarly disparaged by his enemies only to be vindicated later. The novelist's social commentary seems more focused on the affairs of this world than the supernatural though. Dickens's phrase the "God of the poor" is not religious sentimentality but is instead a very pointed phrase that seems two-edged: one side, Dickens exposes the irreligious and hypocritical life of the wealthy and noble individuals who presume themselves to be the moral superiors of the poor. At the same time, Dickens challenges the "God of the poor" for his followers are poor, and in Stephen's case, his good deeds and faith only furthered his doom.

Chapter Seven: Whelp-Hunting

While the crowd was watching over Stephen, Tom Gradgrind disappeared from the scene, but not before Sissy had the opportunity to whisper something in his ear. Gradgrind assumes that Tom is with Mr. Bounderby and when he sends for his son, he receives the reply that Tom was assumed to be at Stone Lodge as he was certainly not with Bounderby. Louisa is dismayed and she does not think Tom will appear for awhile. The next morning, Gradgrind goes to the bank and tells Mr. Bounderby that Tom is going to be gone for a few days but he does not go into any details.

Louisa and her father are both convinced that Tom is involved in the theft and Louisa correctly suspects that after she left Stephen's room, Tom made some sort of false offer to Stephen, in her name, encouraging him to loiter outside of the bank. Mr. Gradgrind agrees that Tom has probably done this, knowing that Stephen planned to leave town and would be the most logical suspect.

In this moment of despair, again it is Sissy who has orchestrated a plan for deliverance and rescue. She could easily see that Tom was guilty and she sent him to Mr. Sleary and her old friends who were only a few towns away. Tom said that he had very little money and did not know who could hide him and this was the most reasonable solution as Sissy had read of the circus in the paper just the day before. It is also favorable that the town is only a few hours from the port of Liverpool and Mr. Gradgrind hopes that he might be able to get his son passage on a ship that will send him far away from shame and punishment.

Sissy, Louisa and Mr. Gradgrind find Sleary's circus and they find that Tom has been successfully hidden as a member of the group. He is, in fact, performing as part of the troupe. After his performance, Tom is cleaned up and he confesses his crime without remorse. His amoral attitude is yet another blow to Mr. Gradgrind's educational system and it is especially disappointing to see that Tom does not regard his sister kindly even though she offers him forgiveness and assures him that she still loves him. Mr. Gradgrind is ready to take Tom to Liverpool but he is stopped by Bitzer, who has arrived with full intention of seizing Tom and claiming his reward.


The "hunt" for Tom, the whelp, parallels the "Lost" and "Found" conditions that were presented a few chapters before. Yet again another character has turned up missing. The same motifs of disguise and hidden identities are employed as a means of circumventing surveillance and also sustaining the suspense. As a narrative strategy, it could be argued that Dickens is trying to keep the story away from the reader much as various characters are trying to avoid being discovered. The suspense comes precisely in these strategies of hide-and-seek.

In this chapter, young Tom's characterization reaches its most negative point. His identity as a "whelp" symbolizes his debased, animal status and goes to show how far he has fallen. Using the traditional imagery of his culture, Dickens also describes the "dark view" of Tom and in the circus scene, Tom is a "blackamoor" character whose face has been painted black. This dark/black imagery is supposed to represent Tom's immorality and sin, though for contemporary readers these stereotypical rhetoric doesn't exactly work the way it did for Dickens' mid-19th century British and American audiences. The final irony of Tom's painted state is the fact that the only thing that will make his face clean is beer. The use of alcohol to clean the black paint is an interesting juxtaposition to Harthouse's more metaphorical polishing of his own "ugly surface."

Chapter Eight: Philosophical

Bitzer is unwilling to compromise his duty and Mr. Gradgrind finds that his appeals to emotion and mercy are unsuccessful because Bitzer's education at the Gradgrind school has been so thorough. Mr. Sleary eventually agrees that if Tom has committed this crime then he cannot assist in the escape and he will take Tom and Bitzer into town. Once Bitzer is out of ear-shot, Sleary sends the message to the Gradgrinds that he will help Tom escape because they have been good to Sissy. He also informs Mr. Gradgrind that Sissy's father has died in the interim of years passed but they decide not to tell Sissy. With the help of a trained horse and the dog, Merrylegs, the Sleary company sends Tom off to Liverpool while detaining Bitzer, who is unaware of what is happening.


As it is the next to last chapter in the novel, this "Philosophical" chapter uses a good deal of repetition to tie up some of the loose ends in the novel. The characterization of Bitzer recalls his days in Gradgrind's classroom and unfortunately, he has hardly progressed or matured morally. The last two chapters don't offer very much in the way of symbols or imagery as most of the drama is literal. Dickens's standard reversals and ironic contrasts are present in this chapter. On a broad level, we have found the unraveling of the Gradgrind educational model and here we find that the teacher receives instruction from the fool‹the clowning Mr. Sleary. The archetypal role of the wise fool is as old as Shakespeare (we might recall the "Yorick" allusion from Book II Chapter 8). While Mrs. Sparsit is a fool who perceives herself to be wise, Mr. Sleary is a wise man who is perceived by all (including himself) to be a fool.

Dickens's sentimentality dominates his social commentary. What we have found thus far is that the more fashionable, upper-class characters tend to be dominated by moral faults, though not necessarily bad intentions. While Dickens's does not universally portray the poor in a positive light (Slackbridge and Blackpool's drunk wife, for example), all of his heroes rise from the ranks of the poor without necessarily rising in social standing. Here, we find Sleary's company conveniently nearby so that they can assist Mr. Gradgrind whose son, ironically, has become a culprit. Many critics argue that Dickens's characters are "straw men" who simply represent ideas. At best, the characters might be considered caricatures‹and for what it's worth, Dickens's original serialized versions were famous for the drawings that accompanied them. These scenes were caricatured in the most literal sense.

Chapter Nine: Final

Back in Coketown, Mr. Gradgrind still has the shameful obligation of clearing Blackpool's guilt and implicating his own son in the process. But he does all of this faithfully, for he has given his word. Mrs. Sparsit is relieved of her services in Mr. Bounderby's household and as she departs, she confesses that she has never respected the man and that she has often called him a Noodle to his face.

The final pages of the novel present the future of the main characters and for most of them the future is bleak. Mrs. Sparsit spends the rest of her days with the Lady Scadgers, an old family member and the two are miserable towards one another. Mr. Bounderby only lives for another five years and then al of the wealth that he has built up is squandered by ill-intentioned "humbugs." Mr. Gradgrind truly repents of his old philosophies and he becomes an old and decrepit man who spends many hours in Parliament trying to present his facts and figures in the service of "Faith, Hope, and Charity." But his work is strenuous and his labors are largely unsuccessful. Indeed, he is taunted by those who were once his compatriots.

Louisa and Rachael both remain unmarried, though Louisa lives her years in comfort and Rachael works well into her old age, caring for those around her and fully content to live what she sees as "her natural lot." Years later, Tom is lonely, thousands of miles away and eventually he comes to see the error of his youth and he appreciates his sister's love. He writes her a letter of confession and begins the journey home but unfortunately, he is delayed by illness and he eventually dies before he makes it home. His last word is Louisa's name. Finally, Sissy's story is the brightest of all for she has happy children and they are also a comfort to Louisa. "Happy Sissy's happy children" escape the emotional destruction of the Gradgrind's educational system and they love Louisa who becomes their wonderful teacher. She has "grown learned in childish lore" and she assures their escape of what almost destroyed her. In the end, she performs this service not out of any vow or pledge but "simply as a duty to be done."


This concluding chapter develops the motif of the "pictures in the fire" that appeared earlier. This time, Dickens takes a direct role in the writing, appealing to the audience. The pictures in the fire are a form of augury, or fortune-telling. It is difficult to read, the main argument discusses the ability to predict and prepare for the future. What seems to be the case overall, is that most of the characters' lives change in such a way that they cannot truly predict how they will live their lives. This seems to reflect Dickens' narrative style if anything, for as we have seen he is very fond of plots that twist and turn.