Hard Times

Hard Times Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapters 1-6

Book II

Chapter One: Effects in the Bank

Book II continues about a year after the Bounderby marriage. Coketown is little different and the life of the poor is as hard as it was before. Nonetheless, Mr. Bounderby is convinced that the poor are after a "gold spoon and turtle soup" and luxury living. It is summer and the town is especially hot. Mrs. Sparsit sits upstairs in the Bank where she has been relocated and this is where she holds court with Bitzer, Bounderby's trusty assistant. Bitzer informs Mrs. Sparsit of the common laborers and their lack of values and their inability to save money and improve upon their condition. They both agree that the morals of the poor are wanting. The relationship between Bitzer and Mrs. Sparsit is very much like a relationship between a spy and his employer.

Their gossipy conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger at the door. Mrs. Sparsit consents to see him mainly because she is curious as to who this is. The stranger is a very charming and elegantly dressed gentleman and he shares Mrs. Sparsit's class sympathies. After trading their casual observations on life, the two settle down to conversation and discuss the business at hand. The stranger is to see Mr. Bounderby‹he has a letter of introduction that has come from Mr. Gradgrind. The stranger became acquainted with Mr. Gradgrind in London but this is his first time in Coketown and he is somewhat disgusted with the town.

He is however, very eager to eat Louisa and he is astonished to learn that Mr. Bounderby has married her‹as he is a good three decades older than she is. Mrs. Sparsit assures the stranger that Louisa is not at all the hardened and unattractive academic that he has in mind. Later in the night, Mrs. Sparsit is thinking to herself and she exclaims: "O, you Fool!" but it is unclear precisely whom she means.


The tone is wrought with sarcasm. Dickens uses the word Œwonder' as irony because there is little wonder to be had in Coketown. The "evil eye" glaring over Coketown is as intense a foreshadowing of Bounderby's unraveling as any other image in the novel. The shroud is a symbol of death and dying, decay and destruction.

The metaphor of Babel refers to the Tower of Babel. This is an allusion to an Old Testament story that explains that the excessive pride of humans will eventually topple their enterprises. The image of hell and punishment is reinforced by the very sharp description of the city's climate as "frying in oil."

The use of the word "aspiring" is a pun that refers both to the upward motion of the smoke and the upward yearnings of the poor‹if only the fortunes of the poor rose as easily as the smoke of the factory. A metaphor is employed when the fragility of the townspeople is understood by their being like "weak china."

In characterizing Mrs. Sparsit, Dickens takes her posture (always sitting and watching) and makes her into an equivalent of the Fates, much like Madame deFarge, a famous character from his novel A Tale of Two Cities. The scenes that revolve around Mrs. Sparsit are all about the trappings of social class and position and in these moments, even the tables are personified as having their "legs in an attitude."

Against the cliffhanger that centers on yet another new stranger's mysterious identity, Dickens offers some social commentary on the upper class conceptions of knowledge and education. In sharp contrast to the Gradgrinds, Mrs. Sparsit takes her lack of knowledge as a fashionable symptom of her simple virtue. Even as it makes little sense for lack of knowledge to be rewarded we also see that Sparsit is eager to gain information about the people around her. This interest in others affairs will eventually prove to be Sparsit's undoing.

Chapter Two: Mr. James Harthouse

Mr. Gradgrind is hiring the stranger, Mr. James Harthouse, as an instructor in his school. He will be one of many who are trained in logic and statistics and eager to help relieve children of their imaginations. James Harthouse is the younger brother of a member of Parliament and as he has become an adult, he has failed to find a vocation or even a steady hobby to fill his hours. After trying several other things, Harthouse decided that he might as well give statistics a try and so he had himself coached and instructed in various philosophies. He was a success in London and his older brother easily passed him off to Mr. Gradgrind as a suitable educator. Gradgrind sent James (nicknamed "Jem") down from London to Coketown to get to meet the important men in town‹Mr. Bounderby chief among them.

By the time Bounderby arrives at Harthouse's hotel room, the young man is almost about to quit his new job and "go in" for another. Bounderby is very different from the very suave and collected younger man. He tells James the stories of his young years on the street and the myth of his self-improvement. He asserts that he is not, unlike Harthouse, a gentleman and it makes little sense for Harthouse to expect Bounderby to have any manners. Harthouse pretends to be incredibly amused and interested in Bounderby's stories but he actually finds the man incredibly dreadful and boring.

At Bounderby's mansion, Harthouse meets Louisa and he finds her very attractive but very hard to understand. She is extremely guarded and reserved and he is unsure that his ideas and his rhetorical display are impressing her the way that they have impressed everyone else. In his observations, Harthouse notices that Louisa's ungrateful younger brother, Tom, is the only person that can make her happy. She smiles when she sees him. At the end of the chapter, it is Tom who accompanies Harthouse to his hotel room.


It is very humorous that Harthouse is being hired to instill discipline and order when he is wholly lacking in convictions. A subtle difference between this chapter and the previous ones is the interior monologue of Harthouse; he is the first character in the novel whose thoughts are rendered verbatim to the reader. This is a good indicator of just how transparent his character is, but this will not prevent him from ultimately causing mischief and doing serious damage to his relationships with others.

Dickens is perhaps being a bit too merciless when he describes the Gradgrinds' educational system as "cutting the throats of the Graces." Dickens alludes to the three Graces of ancient Greek mythology, goddesses who personified beauty, joy and flowering. That the Gradgrinds' would eliminate this activity is especially worth noting because Book II is when the "reaping" will occur. The elimination of the Graces will insure the foreshadowed poor harvest.

One of the most important images of the chapter is that of Louisa's face, described as a face whose "natural play was so locked up" that Harthouse is unable to decipher her true thoughts and emotions. The "natural play" is a metaphor for Louisa's facial gestures and her expression but the state of their incarceration and lack of freedom (being "so locked up") stands as a symbol for Louisa's experience as a whole. Just as Bounderby can be understood by his braggart's portrait, Louisa is represented by her imprisoned, stony face. The motif that offers representations of the "self" leads to the metaphor of Bounderby's "household gods." Again, this reinforces his portraits and the toys of his wealth as a combination of idolatry and pride that is sure to bring doom.

A final contrast to consider is Harthouse vs. Louisa. While Louisa may be said to have few emotions and desires because of her restricted upbringing, Harthouse has few genuine emotions and desires because of his refusal to make an unswerving commitment. Dickens' treatment of the theme of fidelity is not a lumping together of the two characters‹when Louisa says "What does it matter?" she means something very different from Harthouse's more casual and more dangerous argument that one set of ideas is "as good as another."

Chapter Three: The Whelp

Tom Gradgrind has become quite wayward despite the rigors of his education and he is incredibly hypocritical and disrespectful. He makes no effort to hide his disdain for Mr. Bounderby even as he fascinated by Mr. Harthouse's flashy clothes and he befriends him for this largely superficial reason. Tom very quickly becomes a pawn of Mr. Harthouse. After a little alcohol and some tobacco, Tom is loose-lipped and uninhibited in his criticism of Mr. Bounderby. At one point, Tom goes as far as to say that he is the only person that Louisa cares about and that it is only for his well-being that she agreed to marry Mr. Bounderby.

Without realizing it, Tom is laying the seeds for a potential affair between Harthouse and his sister. As Harthouse becomes more enrapt with Louisa, Tom offers more and more secrets until he finally falls into a stupor. In his drunken fog, Tom suffers Harthouse's gruff rousing to get up and go home. A waiter helps him through the street and he eventually stumbles in the direction of his home, dissipated and wholly unaware of what he has done.


Tom's new characterization as a "whelp" is certainly a sing of bad things to come. Indeed, Tom's condition comes to be less a matter of foreshadowing so much as it shows the inevitable workings of fate. Later in the novel, the reader will find that well before Tom actually became a criminal, the novel had already uncovered his criminal potential. As an ignorant, headstrong young man, Tom Gradgrind suffers from what the Ancient Greeks called "hubris," an excessive pride that usually roused the gods to anger. In this case, Tom does not even have the benefit of becoming a fallen hero for there is nothing heroic about him. The image that he has of himself is far grander than what he actually is.

The images that identify Tom in this chapter are subtle indicators of the young man's folly, blindness and inability to direct his steps. In this chapter, he becomes involved in drugs, soporifics, tobacco, cigars and the like‹all of which induce a clueless sleep. This is reinforced by the symbolic action of begin carried through the mist by the waiter and Tom feels as though he is "lounging somewhere in the air." Certainly, one can draw a parallel between Tom and Stephen Blackpool's wife, but the most important feature of Tom's drunkenness is his somewhat innocent destructive activity. His intentions are far from pure, but he is unaware of what greater evils he sets in motion. Whether from the cigar smoke or the alley-air, Tom is not in control of his action.

A better parallel lies between Tom and James Harthouse for Harthouse will come to relinquish control of his actions by simply avoiding to calculate the consequences of the things he does. What these characters leave unsaid and to happenstance expresses a sentiment echoed in Dickens's euphemistic condemnation of Tom who would have done better to let the foul river rise above his "curtained head." Suicide is the unsaid factor here, and while Tom is never driven to suicide, his fate is little better and he does far greater harm to other innocent characters.

Chapter Four: Men and Brothers

This chapter returns to the life of Coketown's laboring poor. A conniving and dishonest man named Slackbridge is at the head of a movement to create labor unions. He has taken the legitimate concerns of the poor but he is more interested in inciting outrage and building a platform for his own power and edification than in achieving the common goals of the "Brotherhood." Stephen Blackpool is one of the power loom weavers and he is present at the meeting but he declines to join the union. Slackbridge denounces Blackpool and he curbs his language only after several members of his faithful crowd demand that Stephen be given a chance to defend himself.

Of course, Stephen lacks the rhetorical skills and the manipulative desires of Slackbridge and his deeply felt remarks are received but to little avail. Stephen has no problem with others joining the movement and he supports them but he cannot join and would simply like to continue his job without any trouble. Unfortunately, under Slackbridge's new regime, Stephen is ostracized as a traitor and he is deliberately ignored and shunned. Suffering the silent treatment, Stephen avoids seeing Rachael because he worries that if she is seen with him she will be treated in a similar way. The union movement has not yet spread to the women but it is expected in the near future. Stephen's life has simply gone from bad to worse and things look to get little better when he receives a summons to see Mr. Bounderby in his residence.


Slackbridge is one of Dickens's quintessential caricatures, the principal characterization of the man being derived from his one-word name: slack bridge. The juxtaposition of slack and bridge, should amply explain the danger that Slackbridge presents as a leader for the urban poor. Like a bridge, he is necessary and essential to the cause. But he is slack, not dependable, untrustworthy and dangerous. It is the combination of slack and bridge that produces the fault of the man. The worthless content of Slackbridge's message is described by alliteration in the phrase "froth and fume" and Slackbridge's demagoguery can be compared and contrasted to Bounderby and Sparsit, two other leading orators of the novel.

In the pairing of Stephen Blackpool against Slackbridge, Blackpool's negative name has no correlation with his character. Still, he is no match for Slackbridge's powerhouse. Slackbridge's rhetorical skills are exemplified in the copious allusions that he offers in the hopes of painting a sour picture of Blackpool's moral credentials. He alludes to the Old Testament story of Esau and his brother Jacob who tricked his brother Esau into selling his birthright. Slackbridge also mentions Judas (Iscariot) who betrayed Jesus Christ and a man by the name of Castlereagh, a British politician who earned the scorn of the laboring classes and also foreign diplomats by reneging on his promises.

Chapter Five: Men and Masters

When Stephen arrives he is in the company of Mr. Bounderby, Louisa, Mr. Harthouse and Tom. Mr. Bounderby intends to make an example of Stephen and present him to Mr. Harthouse as a sort of specimen of the lower classes. He asks Stephen if the other laborers have been harassing him but Stephen is unwilling to disparage his fellow workers. Bounderby then suggests that Stephen's conduct is on account of some far-fetched hope that he is going to come into luxury because he has resisted the insurrectionist movement. Stephen replies that he made a promise not to join the union and that is why he has refrained (but this is not a promise he has made to Bounderby but to another).

When Mr. Bounderby describes the group as a gang of "rascals and rebels," Stephen argues in their favor and explains that economics is at the root of their crisis. The problem is rich people who argue that they are always correct and that the poor are always in the wrong simply because of how much money they have. Stephen describes the situation as a "muddle" and he assures Bounderby that the problem is larger than Coketown and its factories and the longer the problem goes unsolved the greater the tension. Bounderby does not appreciate the criticism and on a whim he decides to repay Stephen's loyalty by accusing him of being disloyal. He goes as far as to say that Stephen has betrayed both his employer and his fellow employees and he caps his argument off by firing Stephen "for a novelty." Upon completion of his current assignment, Stephen is to leave the factory. Stephen appeals that he will not be able to find work in another place but Mr. Bounderby does not care. He looks at Louisa in the hopes of her rescuing him but she has lowered her head.


The narrative structure of this chapter parallels the "Men and Brothers" theme with its own "Men and Masters." Once dominated by those of his own low social standing, Blackpool is now dominated by those who are his social superiors. The "black unpassable world betwixt" the rich and the poor is a metaphorical "blackpool" that also echoes the words about angels and dead siblings who are benevolent spirits, blessing from across the "gulf" of life and death. The other major metaphor that Blackpool uses to describe the plight of the poor is a clock that is set on a ship bound to Norfolk.

His reference to Norfolk is well worth notice as Norfolk was an old Virginia colony that was unsuccessful and little different from the lost colony of "Roanoke." One of the central themes of literature involves the "unity" of time. Here, Stephen is practically philosophizing when he argues that time will continue to advance regardless of the do-nothing attitude of those who have the potential to produce some benefit for society. The social commentary focuses on the "muddle" that has been created in the hypocrisy of the wealthy and the incredible want of those who are lower on the social totem-pole. Just as Bounderby is incredibly casual in delivering a very serious blow to Stephen's livelihood, the images that describe him as a "windbag" and as a "wind rising" express the violent potential of his volatility. Yet again, Stephen is martyred and wounded despite his good heart. Don't expect his situation to get anything but worse; his fate is steady and he cannot overcome the curse of his name.

Chapter Six: Fading Away

By the time Stephen leaves Mr. Bounderby's house it is getting dark. Walking to his slum, he encounters Rachael walking alongside the old country woman that he had seen about a year previous. Just as she had been before, the lady was in a cheery mood despite the somber atmosphere. She has heard about Mr. Bounderby being married and she was hoping that she might get a chance to see the bride but she has not been very lucky. Stephen assures the woman that Louisa is young and pretty and this, of course, is exactly what the lady wants to hear.

Stephen informs Rachael that he has lost his employment and they are both depressed because they know Stephen is going to have to leave Coketown if he there is any hope of him working again. Though he is not happy to leave, Stephen is sure that Rachael's life will be easier without him there to complicate things. Deep down, both of them know that they will never see each other again. Stephen asks the old lady about her family and she announces herself as Mrs. Pegler, a widow. She also says that she "had a son" and Stephen and Rachael assume that her son has died though this is not what Mrs. Pegler has actually said. She re-states her claim: "I have lost him."

There is a small disturbance and the landlady comes up the stairs and informs Stephen that Mrs. Bounderby has arrived to see him. Mrs. Pegler is horrified that the woman might see her and she hides in a corner. When Louisa enters, she does the best that she can to undo her husband's wrong‹though of course, she cannot undo what he has decided. She offers some money to Stephen and he shows his decency by refusing the larger sum she offers and he instead takes two pounds‹a nominal amount that shows that he is grateful, but independent. Louisa has brought Tom with her and Tom seems to have some sort of plan in mind. He tells Stephen that he will be able to help him further and instructs him to loiter outside of the bank to wait for more instruction. Stephen does all of this for two days‹to no avail, for word never comes from Tom. He finishes his assignment and begins his journey to a new town and a new life.


"Fading Away" presents us with the images of decay, lingering and failure‹all of these foreshadow pain in the lives of the major characters. And a good part of this pain comes in the fact of fate being so protracted. Blackpool is not so fortunate as to suffer once and finally; rather, life gives him so many convolutions and false hopes that he is forever entangled in the negative affairs of his life. Just as his old wife is described as a metaphorical "evil spirit," the old lady who returns seemingly out of nowhere to comfort Stephen in his hour of need, is a symbol of fidelity.

Even though Stephen has the opportunity to leave Coketown, the potential freedom is overwhelmed by stronger, more negative images. The law of fate "rose like the sea" much as Bounderby exhibited the archetypal image of the powerful wind. In both cases, nature's archetypal images are employed to express the power of the forces who are against Stephen. They are as strong as nature because they present him with a fate that he cannot escape from. At the same time, the nature imagery suggests the death and decay of Coketown alongside the excessive power of sadness and of Bounderby. Most emblematic is the deteriorated sunrise‹which is very sharp because sunrise is when the sun's radiance dissolves the darkness of the previous night.

Dickens writes that the "sun made but a pale waste in the sky, like a sad sea" much as other characters "looked wan." We can add to these symbols, the fact that the town is "in eclipse" and is metaphorically blinded by the eclipse and the "smoked glass" of the town. The sun and sea images have been perverted as the only way to show how disorderly and improper the order and propriety of Coketown truly are.