Hard Times

Hard Times Summary and Analysis of Book II, Chapters 7-12

Chapter Seven: Gunpowder

Mr. Harthouse has been very successful in his teaching job and he is considered to have great promise in the industry. He has been devoting most of his attention to Louisa, however. Louisa is clearly unhappy in her marriage and she re-iterates the question that she posed her father: "What did it matterŠWhat did anything matter." Just as she goes through her life not caring what happens, Harthouse is also ambling through simply because he is, at heart, too lazy to actually engineer any sort of design or plan. He never makes a deliberate plan to seduce Louisa, he simply figures that whatever will happen will happen and at this point, he neither hastens nor prevents an amorous relationship from developing.

After months of study, Harthouse begins to understand Louisa and he makes efforts to make her happy. He realizes that his philosophy will gain little ground with her because he does not care about the issues and she realizes that her life is so incredibly cloistered and detached from the outside world. The only way that Harthouse can make Louisa happy is through Tom and he decides he will take advantage of an opportunity should it present itself.

Mr. Bounderby is increasingly wealthier and he adds to the trappings of his social position with a "snug little estate": a country-house he has bought from a man who went bankrupt. On an occasion, Harthouse finds Louisa alone and in a conversation with her he professes an incredible interest in Tom and in winning her trust, he learns that Tom has borrowed quite a bit of money from Louisa to repay gambling debts. Tom's ungrateful manner and his increasingly reckless lifestyle are both a source of consternation for Louisa. When Harthouse gives Tom a stern talking-to and Tom's behavior slightly improves, Harthouse moves into Louisa's good graces.


The narrative structure of chapters seven and eight combine a plot device with a metaphor. It should be immediately noted that there is no literal "Gunpowder" nor a literal "Explosion." Rather, the plot relies upon the cause-and-effect progression of the story in order to maximize suspense. Metaphorically, the "gunpowder" is simply the combustible material of tension and argument in strained relationships. But the "explosion" will turn out to have little to do with what is deceptively foreshadowed by the "gunpowder" in this chapter. In other words, actions are built up to the brink of climax but Dickens often leaves them lingering and turns to other element of the story.

Dickens's social commentary is especially revealing if we think about how the poorer characters are heavily subject to fate. The wealthier characters, however, suffer their calamities in terms of cause and effect. The major emphasis of the foreshadowing in this chapter is the budding potential for an extra-marital romance between Jem and Louisa. While Jem once noted that Louisa had "stone" features, we now find the allusion to the Gorgon sisters‹Medusa, chief among them. Jem feared that Louisa was hardened and ugly, but in fact she only wears her stone face without having lost her beauty. Ironically, the Gorgons do not have the stone faces, rather the young heroes who failed and gazed upon them are the ones turned to stone.

As heroes go, it remains to be seen whether Harthouse will successfully woo Louisa from the husband to whom she is obliged. Even as he metaphorically reads Louisa with a "student's eye" the truth of the matter is that he is a failed teacher in a failing system and she is more complicated than he surmises.

Chapter Eight: Explosion

At this point, Harthouse has not committed himself to any plan of action. In fact, he has yet to develop romantic feelings for Louisa in a true sense. He is simply passing the time by expressing interest in her. Bounderby bursts on the scene with the news that the bank had been robbed. A small safe in Tom's closet that was used for petty purposes had been ransacked and a total of one hundred and fifty pounds was gone. Of course, it could have been far more than that. Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer had been in the bank at the time but Bitzer was sleeping on duty.

A false key is found in the street and it is concluded that the safe was broken into with the false key. Bounderby immediately suspects Stephen Blackpool for not only has Stephen left town, but Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer can testify to the man's ambling back and forth in front of the bank for several days before the robber took place. The crime would both increase his relative fortune and allow him to have his revenge against Mr. Bounderby. Mrs. Sparsit is shaken by the affair and she spends the next few weeks with the Bounderbys and Mr. Harthouse at the country-house.

In the meantime, Louisa harbors a suspicion that her brother has somehow been involved in the crime. But when she asks him to confess, he rejects her advances‹even as she insists on absolute forgiveness. Louisa asks Tom if he thinks that Stephen Blackpool is involved in the crime as he seemed to be a very upright person. Tom is deliberately equivocal in his answers and Louisa leaves his room more bothered than before. After she leaves, Tom begins sobbing in guilt and tearing his hair. He loves his sister for her goodness even as he hates himself because he is so unworthy of her.


When Harthouse is smoking, he becomes a symbolic devil, and the source of temptation. Besides the smoke and fire, he is also associated with the "brimstone" of hellish Coketown. The metaphors used to describe Harthouse's moral condition resuscitate some of the images of drowning that occurred earlier in the novel. Here, his idleness is likened to an "iceberg" that may cause a "wreck" (And it will at the end of Book II). Harthouse is content to let himself drift along without making conscious efforts to do right or to do wrong. This is an important reversal for Dickens because he has spent most of the novel criticizing the excesses of labor and work. Now, his social commentary is leveled against the excess idleness and leisure of the leisure class.

In the discussion of the theft, there is nothing to out of the ordinary. Dickens uses his characteristic excess of irony and understatement when describing the "little safe in young Tom's closet, the safe used for petty purposes." Not only was the "safe" never safe, but we come to wonder how much of a safe this was if it was "little" in size, used for "petty" sums, and entrusted to the small closet of a "young" whelp. Of course, Tom is the thief and the fact that there has not really been a crime will not stop the search for criminals. Indeed, the false crime like the false key both testify to the themes of honesty and fidelity. Moreover, there is the question of surveillance and the limits of human understanding and knowledge. Despite their surveillance skills, Sparsit and Bitzer could not avoid the theft. Despite his rigorous education, Tom could not avoid stealing.

A final comment on knowledge and wisdom comes from Mrs. Sparsit's Shakespearean allusion to the play Hamlet. When thinking of Mr. Bounderby's loss, she hypocritically mourns (without feeling any sentiment) "Alas poor Yorick." This is a reference to Prince Hamlet's lines in Act V, Scene I, Lines 203-204: "Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy." Hamlet has been watching the clumsy gravediggers prepare Ophelia's grave and in the process they uncover Yorick's skull. Yorick was the court jester and play friend of the prince. Ironically, Bounderby is no such Yorick‹"infinite jest" and "excellent fancy" are precisely opposite to his personality. Dickens's hidden reference gives us further reason to suspect Mrs. Sparsit's emotional attachment to her "benefactor," Mr. Bounderby.

Chapter Nine: Hearing the Last of It

Once again lodged in the Bounderby residence, Mrs. Sparsit becomes a prowling snoop, keeping tabs on the affairs of the house. She is more and more resentful of Mr. Bounderby and seems to enjoy the fact that he is under more stress and his marriage is falling apart. At the same time, she hypocritically coddles and pampers Mr. Bounderby who only comes to resent Louisa even more, for lacking the domestic charms and offices of Mrs. Sparsit.

Louisa is summoned back to her childhood home at the news that her mother has fallen ill. Of course, Mrs. Gradgrind had always been exceptionally feeble but she is in her final days and Mr. Gradgrind is still in London, working hard at Parliament. Sissy Jupe has run of the house and Louisa can detect a subtle difference in her younger siblings who have had a prolonged exposure to Sissy. As Mrs. Gradgrind gets closer to death she begins to lose her already loosened grip on reality. She asks for a pen to write letters to her husband but then she simply waves her hands in the air, feigning the motion of writing and this does her just as well. Not long after this, Mrs. Gradgrind dies and little emotion is spent.


The characterization of Mrs. Sparsit focuses on her facial features and their architectural composition. Her "Coriolanian" eyebrows and her dark, all-seeing eyes are indicative of her powers of surveillance. In contrast to the images of Sissy presented in Book III, Chapter One, Sparsit is not a site of refuge but her eyes are "lighthouses on an iron-bound coast." This is a symbol of Sparsit's strength and intensity but we will find in the later chapters of Book II is that she does not use her powers of surveillance to save or rescue anybody. Sparsit presents herself as a serene image. She moves without being seen but she sees all. This is not going to remain for much longer though.

Chapter Ten: Mrs. Sparsit's Staircase

Mrs. Sparsit, once the excessively austere ascetic, is enjoying her weeks at Bounderby's retreat, "feeding on the fat of the land." When she is in Mr. Bounderby's presence she calls him her "benefactor" but when he is not around, she addresses his portrait as "a Noodle." But Mrs. Sparsit's main area of concern is not Mr. Bounderby but his wife and her increasingly dangerous relationship with Mr. Harthouse. Mrs. Sparsit sees Louisa walking down an imaginary staircase that leads to her doom and the unraveling of the marriage. Sometimes, Mrs. Sparsit becomes frustrated because Louisa has an incredible reserve but Sparsit believes that time will prove the story to be one of interest. And throughout the events that unfurl, Sparsit makes no attempt to intervene.

Mr. Bounderby is spending more and more time at the bank‹though the thief remains free. Mrs. Sparsit focuses on Tom and tries to get information out of him but of course, Tom is not perceptive enough to detect the shift in his sister's relationship. As the chapter ends, Mrs. Sparsit prepares to do some detective footwork and she is confident that she will be successful.


The staircase is a central symbol that functions on a number of levels. As far as social commentary, the staircase's verticality expresses the rise and fall of fate as far as social standing is concerned. Indeed, the fates of Mrs. Sparsit, Louisa, Mr. Bounderby and Jem Harthouse are all dependent upon Mrs. Sparsit's staircase. A second major facet of the staircase is, of course, the archetypal fall by temptation. Much along the lines of the classic story of Eden, Louisa's descent down the staircase is a "fall" that parallels the original fall of man by sin.

The title of the chapter seems to heavily foreshadow the events of the next two chapters: "Lower and Lower" and "Down." Here, as always, we can expect that Dickens will employ some type of reversal of meaning and the referents of "Lower and Lower" and "Down" will be something other than we originally expected.

Chapter Eleven: Lower and Lower

Mrs. Sparsit keeps constant watch on everything that is happening and she is dismayed that Louisa has taken such a long time to fall into the gulf at the foot of the staircase. Her Gradgrind education has robbed her of the very fancies that would prey upon her now. Tom informs Mrs. Sparsit that during this weekend, Mr. Bounderby is remaining in town and he has the chore of meeting Mr. Harthouse at the train station. Mrs. Sparsit then goes to Mr. Bounderby and wins permission to lodge at the country-house for the weekend. After Tom leaves, Mrs. Sparsit realizes that Tom has been fooled and that Louisa and James are planning a tryst.

Mrs. Sparsit watches from her post at the bank and then when the timing is right she hastily makes her way to the country-house and sure enough she finds Louisa and James sitting in a garden together. He confesses his love but Louisa remains resistant. He implores her to at least commit to seeing him but she refuses. He suggests a change of venue and the entire time, Mrs. Sparsit, hidden behind the shrubs, gloats to herself that the two young people have no idea that they are being watched.

Harthouse leaves and Louisa soon follows. Mrs. Sparsit assumes that Louisa has eloped and that they have a planned meeting-place and so she trails Louisa as best as she can. It is raining and Mrs. Sparsit is already dirty and muddy from hiding and crawling through the bush. Sparsit follows Louisa to the train station and thinks that Louisa has hired a coachman to get her to Coketown faster but after a few moments Sparsit sees that she is incorrect. Louisa has boarded some train. "I have lost her" is Mrs. Sparsit's exclamation of defeat and frustration.


The potential for romance between Louisa and James is juxtaposed with the war-like relationship between Louisa and Mrs. Sparsit. Without speaking to one another, both characters seem locked in combat and Sparsit takes it as a personal loss when Louisa's "curious reserve" delays her long-awaited fall. Again, Louisa is portrayed as a silent figure is not truly understood by the people around her‹she remains curious. Instead of talking to Louisa, Mrs. Sparsit initiates a form of apostrophe. Mrs. Sparsit threatens Louisa on the imagined staircase, just as she mocks the portrait of Mr. Bounderby to his face. Within the theme of surveillance, Sparsit's behavior makes sense because she is eager to see but reluctant to be seen. She speaks to Louisa‹but not in a way that would allow Louisa to hear the threat: "all your art shall never blind me." Sparsit is very concerned about not being blinded or fooled but in the end of the chapter, she fools herself and misses her victory.

Sparsit wears her "threatening mitten" as a metaphorical glove, again symbolizing the military operation she has undertaken. Sparsit's intentions are never fully revealed. It certainly doesn't look like she has something against Louisa personally. Rather, she intends to exploit a bad situation for her own personal gain. The allusion to the Furies of Greek mythology is adequate evidence of Sparsit's high tolerance for the pain of others. The rain that inundates the streets makes a muddy mess and in the confusion, the "pipes burst" and the streets are underwater. When Sparsit confesses: "I have lost her," we see that the rain has established a symbolic confusion even as Sparsit's clothes are disoriented, torn and disheveled. Louisa is expected to drown in the "gulf" prepared at the base of Mrs. Sparsit's staircase but Sparsit is the most immediate sufferer here.

Chapter Twelve: Down

Louisa arrives at her father's house in Coketown, much to his surprise. She is incredibly perturbed, but far from Mrs. Sparsit's expectations, she is not engaged in any romantic enterprise. Louisa begins an angry interrogation of her father in regards to her education‹where are her emotions: "the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart?" She explains to her father that he has done her a horrible disservice and that she is now in a ruined position. Her capacity to love and to differentiate between emotions is incredibly, deliberately deformed. Mr. Gradgrind is moved with pity and he begins to make apology to Louisa, who has become more distraught than ever before. She implores her father to save her from her situation for he has gotten her into it. She then passes out on the ground and Mr. Gradgrind's educational system has come crashing down with her. This is the end of Book Two: Reaping.


The narrative structure offers a climax in this chapter, but overall Book Two ends with more tension and drama. "Down" continues the trajectory of "Mrs. Sparsit's Staircase" and "Lower and Lower" but in a reversal of expectations, "Down" does not present the symbolic fall that was expected. Louisa does fall down literally, at her father's feet. The metaphor of the fall extends also to the "House of Gradgrind" and the prized educational system for Louisa was the pride and joy of the system. Finally, it appears that Louisa's marriage is also on the verge of collapse. There are many things that have fallen "down," but the phrase has come to mean something larger than what was originally intended by Mrs. Sparsit and her staircase.

Louisa's characterization is more intense than in previous scenes. While Louisa's repressed emotions have prevented her from becoming a full person, here the tension between emotion, temptation and confusion becomes almost epic in its proportions. In symbolic terms, Louisa confesses: "I crushed my better angel into a demon." Her "better angel" is the fanciful, imaginative spirit that she has almost murdered on account of the "demon"‹hard facts, analysis and the suppression of desire. The image of a shipwreck aptly characterizes the "insensible heap" that Louisa has become and breakdown renders her temporarily unable to process any emotions or thoughts.