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Charles Dickens - Hard Times




Charles Dickens: Hard Times

In the industrial city of Coketown, a place dominated by grim factories and oppressed by coils of black smoke, the dark-eyed, rigid man Thomas Gradgrind has established a school. He has hired the teacher Mr MacChoakumchild, whom he hopes will instil in the students nothing but cold, hard facts.

While walking back to his home, appropriately named Stone Lodge, Gradgrind catches his two eldest children spying on the circus through a peephole in the fence. He is very angry with his son Tom but his daughter Louisa tells him that it was her idea. As a reaction Gradgrind just asks what Mr. Bounderby would say

Mr. Bounderby - a wealthy, boastful industrialist, who owns factories and a bank, is at that very moment in the drawing room at Stone Lodge. When he hears of the 'misbehaviour' of the children he tells Thomas that he has to exclude this Sissy Jupe from school. Because she is living with the circus folks and because of her Louisa and Tom had the idea to have a look at the circus. Thomas agrees and he and Bounderby want to go to the circus. But before they leave Bounderby asks Loo for a kiss. He is allowed to take one but Louisa begins to rub her cheek after that because she is disgusted.



On the way to Sissy's home the men already meet Sissy who is chased and bullied by Bitzer, a boy from school. They send him home and follow Sissy to her home. When they get there Grandgrind is told by Mr. Slearly, the proprietor of the circus, which Sissy's father has left. He wanted to protect his daughter and so he went to assure her a better life without such a bad father. Sissy is awfully crying. Gradgrind decides to give her a new home and to teach her. So it's time to say good-bye to the circus folks.

The next day Bounderby talks to Mrs. Sparsit. Mrs. Sparsit is a real born lady of the Powler Family. But after falling on hard times Mrs. Sparsit accepted to become Bounderby's housekeeper. Bounderby is afraid that Sissy has a bad influence on Louise who he regards as his future wife.

The same day Louisa talks to her brother Tom. Their father plans to apprentice Tom at Mr. Bounderby's bank. The siblings are both depressed by the colourless monotony of life at Stone Lodge. Louisa feels that something is missing in her life and wonders what it is. Her mother reminds her not to wonder because wondering contradicts the philosophy of fact. This thought makes Mrs. Gradgrind wish she had never been cursed with a family

Sissy is thought by Mr. MacChoakumchild. But her progress is not that good. Sissy is very sad about this fact but Louisa tries to console her. Sissy feels very comfortable in Louisa's presence and is a bit happier.

One night, in the most hardworking, grimy district of Coketown, a simple and d brutally poor man named Stephen Blackpool goes home from his job as a power loom operator in Bounderby's factory. Stephen is a hand, one of the lowest menial labourers in Coketown. He talks briefly in the street to Rachael, the pure, honest woman he loves, the goes home, where he is stunned to find his wayward, immoral, and generally absent wife lying in his bed. In order to soothe the misery of poverty, his wife has become an alcoholic, and although Stephen wishes to divorce form her, he nevertheless pities her.

Disturbed by his wife's sudden reappearance, Stephen visits Bounderby the next day to ask humbly if he has any legal recourse and any possibility of obtaining a divorce. Arrogantly, and with many references to his own impoverished childhood, Bounderby explains that only the wealthy can obtain divorces and that Stephen would be better off accepting his miserable situation.

When Stephen leaves Bounderby's house there is walking an old lady around. She asks him, if he has seen Bounderby and tells him, that she comes every year to have a look at him. But this time he did not leave his house

When Stephen returns to his room, he is shocked to find Rachael sitting next to his bedridden wife, tending to what appears to be a serious illness. Rachael tells Stephen to go to sleep in the chair. Stephen falls asleep, but wakes up just in time to see his wife about to swallow a lethal amount of her medicine. Stephen is unable to act, but Rachael awakens suddenly and seizes the bottle from the sick women, thereby preventing her death. Ashamed of his inability to bring himself to stop his wife's attempted suicide, Stephen looks upon Rachael as an angel.

After a time it is seen that it is senseless to school Sissy. But she can stay to care for Mrs. Gradgrind because Mr. Grandgrind has become a Member of Parliament and so he spends a lot of time in London and Tom is living as an apprentice in the bank.

In this time Louisa becomes the subject of a proposal of marriage. Bounderby wants to marry her. She says yes, but she says this without any emotion. Neither cheer nor sadness.

Mrs. Sparsit has to move to the bank, because Louisa is moving in. Mrs. Sparsit disapproves this marriage but hopes that Bounderby will be happy with Louisa. But she is afraid. She feels that she is taking a drastic and perhaps irrevocable step. But they marry anyway

 

On one of Coketown's rare sunny days, Mrs. Sparsit sits in her apartment in the bank and talks to Bitzer, a former pupil at Gradgrind's school, and now a porter at the bank. The two are discussing the young Tom Gradgrind, who, although he still works a t the bank, has become a 'dissipated, extravagant idler'. A very well-dressed young gentleman interrupts their conversation by knocking at the door. The stranger explains that he has come to Coketown to enter politics a disciple of Gradgrind. His suave manner and genteel appearance please Mrs. Sparsit, and she attempts to flatter him. The young man inquires about Louise Bounderby, of whom he has heard intimidating reports: he imagines that she must be middle-aged, quick-witted, and formidable. When Mrs. Sparsit assures him that Mrs. Bounderby is simply a lovely young woman, he seems very relieved and interested.



We learn that the strange visitor's name is James Harthouse and that he is a disingenuous, wealthy young man who is only interested in Gradgirnd's politics because he hopes they will alleviate his pervasive boredom. He doubts not really share Gradgrind's philosophy of fact, but he is prepared to pretend that he does in order to pass the time. Harthouse goes to dinner at Bounderby's where he is very intrigued by Louisa.

After dinner, Harthouse takes the caddish young Tom - who is highly impressed with his new acquaintance amoral worldliness - back to his apartment. Harthouse plies tom with wine and tobacco and then coaxes the story of Louisa's marriage out of him. The drunken Tom claims that Louisa only married Bounderby for Tom's sake, so that she could us Bounderby's money to help her brother with his won financial difficulties. Once Harthouse learns that Louisa does not lover her husband, he privately resolves to seduce her.

Elsewhere in Coketown, the factory hands, who have decided to unionize in an attempt to improve their wretched conditions, hold a meeting, An inflammatory orator named Slackbridge gives an impassioned speech about the necessity of unionizing an of showing their sense of fellowship. The only hand who remains unconvinced is Stephen Blackpool. Stephen says he does not believe that the union will do any good because it will only aggravate the already tense relationship between employers and workers. After he voices this opinion, he is cast out of the meeting. The other hands - long-time friends and companions - agree to shun him as a sign of their solidarity. Stephen asks them only to allow him to continue working. He endures four days of ostracism before Bitzer summons him to Bounderby's house.

Bounderby attempts to cajole Stephen into telling him what went on at the union meeting, but Stephen refuses to be used as a spy. He says that Slackbridge is no more to blame for the desire of the workers to unionize than a clock is to blame for the passing of time, but he repeats his belief that the union will do no good. When he refuses to spy on the other hands, Bounderby angrily dismisses him from the factory. Because his fellow hands have ostracized him, Stephen will have to leave Coketown in search of work.

In the evening Stephen, who is in company of Rachael and Mrs. Pegler, the old woman who walked around Bounderby's house, is visited by Louisa and Tom. Louisa is deeply impressed, that Stephen refused to help her husband. She offers him money to help him on his way. Tom also tells him to wait the next few night outside the bank and to wait for someone to help him. Stephen waits and is observes by several people, including Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer, but nobody comes to help him. So he leaves Coketown.

As James Harthouse begins to enjoy some political success, he also begins to plan his seduction of Louisa and spends a lot of time together with her at Bounderby's country estate near Coketown, and trough their private conversations he learns how to manipulate the emotions that Louisa herself does not know she has. Realizing that her brother is the only person for whom she truly cares, Harthouse uses his influence over Tom to make him act more kindly to Louisa - and he makes sure she knows who is responsible.

One morning Bounderby is very excited. He tells that the bank has been robbed of roughly 150 pounds and that the only suspect is Stephen Blackpool, who was seen loitering outside the bank late at night and that he flee from Coketown. Louisa suspects Tom to have robbed the money because she knows of his debts. Tom does say that he is innocent. But when Louisa leaves the room he begins to cry because of his guilt.

In this time Mrs. Sparsit begins to be more often at Bounderby's house and refers to Louisa as 'Miss Gradgrind'. She observes Louisa very attentive and does not like her spending her time with Harthouse.

Louisa returns home for a time because her mother is about to die. Mrs. Gradgrind wanted to tell Mr. Gradgrind something. Something that he has missed or forgotten and he should find out. But she cannot remember and in the end she dies.

One day, Louisa is alone at home in Coketown. Mrs. Sparsit does not like this thought. She hurries to the country, ignoring a driving rain, where she heads into the forest and discovers Louisa and Harthouse in an intimate conversation. He wants to be her lover and they arrange a meeting later this night in town. Louisa sets out for Coketown at the moment. Mrs. Sparsit traces her but she looses Louisa before she reaches her destination. But Louisa does not meet Harthouse. Instead she goes to Stone Lodge to talk to her father. She worries about her bringing up because she always was taught nothing but facts. But now there are feelings. Feelings like love for Harthouse and feelings like hate for Bounderby. She is in a miserable situation and does not know how to escape. Because of all these feelings Louisa begins to cry awfully and finally collapses.




Louisa awakens in her bed. Her father does not know how to help her but Sissy lovingly vows to help Louisa learn how to feel and how to find happiness.

The day after Louisa's arrival Sissy goes to Harthouse. He is worried because Louisa does not appear in the night. She tells him, that he will never see her again and that he has to promise that he will leave Coketown and that he will never come back. With a heavy heart Harthouse agrees and leaves the town.

At the same time Bounderby arrives at Stone Lodge and wants to talk to Gradgrind because Mrs. Sparsit told him what has happened. Bounderby is very angry. Gradgrind asks him to be insightfully and he wants Louisa to stay at Stone Lodge till she feels better. But Bounderby does not agree and tells Gradgrind that Louisa is at noon the next day at home or he will send all her properties to Stone Lodge where she can stay forever. Louisa does not appear at Bounderby's house and so he sends all her properties to Stone Lodge and resumes his life as a bachelor.

Bounderby diverts his rage into the continuing efforts to find Stephen Blackpool. Slackbridge gives a speech blaming Stephen for the robbery, and the hands are roused to track him down. One day, Louisa is paid a visit by Bounderby, her brother, and a sobbing Rachael, who protests that Stephen will return to clear his good name. Although she is loath to suspect Louise of deceit, Rachael fears that Louisa's previous offer of money was merely a cover for her plan to frame Stephen for the robbery. Rachael has sent Stephen two letters explaining the charges against him, and she claims that he will return to Coketown in one or two days. But a week passes and still he does not return. His continued absence only increases suspicion against him.

Sissy visits Rachael every evening. One evening they see that Mrs. Sparsit is dragging Mrs. Pegler into Bounderby's house. Mrs. Sparsit tells that she has found the woman in Stephen's apartment and that she must be an assistant of him. But Mrs. Pegler tells that she is Bounderby's mother. And she never abandoned him, he abandoned her. She raised, educated and loved him. But he left her after he had become wealthy and forbid her so see him. The myth of Bounderby, the self-made man is exploded but he refuses to offer an explanation for his former lies about his past.

Some days later Rachael and Sissy go for a walk. During this time they suddenly discover Stephen's hat. They start to search him and find Stephen in and old mining pit which is called Old Hell Shaft. Stephen fell into the pit but he is still clinging to life. With help they can rescue Stephen. But after telling Rachael that he loves her and bidding to ask Tom for the information that will clear his name he dies.

But Tom is missing. Sissy told him to flee. She advised him to go to Liverpool where Slearly's circus is at the moment. So Tom can try to escape from prison. Sissy, Louisa and Gradgrind set out to find Tom. And indeed they find him at Slearly's circus. Tom is angry with Louisa. He is blaming her for his predicament because she refused to finance his gambling habit. But Loo is not angry. She just cries out that she loves him and that she will ever love him. Slearly wants to send Tom to the coast so that he can take a ship to leave the land. But suddenly Bitzer appears and wants to take Tom to Coketown and to bring him to the police. But Slearly double-crosses Bitzer with a trick involving madly barking dogs and dancing horses, which enables Tom to escape and finally leave the land. Later Slearly tells Gradgrind that Merrylegs, the dog of Sissy's father, returned. A sign that Sissy's father is dead. But they won't tell Sissy so that she can live a light-hearted life.

Bounderby had enough of Mrs. Sparsit and fires her.

The book ends with a look in the future. Gradgrind will cease serving facts and will instead devote hiss skills and money to faith, hope and charity. He will also publish writing exonerating the name of Stephen Blackpool. Furthermore, the narrator discloses that Louisa will never marry again. Tom will soon repent of his hostility towards his sister and will die abroad longing for a last look at Louisa's face. Rachael will go on working and continue in her sweetness and good faith, and Sissy will have a large family. Louis will be deeply loved by Sissy's children, through whom she will vicariously experience the joy and wonder of childhood. And Louisa will always strive to understand and improve the lives of her fellow human beings.










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