Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
Hard Times (1854)
- What is the "key-note," the central theme of Hard Times?
(See 22, 41.) Dickens really has a burr in his bonnet; what is it?
- Why is everything at Thomas Gradgrind's school described as "square"?
How would you describe the education offered there? What were its effects
on its recipients (the Gradgrind children, Bitzer, Sissy Jupe)? What does
the name "Gradgrind" suggest? Who is Mr. M'Choakumchild? What
does his name reveal? How does Dickens's name and physical description
of the schoolmaster help his emphasis?
- What notions did Gradgrind and his friends have about reason and "Fancy"
(imagination)? What relation, if any, do you see between Gradgrind's enthusiasm
for the "hard facts" and modern commerce and industry? What is
the connection between Gradgrind's ideas and the tenets of utilitarianism?
- How might Hard Times be seen as portraying some of the points
about reason and imagination, the speculative and the practical, that Schiller
brings out? Compare Dickens' attitude toward play with that of Schiller.
- Why is Gradgrind's home called "Stone Lodge"? What is the
possible significance of its description as having "six windows on
this side ... four-and-twenty carried over to the back wings"? What
effects do Gradgrind's values have on his children? What are his children's
names? Are those names significant?
- How is Mr. Josiah Bounderby described? What does his name suggest?
What are his occupations? What is the significance of his supposedly being
"a self-made man"? What stories does he tell about his childhood?
What great irony is revealed with respect to that "Bully of humility"
(17), the "hard facts" industrialist, Mr. Josiah Bounderby? What
is Bounderby's opinion of the smoke which hovers over Coketown (96)? (is
this similar to certain contemporary situations)
- What is Coketown like? How is it described (22, 52, etc.)? What is
the significance of the Coketown imagery ("red brick," "black
canal," "serpents of smoke," etc.)?
- What sorts of religion are practiced in Coketown? What distinguished
the various religious denominations? What do they have in common? What
values prevail in Coketown? Why does Dickens end his ennumeration of those
values with the words "world without end, Amen" (23)?
- How is time marked in Coketown, and what is the common experience of
time? How do Gradgrind and Bounderby look upon time and "wasting time"?
What is it to "know the value of time" (28)? Are there two different
concepts of time at work in the novel (71)? How are they different? What
modes of life are they associated with? What is the significance of the
passage at the end of chapter 14 (Book 1) which begins with "she tried
to discover what kind of woof Old Time, that greatest and longest-established
Spinner of all ... [etc.]"
- How do Bounderby and Gradgrind look at "labouring people"
(23, 57, etc.)? What is their opinion of them? Why would they like to force
them to attend church (23)? Why are they referred to as "the Hands"
- What is the function of Mr. Sleary's horse riding show in the book?
How are the people of Sleary's company described? What specific terms are
used in those descriptions (31-32)? What is the significance of the emphasis
on mothers, fathers and children, their numbers, and the patterns of their
acrobatics? What position does "play" and playfulness occupy
in their lives? How about their affective relations? How do these people
differ from the Gradgrinds and Bounderby?
- What is the significance of the figure of Mrs. Sparsit? What details
are used to describe her? Why is she said to have a "Coriolanian nose"?
Why is she said to have looked "as if her classical countenance were
invoking the infernal gods (38)? What sort of person is she? What does
her name suggest? Who is Lady Scadgers? What is she like? Why is she said
to have had an "inordinate appetite for butcher's meat"? Why
is her leg said to have "refused to get out of bed for fourteen years"?
Why does Mrs. Sparsit live with Bounderby? What do Bounderby and Sparsit
get from each other? Why is Mrs. Sparsit referred to as the "Bank
Fairy" and the "Bank Dragon"? See 144 for further characterization.
What is the meaning of the "Staircase" which she imagines in
connection to Louisa's fate (151)?
- Why did Louisa Gradgrind consent to marry Mr. Bounderby? What was Mrs.
Sparsit's attitude toward Louisa? Toward Bounderby? What do you make of
Mrs. Gradgrind? Discuss some of the attitudes men take toward different
sorts of women in the book.
- What does Sissy Jupe respond to the question "What is the first
principle of this science [Political Economy]" (46)? Have we encountered
a similar response in previous readings in this course (how about Aquinas
on the question of whether it is justified to sell a thing for more than
its worth (Murray 95))? What do Gradgrind and Choakumchild think of such
- In the classroom discussion of "National Prosperity" (47ff.),
Sissy Jupe throws her teacher a curve by asking what question about the
national wealth? What does she suggest it is necessary to determine before
one can know if a nation is prosperous or not? Are there other sorts of
questions that might be asked about the wealth of a nation? How would you
go about measuring, or otherwise assessing, the prosperity of a nation?
Why does Sissy say "Natural" instead of "National"
prosperity? What does she think of the existence of hungry people in a
- Who is Stephen Blackpool? What sort of person is he? What is his profession?
Is that activity symbolic in some way? Who is Rachael? What is the relationship
between the two? What do their names evoke? Why does Stephen say that everything
is a "muddle" (54)? What does Rachael respond? What problems
does Stephen have? Why does he seek Bounderby's help? What does Bounderby
reply? What does that suggest about the nature of the law and its application
in capitalist societies? What is the possible symbolic significance of
Stephen's fall and rescue from the mine shaft? How about his death shortly
afterward? Why is he said to have found the "God of the poor"
(202)? What does that imply? What sort of a symbol is Stephen?
- How does Dickens understand the relationship between Art, God, and
Nature (56)? How do the Hands fit in that scheme? Are there connections
to Dante's ideas?
- Taking Mr. Bounderby and his "Hands" as representatives,
what does the book tell us about the relations between capitalists and
their wage laborers? What significance for English class relations do you
find in the fact that Mrs. Sparsit, "A Powler," is in the employ
of a "self-made man" like Mr. Bounderby? Notice that she insists
on calling her "compensation" an "annual compliment"
(82). How are the labor organizers and their tactics portrayed in the book?
Why does Stephen Blackpool stay out of the union even at the cost of being
shunned by his co-workers?
- "Whatever," is a word we hear often today (currently there's
both a song and a movie named "Whatever," and you'll find it
on bumper stickers). The term conveys a blasé attitude, an attitude
of indifference, perhaps boredom. "Watch for what Simmel will have
to say about this.) How does indifference figure into this book?
Consider the character of Mr. James Harthouse in connection with these
- What is the meaning of the imagery of "fairy palaces, " serpents,
and elephants (52, 56, 64? What do those images describe? What do they
suggest? What does Dickens mean by the "fictions of Coketown"
(90)? How are those fictions integrated into the construction of what is
"reality" for many? Why is Bounderby's house referred to as "the
red brick castle of the giant Bounderby" (110)? What does such a characterization
evoke? What does it suggest about Bounderby? Hence, what role is Stephen
playing as he goes to his house? (hint: see the reference to Jack the Giant
killer on page 207)
- What is Dickens alluding to when he speaks of "those subtle essences
of humanity which will elude the utmost cunning of algebra until the last
trumpet ever to be sounded shall blow even algebra to wreck" (77)?
- What is Bitzer's role at the bank? What kind of person is he? What
is his priority? How did he come to be what he is? What do you make of
his idea that "all gifts have an inevitable tendency to pauperise
the recipient" (89)? What is the significance of his saying, "I
don't want a wife and family" (90)? What are the implications of his
saying "I belong to the bank" (110)?
- Who is James Harthouse? What does he represent? Why is he referred
to as the "tempter" (103, 135)? What is the Harthouse philosophy?
(125, 134)? What is the nature of his relationship with Louisa? How is
his figure related to the social, economic, and spiritual issues in the
novel? What does he represent in relation to the issues of utilitarianism
and utilitarian philosophy?
- What is the nature of Louisa's relationship with her brother Tom? What
may such a relationship symbolize given the concerns of the novel? (see
pages 130 and 142 for suggestive evidence)
- What kind of a person is Tom? Why did he turn out that way? Why is
he referred to as the "whelp"? Is is surprising that he turns
out to be a thief? Why? (keep this in mind when reading Miller's Death
of a Salesman)
Why does Stephen refuse to support the workers' union (108)? Is he a traitor
to the working class? How does he speak of them (112)? How does he characterize
their condition (113)? What does he suggest are the causes of the labourers'
unrest (114)? What does he advise Bounderby and his friends against (114)?
What is Bounderby's reaction?
- Who is the old woman, Mrs. Pegler, whom Stephen meets outside Bounderby's
- What is the significance of the passage describing the parting of Rachael
and Stephen ('It was but a hurried parting ...) (123)? What is Dickens
- What is the significance of the frequent references to Roman history?
- What is the meaning of Louisa's conversation with her father (160ff.)?
What revelations are made there? Does the meeting have an effect on Gradgrind?
- Why is Tom hidden by the circus people? What is the significance of
- What is the meaning and implications of the scene when Bitzer attempts
to arrest Tom? What principles does Bitzer invoke in justifying his actions?
(210ff.). Why does Sleary help Tom escape? What does Sleary suggest with
the story about Sissy's father's dog (214-215)?
- What do you make of the endings which Dickens devices for the lives
of the various protagonists?