by Charles Dickens
Hard Times Women and Femininity Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Book.Chapter.Paragraph)
There was an air of jaded sullenness in them both, and particularly in the girl: yet, struggling through the dissatisfaction of [Louisa's] face, there was a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow, which brightened its expression. Not with the brightness natural to cheerful youth, but with uncertain, eager, doubtful flashes, which had something painful in them, analogous to the changes on a blind face groping its way. She was a child now, of fifteen or sixteen; but at no distant day would seem to become a woman all at once. (1.3.20-22)
As a child, Louisa is already trapped between what she has been taught to do and what her natural inclinations are. This is the first time we see her, and already the image of fire is applied to her. She has a restless "light" and a "fire" that has no fuel, like a walking bomb.
Mrs. Gradgrind was not a scientific character, and usually dismissed her children to their studies with this general injunction to choose their pursuit. In truth, Mrs. Gradgrind's stock of facts in general was woefully defective; but Mr. Gradgrind in raising her to her high matrimonial position, had been influenced by two reasons. Firstly, she was most satisfactory as a question of figures; and, secondly, she had 'no nonsense' about her. By nonsense he meant fancy; and truly it is probable she was as free from any alloy of that nature, as any human being not arrived at the perfection of an absolute idiot, ever was. (1.4.29-31)
Mrs. Gradgrind is one extreme example of a socially acceptable kind of femininity in the novel. She is entirely submissive to her husband, entirely unable to function without his guidance and assistance. It's saying something that this kind femininity is here described as idiotic (considering Dickens wasn't the world's most progressive guy when it came to women's issues).
'Tom,' said his sister, after silently watching the sparks awhile, 'as I get older, and nearer growing up, I often sit wondering here, and think how unfortunate it is for me that I can't reconcile you to home better than I am able to do. I don't know what other girls know. I can't play to you, or sing to you. I can't talk to you so as to enlighten your mind, for I never see any amusing sights or read any amusing books that it would be a pleasure or a relief to you to talk about, when you are tired.' (1.8.17)
Louisa's confession that she cannot amuse Tom is in stark contrast to Sissy, who we know read to her father to make him feel better after a poor performance. And yet, Sissy's father still abandoned her. Would Tom really have turned out that different even if Louisa could tell him amusing stories?