Study Guide

Josiah Bounderby in Hard Times

By Charles Dickens

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Josiah Bounderby

Bounderby is a successful capitalist who owns a factory and a bank in Coketown. He brags about having grown up an orphan, and marries Louisa Gradgrind hoping to make her a trophy wife. In the end, she leaves him, his stories about his childhood turn out to be lies, and he dies of a fit in the street.

The novel doesn't really beat around the bush with this one. Bounderby is awful. He is loud, obnoxious, completely self-centered, and the novel's most snobby and status-obsessed character. He is a terrible reader of people. Bounderby totally fails to see that Stephen is the only loyal worker in his factory. He also doesn't get that Harthouse is after his wife. On top of all that, he certainly never figures out what every other character in the novel knows by the end – that Tom is the bank robber. And of course, with this guy as a boss, it's no wonder the workers want to go on strike. As our only example of a capitalist, Bounderby really stacks the deck for the little guys (even if they are mean to Stephen).

And yet, Bounderby is actually just one giant contradiction. On the one hand, he completely buys into the Gradgrind philosophy of facts, more facts, and only facts. Bounderby think about his workers as faceless, emotionless "Hands." He also pretty much announces that his wife is just a piece of status-building property. However, at the same time, Bounderby is by far the most imaginative character in the novel. He is able (for years!) to maintain a crazy, detailed, fake story of being an abandoned child, growing up dirt poor, and being a completely self-made man. Talk about the power of creativity!

Yes, it turns out that Bounderby actually grew up in a normal, loving, probably over-indulgent family that helped him get a start in life. It seems that he uses his powers of creativity to dismiss poor people's complaints. Whenever his workers gripe about their awful working conditions, he points to his fictional hard childhood to make them all look like whiners. How do you think the novel would be different if the childhood Bounderby describes were real? Or, what if he didn't make up this kind of story for himself at all and just told it like it was – how would his character change? What about the novel?

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