Study Guide

Hard Times Family

By Charles Dickens

Family

[Gradgrind] was an affectionate father, after his manner; but he would probably have described himself (if he had been put, like Sissy Jupe, upon a definition) as 'an eminently practical' father. He had a particular pride in the phrase eminently practical, which was considered to have a special application to him. (1.3.8)

This is a great example of how the narrator can contradict a character. Gradgrind wants to call himself "eminently practical" even though the narrator tells us that more correct term is "affectionate." This is how we know he's not all bad.

'Now, it's a remarkable fact, sir, that it cut that man deeper, to know that his daughter knew of his being goosed, than to go through with it.' 'Good!' interrupted Mr. Bounderby. 'This is good, Gradgrind! A man so fond of his daughter, that he runs away from her! This is devilish good! Ha! ha! Now, I'll tell you what, young man. I haven't always occupied my present station of life. I know what these things are. You may be astonished to hear it, but my mother ran away from me […] I was born in a ditch and my mother ran away from me. Do I excuse her for it? No. Have I ever excused her for it? Not I. What do I call her for it? I call her probably the very worst woman that ever lived in the world, except my drunken grandmother. There's no family pride about me, there's no imaginative sentimental humbug about me. I call a spade a spade; and I call the mother of Josiah Bounderby of Coketown, without any fear or any favour, what I should call her if she had been the mother of Dick Jones of Wapping. (1.6.40-43)

When we realize that Bounderby's mother did no such thing, the difference in the way Sissy reacts to her father's actual abandonment of her and Bounderby's faked no-nonsense reaction becomes clear. He simply lacks the empathetic imagination to picture what it might be like to actually have a parent leave a child.

'Her father always had it in his head,' resumed Childers, feigning unconsciousness of Mr. Bounderby's existence, 'that she was to be taught the deuce-and-all of education. How it got into his head, I can't say; I can only say that it never got out. He has been picking up a bit of reading for her, here — and a bit of writing for her, there — and a bit of ciphering for her, somewhere else — these seven years.' (1.6.56)

One of the fundamental questions in the novel is whether a child needs actual parents or whether the right kind of education and upbringing is a much better replacement. Signor Jupe clearly believes that Sissy's life will be better if she is at the right school rather than with him.

Meanwhile, the various members of Sleary's company gradually gathered together from the upper regions, where they were quartered, and, from standing about, talking in low voices to one another and to Mr. Childers, gradually insinuated themselves and him into the room. There were two or three handsome young women among them, with their two or three husbands, and their two or three mothers, and their eight or nine little children, who did the fairy business when required. The father of one of the families was in the habit of balancing the father of another of the families on the top of a great pole; the father of a third family often made a pyramid of both those fathers, with Master Kidderminster for the apex, and himself for the base; all the fathers could dance upon rolling casks, stand upon bottles, catch knives and balls, twirl hand-basins, ride upon anything, jump over everything, and stick at nothing. All the mothers could (and did) dance, upon the slack wire and the tight rope, and perform rapid acts on bare-backed steeds; none of them were at all particular in respect of showing their legs; and one of them, alone in a Greek chariot, drove six in hand into every town they came to. They all assumed to be mighty rakish and knowing, they were not very tidy in their private dresses, they were not at all orderly in their domestic arrangements, and the combined literature of the whole company would have produced but a poor letter on any subject. Yet there was a remarkable gentleness and childishness about these people, a special inaptitude for any kind of sharp practice, and an untiring readiness to help and pity one another, deserving often of as much respect, and always of as much generous construction, as the every-day virtues of any class of people in the world. (1.6.61)

Check out the recurrent phrase "two or three" – it's a great way of indicating how loose and communal the familial and kinship relationships in the circus are. It is a little surprising how much the novel approves of them, despite their seemingly socially unacceptable behavior and domestic arrangements.

'Well then. I, who came here to inform the father of the poor girl, Jupe, that she could not be received at the school any more, in consequence of there being practical objections, into which I need not enter, to the reception there of the children of persons so employed, am prepared in these altered circumstances to make a proposal. I am willing to take charge of you, Jupe, and to educate you, and provide for you. The only condition (over and above your good behaviour) I make is, that you decide now, at once, whether to accompany me or remain here. Also, that if you accompany me now, it is understood that you communicate no more with any of your friends who are here present. These observations comprise the whole of the case.' 'At the thame time,' said Sleary, 'I mutht put in my word, Thquire, tho that both thides of the banner may be equally theen. If you like, Thethilia, to be prentitht, you know the natur of the work and you know your companionth. Emma Gordon, in whothe lap you're a lying at prethent, would be a mother to you, and Joth'phine would be a thithter to you.' (1.6.81-82)

Sissy has a paradoxical choice here. She can stay in the circus, the place where she would be closest to her actual family. Or she can go with Gradgrind and the school, fulfilling her father's wishes for her upbringing. In a way she's choosing between family and family.

'Did your father love [your mother]?' Louisa asked […] 'O yes! As dearly as he loves me. Father loved me, first, for her sake. He carried me about with him when I was quite a baby. We have never been asunder from that time.' 'Yet he leaves you now, Sissy?' 'Only for my good. Nobody understands him as I do; nobody knows him as I do.' (1.9.38-41)

One of the many moments of a character teaching another character. Here Louisa is grilling Sissy about her parents, because it's probably the only way she knows how to have a conversation – schoolroom-style.

Time with his innumerable horse-power, worked away, not minding what anybody said, and presently turned out young Thomas a foot taller than when his father had last taken particular notice of him. (1.14.3)

Gradgrind doesn't concern himself with his children when they are little. This is normal for the time period, since the education of very little children fell to mothers. But these guys' mother is Mrs. Gradgrind…. Not good.

'You are very fond of me, an't you, Loo? […] Well, sister of mine,' said Tom, 'when you say that, you are near my thoughts. We might be so much oftener together — mightn't we? Always together, almost — mightn't we? It would do me a great deal of good if you were to make up your mind to I know what, Loo. It would be a splendid thing for me. It would be uncommonly jolly!' Her thoughtfulness baffled his cunning scrutiny. He could make nothing of her face. He pressed her in his arm, and kissed her cheek. She returned the kiss, but still looked at the fire. 'I say, Loo! I thought I'd come, and just hint to you what was going on: though I supposed you'd most likely guess, even if you didn't know. I can't stay, because I'm engaged to some fellows tonight. You won't forget how fond you are of me?' (1.14.45-49)

How much should one have to sacrifice for a family member? This is obviously extreme, though Tom doesn't want to acknowledge that he is basically pimping out his sister by guilting her into marrying Bounderby.

perhaps he might have seen one wavering moment in her, when she was impelled to throw herself upon his breast, and give him the pent-up confidences of her heart. But, to see it, he must have overleaped at a bound the artificial barriers he had for many years been erecting, between himself and all 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. The barriers were too many and too high for such a leap. (1.15.29)

The rest of the novel will be occupied with the gradual melting and removal of these barriers. Louisa finally leaps over them when she confesses her relationship with Harthouse to her father.

'Everybody does lose who bets. May I hint at the probability of your sometimes supplying [Tom] with money for these purposes? […] I will confide to you my doubt whether he has had many advantages. Whether — forgive my plainness — whether any great amount of confidence is likely to have been established between himself and his most worthy father […] Or, between himself, and — I may trust to your perfect understanding of my meaning, I am sure — and his highly esteemed brother-in-law.' [Louisa] flushed deeper and deeper, and was burning red when she replied in a fainter voice, 'I do not think that likely, either.' 'Mrs. Bounderby,' said Harthouse, after a short silence, 'may there be a better confidence between yourself and me? Tom has borrowed a considerable sum of you?' […] 'When I married, I found that my brother was even at that time heavily in debt. Heavily for him, I mean. Heavily enough to oblige me to sell some trinkets. They were no sacrifice. I sold them very willingly. I attached no value to them. They were quite worthless to me.' Either she saw in his face that he knew, or she only feared in her conscience that he knew, that she spoke of some of her husband's gifts. She stopped, and reddened again. If he had not known it before, he would have known it then, though he had been a much duller man than he was. (2.7.34-46)

This invasively revealing conversation is deeply unsettling. It seems to rid Louisa of any privacy, secrets, or hidden emotions. Harthouse really has her cornered here.

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