Study Guide

Hard Times Marriage

By Charles Dickens


The late Mr. Sparsit, being by the mother's side a Powler, married this lady, being by the father's side a Scadgers. Lady Scadgers […] contrived the marriage, at a period when Sparsit was just of age, and chiefly noticeable for a slender body, weakly supported on two long slim props, and surmounted by no head worth mentioning. He inherited a fair fortune from his uncle, but owed it all before he came into it, and spent it twice over immediately afterwards. Thus, when he died, at twenty-four (the scene of his decease, Calais, and the cause, brandy), he did not leave his widow, from whom he had been separated soon after the honeymoon, in affluent circumstances. That bereaved lady, fifteen years older than he, fell presently at deadly feud with her only relative, Lady Scadgers; and, partly to spite her ladyship, and partly to maintain herself, went out at a salary. (1.7.3)

Another paragraph that contains within itself the outline of a novel – a funny and savage tale of a purely opportunistic marriage.

As to Mrs. Gradgrind, if she said anything on the subject, she would come a little way out of her wrappers, like a feminine dormouse, and say: '[…] Upon my word and honour I seem to be fated, and destined, and ordained, to live in the midst of things that I am never to hear the last of. It really is a most extraordinary circumstance that it appears as if I never was to hear the last of anything!' At about this point, Mr. Gradgrind's eye would fall upon her; and under the influence of that wintry piece of fact, she would become torpid again. (1.9.68-70)

Mrs. Gradgrind feels mostly fear towards her husband, and he feels mostly disdain towards his wife.

'It's a bad job; that's what it is. You had better have been satisfied as you were, and not have got married. However, it's too late to say that.' 'Was it an unequal marriage, sir, in point of years?' asked Mrs. Sparsit […] 'Not e'en so. I were one-and-twenty myseln; she were twenty nighbut.' 'Indeed, sir?' said Mrs. Sparsit to her Chief, with great placidity. 'I inferred, from its being so miserable a marriage, that it was probably an unequal one in point of years.' (1.11.29-33)

It's funny, of course, that Mrs. Sparsit would say this. She is making a point to Bounderby, who wants to marry the much younger Louisa, but Mrs. Sparsit herself was married to a man fifteen years younger than she was!

'I ha' read i' th' papers that great folk (fair faw 'em a'! I wishes 'em no hurt!) are not bonded together for better for worst so fast, but that they can be set free fro' their misfortnet marriages, an' marry ower agen. When they dunnot agree, for that their tempers is ill-sorted, they has rooms o' one kind an another in their houses, above a bit, and they can live asunders. We fok ha' only one room, and we can't. When that won't do, they ha' gowd an other cash, an' they can say "This for yo' an that for me,'' an they can go their separate ways. We can't. Spite o' all that, they can be set free for smaller wrongs than mine. So, I mun' be ridden o' this woman, and I want t' know how?' (1.11.40)

Dickens campaigned hard for extending the right to divorce to all British citizens. The idea that you could divorce a spouse simply because your "tempers is ill-sorted" was revolutionary at a time when even the most horrendous domestic violence was tolerated as par for the marital course.

No word of a new marriage had ever passed between them; but Rachael had taken great pity on [Stephen] years ago, and to her alone he had opened his closed heart all this time, on the subject of his miseries; and he knew very well that if he were free to ask her, she would take him. He thought of the home he might at that moment have been seeking with pleasure and pride; of the different man he might have been that night; of the lightness then in his now heavy-laden breast; of the then restored honour, self-respect, and tranquility all torn to pieces. He thought of the waste of the best part of his life, of the change it made in his character for the worse every day, of the dreadful nature of his existence, bound hand and foot, to a dead woman, and tormented by a demon in her shape. He thought of Rachael, how young when they were first brought together in these circumstances, how mature now, how soon to grow old. He thought of the number of girls and women she had seen marry, how many homes with children in them she had seen grow up around her, how she had contentedly pursued her own lone quiet path — for him — and how he had sometimes seen a shade of melancholy on her blessed face, that smote him with remorse and despair. (1.12.36)

Clearly the novel considers a good, loving, companionate marriage key to leading a full life. No matter how good Stephen is at operating his power loom, and no matter how angelic a being Rachael is, both lives are wasted since they cannot create a home together.

[Stephen dreamed] that he, and some one on whom his heart had long been set — but she was not Rachael, and that surprised him, even in the midst of his imaginary happiness — stood in the church being married. […] Upon this, the whole appearance before him and around him changed, and nothing was left as it had been, but himself and the clergyman. They stood in the daylight before a crowd so vast, that if all the people in the world could have been brought together into one space, they could not have looked, he thought, more numerous; and they all abhorred him, and there was not one pitying or friendly eye among the millions that were fastened on his face. He stood on a raised stage, under his own loom; and, looking up at the shape the loom took, and hearing the burial service distinctly read, he knew that he was there to suffer death. (1.13.34-5)

A heavily symbolic dream about the way Stephen's marriage has turned out. His near-demonic wife is literally the death of him.

'Confining yourself rigidly to Fact, the question of Fact you state to yourself is: Does Mr. Bounderby ask me to marry him? Yes, he does. The sole remaining question then is: Shall I marry him? I think nothing can be plainer than that?' (1.15.24)

Gradgrind reduces even the most complex and significant of life's decisions to simple yes-or-no questions. This is how economics works, Dickens implies, without ever considering consequences.

'My sister Loo?' said Tom. 'She never cared for old Bounderby […] Why, you won't tell me, Mr. Harthouse, that you really suppose my sister Loo does care for old Bounderby.' 'My dear fellow,' returned the other, 'what am I bound to suppose, when I find two married people living in harmony and happiness?' (2.3.19-24)

Tom thinks nothing of betraying the ostensibly private bond of married life. He has never seen marriage as a partnership or as a union, just as a business deal.

'you know she didn't marry old Bounderby for her own sake, or for his sake, but for my sake. Then why doesn't she get what I want, out of him, for my sake? She is not obliged to say what she is going to do with it; she is sharp enough; she could manage to coax it out of him, if she chose. Then why doesn't she choose, when I tell her of what consequence it is? But no. There she sits in his company like a stone, instead of making herself agreeable and getting it easily. I don't know what you may call this, but I call it unnatural conduct.' (2.7.82)

Possibly the most self-condemning thing Tom ever says, besides confessing to pulling the bank robbery. He here shows himself to be beyond selfish.

Now, these persistent assuagements of his misery, and lightenings of his load, had by this time begun to have the effect of making Mr. Bounderby softer than usual towards Mrs. Sparsit, and harder than usual to most other people from his wife downward. So, when Mrs. Sparsit said with forced lightness of heart, 'You want your breakfast, sir, but I dare say Miss Gradgrind will soon be here to preside at the table,' Mr. Bounderby replied, 'If I waited to be taken care of by my wife, ma'am, I believe you know pretty well I should wait till Doomsday, so I'll trouble you to take charge of the teapot.' Mrs. Sparsit complied, and assumed her old position at table. (2.9.15-16)

Mrs. Sparsit acts the part of wife to the now-married Mr. Bounderby. However, both she and Louisa have a fairly similar opinion of him; Mrs. Sparsit is willing to try a lifetime of repression in exchange for financial security.

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