There are no happy marriages in Hard Times. In Stephen's case, it focuses instead on a missed opportunity for true companionship. In the case of the Gradgrinds, you've got an entirely intellectually unequal match where spouses are indifferent to each other. Then there's a loveless disaster where husband and wife grow to hate each other in the case of Louisa and Bounderby. The only happy unions are mythic, have occurred in the past, or are just barely implied, as in the case of the Jupes or Sissy and her eventual family.
Questions About Marriage
Dickens offers at least three examples of bad marriages: the Gradgrinds, the Bounderbys, and the Blackpools. Compare these relationships, identifying the causes of marital dysfunction. What, if anything, is the secret to a happy marriage? Is there such a thing?
Gradgrind tells Louisa that the way to think about marital suitability is to rely on statistics of marriage success and failure rather than to consider feelings. Why is this such a ludicrous-sounding idea? What is the novel trying to demonstrate?
How would the plot of the novel be different if divorce were an option for everyone? How would it be the same?
Is it fair to think about Dickens's own marital problems when considering the way marriage is portrayed in the novel? (He was in the process of leaving his wife for a much younger woman when writing.) Should an author's private life be used to interpret his art?
Chew on This
The novel demonstrates the conflict between two ways of thinking about marriage: as a romantic partnership versus as primarily financial arrangement. It argues that in neither case is it a relationship that is meant to last forever.