Book Review: Hard Times by Charles Dickens

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Cocatown revolves around Thomas Gradgrind, the school owner and embodiment of Utilitarianism. He prioritizes facts over imagination, affecting not only the young minds he educates but also his own family. His daughter, Louisa, enters a loveless marriage with the domineering and arrogant Mr. Bounderby, while his rebellious son, Tom, embraces a life of gambling and theft.

Set in a period of materialism and industrialization, Gradgrind eventually learns the importance of emotions when his path crosses with two individuals: Sissy Jupe, a spirited circus girl, and Stephen Blackpool, a weaver burdened by mistreatment.

If you’re considering whether or not to read Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, this book review aims to provide you with all the necessary information to make an informed decision about investing your time in it. So, without further delay, let’s delve into the details.

Plot Summary

The owner of an experimental school that teaches its students “nothing but facts” finally learns that his system ruins the imagination and well-being of his students.

Book 1, Sowing: Chapters 1–4 

In Coketown, an industrial city in northern England, Thomas Gradgrind runs an experimental school that teaches students to rely on nothing but facts—to the detriment of their imagination and “fancy.” He has imposed this method of learning on his own five children, cramming them with facts and molding them into carbon copies of each other.

The arts and literature are excluded from their education, since these subjects are “fanciful” and have no “use.” Gradgrind and his schoolmaster, Mr. McChoakumchild, are displeased with the unrealistic upbringing of one of their students, Cecilia “Sissy” Jupe, daughter of the circus clown Signor Jupe. 

Since Sissy has been taught to emphasize fancy and imagination, she finds memorizing vast quantities of names, dates, and facts difficult.

One day, Gradgrind is appalled to find two of his own children—Tom, a weak, easily influenced boy, and Louisa, an unhappy teenager whose imagination is “starving” for expression—trying to peep in at one of the circus tents of Sleary’s Circus Troupe, where Sissy’s father works. 

Later, Gradgrind and his friend Mr. Josiah Bounderby, a self-made banker/merchant/mill owner, decide that Sissy has been a bad influence on Gradgrind’s five children and should be expelled from the school.

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Chapters 5–9 

Gradgrind and Bounderby walk to the inn where Sissy and her father live, but are told by Mr. E. W. B. Childers, a circus performer, that Sissy’s father seems to have abandoned his daughter. Gradgrind takes pity on Sissy and wants to bring her into his home (called Stone Lodge) to continue her factual education, but Bounderby is against the plan. 

Mr. Sleary, the lisping owner of the circus, tells Gradgrind that he (Sleary) can take Sissy in as a circus apprentice, but Gradgrind decides to let Sissy live in his home on condition that she does not communicate again with circus people. 

Sissy becomes like a sister to Louisa, but has a difficult time accepting Gradgrind’s fact-based teaching.

Chapters 10–13 

Meanwhile, Stephen Blackpool, a mill worker employed by Bounderby, bemoans his miserable marriage to a drunken wife and finds his only comfort with Rachael, a coworker whom he loves. Blackpool asks Bounderby about the possibility of divorcing his wife—a difficult procedure in those times—but Bounderby haughtily explains that current laws forbid it.

Present at this interview with Bounderby is Mrs. Sparsit, an elderly widow from a once-aristocratic family, who now lives in reduced circumstances as Bounderby’s housekeeper. When he leaves Bounderby’s home, Blackpool meets a strange old woman who asks him many questions about Bounderby.

Chapters 14–16 

As Louisa grows older, Bounderby has hopes of marrying her, even though he is twice her age. One day, Gradgrind asks his daughter if she will marry the wealthy industrialist. Though she has little sentiment about the matter, she agrees to the marriage, partly to please her selfish brother, Tom, who is now employed at Bounderby’s bank and wants to have a family connection to his boss. 

Mrs. Sparsit begins to despise Louisa because Louisa now displaces her as the female head of Bounderby’s home. Bounderby moves Mrs. Sparsit to rooms above the bank, but Mrs. Sparsit intends to protect her employer by carefully watching her new rival.

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Book 2, Reaping: Chapters 1–3 

Bitzer, a former student at Gradgrind’s school and now a porter at Bounderby’s bank, informs Mrs. Sparsit that young Tom Gradgrind is an inefficient and untrustworthy employee—news that pleases her, since it may give her influence over Louisa. 

Gradgrind, meanwhile, has become a member of Parliament and now sends James Harthouse, a handsome young politician, to Coketown to study the economic and social conditions of the town for a government survey. Restless and bored, Harthouse has spent his life moving from job to job, and is now already tired of politics. 

Bounderby tries to impress Harthouse with his rags-to-riches, self- made-man stories, but the cynical Harthouse thinks Bounderby is a fool.

Harthouse takes an interest in Louisa, however, and wheedles information about Bounderby and Louisa’s marriage from her brother, Tom, who admires Harthouse’s bored and superior attitude. Harthouse suspects that Louisa, trapped in a loveless marriage, may be receptive to his advances.

Chapters 4–8 

At the same time, the decent Stephen Blackpool continues to have serious problems. He becomes an outcast at the factory because he will not join the labor union run by Slackbridge, a self-promoting union organizer.

Bounderby tries to use Blackpool as a spy, but Blackpool refuses to double-cross his coworkers. Consequently, Bounderby fires him. Blackpool leaves Coketown, but before doing so, he runs into the mysterious old woman again. She now tells him that her name is Mrs. Pegler, and she continues to ask questions about Bounderby.

When it is discovered that the Coketown Bank, owned by Bounderby, has been robbed, suspicion falls on the missing Stephen Blackpool, even though Tom was the robber. Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer, acting as spies, tell Bounderby that Blackpool and an old woman have been seen loitering near the bank. 

In the meantime, Louisa admits to Harthouse that her brother is a gambler and has been borrowing money from her. Harthouse, still in pursuit of Louisa, continues in his attempts to seduce her away from her unhappy marriage. Neither Harthouse nor Louisa realizes, however, that Mrs. Sparsit is spying on them regularly.

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Chapters 9–12 

Mrs. Sparsit now sees an opportunity for widening the rift that has begun to interfere with Bounderby’s marriage. After the bank robbery, she temporarily moves back to the Bounderby household and caters to Bounderby while hinting at Louisa’s shortcomings as a wife. She continues to spy on Louisa and Harthouse, and follows them one night to a country garden, where she overhears Harthouse insist that Louisa leave Bounderby for him. 

Mrs. Sparsit assumes that Louisa is about to run off with Harthouse, but actually the emotionally confused Louisa returns to her childhood home, where she tells her father that her fact-based upbringing has left her devoid of purpose and happiness as well as vulnerable to Harthouse’s seduction. She then faints at Gradgrind’s feet.

Book 3, Garnering: Chapters 1–6 

Gradgrind, shocked to see that his educational methods have ruined his own daughter, reforms by admitting that emotions are more important in life than mere facts. Sissy Jupe, still in the household, loves Louisa as a sister and wants to help her in any way possible. She goes in Louisa’s place to meet Harthouse, and informs him that he will never see Louisa again.

Defeated, Harthouse leaves Coketown forever to pursue other occupations in an attempt to relieve his boredom. He writes to his older brother, Jack Harthouse, that he is “going in for camels.”

Meanwhile, Mrs. Sparsit has raced out of town to tell Bounderby about his “unfaithful” wife. When Bounderby and the elderly woman return to Coketown to confront Gradgrind with his daughter’s alleged departure with Harthouse, Gradgrind informs them that Louisa is with him and that she intends to stay at home for a while in order to allow her “better nature” to “develop itself by tenderness and consideration.” 

An angry Bounderby tries to force Gradgrind to send his daughter back to him, but to no avail. Bounderby offers a reward for the apprehension of Blackpool for the bank robbery, but Blackpool has vanished. Rachael gets Louisa to admit to Bounderby that she saw Blackpool and Rachael at Blackpool’s house the night of the robbery.

Mrs. Sparsit returns as housekeeper for Bounderby and tries to insinuate her way back into his good graces by searching for the mysterious old Mrs. Pegler. When Mrs. Sparsit finally locates her, she brings Mrs. Pegler to Bounderby’s house, and everyone learns that Mrs. Pegler is none other than Bounderby’s mother. 

Without intending to do so, Mrs. Pegler publicly humiliates her son by indirectly debunking his claims of being a self-made man. Meanwhile, Louisa and Sissy accidentally find Blackpool, who has fallen into the Old Hell Shaft (a mine-shaft). Before dying, he tells Gradgrind that Tom spoke to him on the night of the robbery and should be able to clear Blackpool’s name.

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Chapters 7–9 

At the suggestion of Sissy, Tom goes into hiding at Mr. Sleary’s circus, and it is not long before Gradgrind realizes that his son is the robber. Devastated, he goes with Louisa and Sissy to the circus, where they find Tom and disguise him as a black servant in the circus until they can organize a plan for getting him out of the country (so that he will avoid being arrested).

Bounderby, however, tracks Tom down with the help of his spy, Bitzer, and has him arrested. But Mr. Sleary outwits Bitzer by rescuing Tom and placing him on a ship bound for a foreign country. Mrs. Sparsit is fired for her role in accidentally uniting Bounderby with his mother, and Bounderby dies of a stroke five years later. 

Tom catches a fever overseas, and dies in a hospital. Louisa lives alone with no husband or children, but manages to find comfort in Sissy’s happy marriage and children. Gradgrind’s system of factual education is shown to be the cause of everyone’s grief.


1. Lifelike Descriptions and Poetic Moments

Dickens’s ability to paint lifelike descriptions is truly remarkable. From the first paragraph, I was captivated by his attention to detail and his ability to make the fictional city come alive.

The characters are so well portrayed that they feel like real individuals, and the sensory details he includes enable readers to vividly experience the world of the novel. I was particularly struck by moments of poetic beauty, such as when Louisa listens to a bell in the quiet night. Dickens’s prose is so masterfully crafted that it creates an immersive and rich reading experience.

2. Complex Characters and Social Critique

One of the strengths of Hard Times lies in its portrayal of complex characters who inhabit a society driven by power, self-interest, and neglect. Dickens offers social criticism throughout the book, but he never loses sight of his primary goal: storytelling. Unlike some authors who prioritize their message over the art of literature, Dickens strikes a fine balance between social critique and engaging storytelling.

The characters, be they businessmen, educators, or members of the aristocracy, are multidimensional and realistically flawed. They exemplify the temptations of power and provide insights into human nature. While the novel leans towards realism, it still manages to captivate and entertain readers.

3. Timeless Themes and Relevance

Although set in the 19th century, Hard Times addresses timeless themes that resonate with our present-day society. Dickens delves into the stark divisions between the privileged and the disadvantaged, the struggle for truth and compassion in a society plagued by heartlessness, and the perpetuation of inequities and broken institutions.

Reading the book, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to our current circumstances, where similar social dynamics and power struggles persist. Dickens’s astute observations and critique of society remain relevant, reminding us of the importance of addressing societal issues and striving for change.


1. Less Complexity Compared to Other Novels

Dickens is known for his intricate plots, rich narratives, and layered themes. In comparison to his other celebrated works like Bleak House, David Copperfield, or A Tale of Two Cities, Hard Times felt somewhat simplified and lacking in complexity.

The book seemed to prioritize its polemic against prevailing social philosophies of the time over the intricate character development and nuanced storytelling that Dickens is renowned for. While it still holds value as a marker in the history of the English Novel, it doesn’t reach the same stature as some of his other masterpieces.

2. Lack of Clear Interpretation and Unfathomable Mystery

Another aspect of Hard Times that I found challenging was the lack of clear interpretation and the unfathomable mysteries presented throughout the book. As noted by both Dickens and Kate Flint in the Introduction, the novel is not easily interpreted.

While I appreciate literary works that leave room for interpretation and encourage readers to think deeply, Hard Times took this to another level. The complexities and intricacies of the plot and themes made it difficult to fully grasp the intended meaning or message behind certain events and characters.

It often left me feeling confused and unsure of the author’s intentions, which made the reading experience less enjoyable. In a time when we have access to vast knowledge and tools to answer questions, the unfathomable mysteries of Hard Times felt frustrating rather than thought-provoking.

3. Pessimism and Lack of Enjoyment

Hard Times presents a rather pessimistic view of English society during the Victorian era, focusing on the divide between capitalist mill owners and their undervalued workers. While I appreciate the book’s historical significance and its exploration of social and economic pressures, I didn’t find it a very enjoyable read.

The overall tone and themes left me feeling somewhat disheartened, and it didn’t provide the same sense of satisfaction or engagement that I’ve experienced with other Dickens novels like A Christmas Carol or Great Expectations.


Charles Dickens proves once again why he is considered a consummate storyteller in his novel Hard Times. With his keen eye for detail and authenticity, he creates a tapestry of personality and place that captivates readers. The stark contrast between those who live by objective standards and those who embrace a world of senses and emotions adds depth and complexity to the story.

One of the remarkable aspects of Dickens’s writing is his ability to craft characters who feel familiar, reminiscent of people we may have known in our own lives. Whether based on real individuals or products of his imagination, these characters reflect the complexities and nuances of human experiences. Through their stories, readers, especially young people, can gain valuable insights into decision-making and learn from the mistakes made by characters who take the wrong paths.

Hard Times leaves readers, regardless of age, with much to ponder. Its timeless and true messages resonate long after the final page is turned. Dickens skillfully weaves together themes of societal divisions, the consequences of choices, and the importance of embracing our humanity in a world driven by objectivity.

About The Author

Charles Dickens, the renowned novelist, was born in 1812 near Portsmouth. His father held a position as a clerk in the navy pay office. The family later relocated to London in 1823, but they faced significant financial difficulties. When his father was imprisoned for debt, Dickens was sent to work in a blacking-warehouse. These experiences had a profound impact on the future author.

In 1833, Dickens began contributing stories to newspapers and magazines. Three years later, in 1836, he embarked on the serial publication of his famous work, Pickwick Papers.

Over the next two decades, Dickens published his most notable novels, including Nicholas Nickleby and Little Dorrit. Additionally, he took on the role of editor for the journals Household Words and All the Year Round. Dickens passed away in June 1870.

Buy The Book: Hard Times

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