Initial questions:

  1. Where was this novel first published? Who would have been its first readers, and how might their preferences have influenced the novel’s choices of subject and presentation of values?
  2. Can you think of ways in which serial publication might have affected the ways in which Dickens plotted this novel?
  3. Who do you think will be the novel’s central characters? Are these introduced swiftly? If not, what is the purpose of this delay?
  4. In what historical context was this novel written? (conservative reaction after Chartist uprising of 1848) What were some other works on the same topic from the period? (Communist Manifesto, Mary Barton)
  5. Is the novel’s treatment of industrial poverty and class conflict very direct?
  6. What aspects of early Victorian education does the novel satirized in its opening chapters? Why do you think early Victorian education may have emphasized the memorization of facts?
  7. Have notions of appropriate education altered since this period? Are these still problems in the education of children today?
  8. What does Mr. Gradgrind represent? What does Mr. Bounderby represent? Mr. and Mrs. M’Choakumchild?
  9. What do we learn about Gradgrind’s character? Mr. Bounderby? Which aspects of his life undercut the latter’s credibility? How are their characters differentiated?
  10. What do you make of the use of names throughout the book?
  11. What is the chief moral failing with which the author charges Grandgrind’s system of education? (note Mill’s Autobiography; criticizes utilitarian emphasis on facts in the getting of money, e. g. the doctrines of “political economy”)
  12. What is the purpose of introducing Sissy Jupe and the circus? Which characters call her "Jupe," and why do you think they do so?
  13. What values seem to be associated with the circus and circus players, and how are they presented? Do you think these portrayals are realistic or contain elements of caricature or condescension?
  14. What other kinds of popular art seem important in the novel? What makes them admired? What is implied in the injunction never to “wonder”?
  15. What is Sissy Jupe’s relationship to the form of education provided by Gradgrind? What seems to be the meaning of her resistence to “learning”?
  16. What are some features of Dickens’s style throughout the novel? What role is served by the narrative voice?
  17. What do you make of the description of Coketown? Its environment, its factories, and its architecture? Would these have seemed accurate to readers acquainted with the industrial north?
  18. What does the narrator satirize in Coketown's architecture? Its religious bodies and their beliefs?
  19. What are some of the ways in which the novel addresses issues of class? Which groups are shown to have unreasonable prejudices?
  20. How are physical descriptions used throughout the novel? Does the novel preserve regional or class differences of speech?
  21. What do we learn of the characters of Louisa and Tom? Of the relationships within the Gradgrind home?
  22. Can you tell why the work is called "Hard Times"?
  23. Dickens has often been described--with praise and censure--as using characterological stereotypes. How effective do you think are his presentations of the Gradgrinds and their associates?
  24. What does Dickens emphasize in his treatment of industrialism? What central dichotomies and opposed value systems does it scrutinize? If you have read other industrial novels such as Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, what differences do you perceive?
  25. What attention is paid to themes of love and marriage within the book, and from what point of view?
  26. Are there features of the novel which you think may have been influenced by Dickens's experiences in the theatre? Are some scenes especially staged for dramatic effect?

Specific Chapters: I:XI - III:IX

Chapter 11, “No Way Out”

To what does the title refer?

What happens in this chapter? Do you think it is likely that Stephen, as he is described, would have gone for personal advice to Mr. Bounderby, as he is described? What seems to be the purpose of this scene?

How is Stephen characterized? Why do you think he is chosen as the book’s representative male textile worker?

Do Stephen’s problems stem from the workplace, or from decisions made by Mr. Bounderby? Would he have been poor were his wife not dissolute and alcoholic?

What views does Stephen (and the author through him) seem to convey about Victorian marriage laws?

How do Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit respond to his pleas for advice? Are there other responses Dickens or the Victorian audience might have expected them to give?

When was this novel written? Did it predate the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857, and if so, would Stephen have been able to receive a divorce after 1857? If a woman had an alcoholic and deserting husband, could she have gained a divorce?

How do you think Dickens’s wide audience of poor, lower middle-class and middle-class readers would have felt about the issue of permitting divorce?

Chapter 12, “The Old Woman”

What do you make of the old woman who asks Stephen to tell her if Bounderby is well?

What do we surmise from the fact that she visits once a year and takes the Parliamentary train?

Why is this scene placed at this point in the story?

What are some examples of irony/caricature in this chapter?

Of ironic rhetoric? What are some points made through grotesque or exaggerated comparisons?

Chapter 13, “Rachael”

What are some connotations of the names Stephen and Rachael? What incident occurs in this chapter, and what role does Rachael play within it?

What outcomes does Stephen claim that she has prevented?

Is Stephen’s wife presented sympathetically?

Why was the bottle of poison there in the first place?

Why does Rachael leave for her home at 3 a. m.?

Why do you think Dickens chose a respectable workman and religious workwoman who live apart as his representative victims of the marriage law?

The 1840s-60s saw the rise of a major temperance movement in Britain, especially active in northern England and Scotland. Are there ways in which the plot of Hard Times may reflect some of the themes of temperance literature? Does the novel examine possible motives for excessive consumption/alcoholism?

Omissions from this chapter are printed on pp. 458-59? Why do you think Dickens decided to remove them? What difference would their presence have made?

Which aspects of working-class life are valorized in the portrayal of Stephen and Rachel? Are their names significant? Are their characters stereotypically portrayed, and if so, why may this be?

Chapter 14, “The Great Manufacturer”

What are implications of the title?

How is Thomas Gradgrind’s entrance into Parliament described? (p. 126) What would seem to be Dickens’s criticisms? Would these have offended his Victorian audience?

Why does he conclude his peroration, “Else wherefore live we in a Christian land, eighteen-hundred years after our Master?” Dickens was nominally Anglican (as were most members of his class); what interpretation of religion do these words seem to convey?

What thematic connection is made when Louisa responds to her father “with the old, quick searching look of the night when she was found at the Circus” (127)?

What do we learn about Tom’s character and relationship with his sister Louisa?

How does Tom attempt to influence her decision regarding what he knows will be Bounderby’s proposal of marriage? What are his motives? Would the Victorian reader have found these adequate? A modern reader?

Chapter 15, “Father and Daughter”

What effect is created by the fact that the father, not Josiah Bounderby, conveys the marriage proposal?

As the chapter opens, what emotions do Mr. Gradgrind and Louisa seem to feel? Why isn’t Mr. Gradgrind entirely comfortable in conveying Bounderby’s proposal?

What do we learn from Louisa’s responses? What issues are ignored in the consideration of “facts”?
What does Mr. Gradgrind seem to mean by counselling his daughter to make her decision according to “facts”? If these “facts” include Mr. Bounderby’s wealth and social position, why do you think these are not openly mentioned?

What are some ironies in Louisa’s answers? What do you make of the fact that she protests her constricted childhood after she has already agreed to Mr. Bounderby’s proposal? (134) Is Louisa a radical feminist?

In the context of the novel, does Mr. Gradgrind love his daughter? How can you tell?

What are we to infer from Mrs. Gradgrind’s response to the news of her daughter’s impending marriage?

What is significant in Sissy’s reaction to the news of the proposal? What is signified by Louisa’s hardening to her, and what effects may this have on each?

Chapter 16, “Husband and Wife”

What is Mrs. Sparsit’s (apparent) reaction to the news of Bounderby’s wedding? Why do you think Dickens included this detail?

What possibilities are latent in the fact that Mrs. Sparsit does not choose to return to her previous residence but remains in comfortable quarters at Mr. Bounderby’s bank?

What do we learn about the wedding? Which aspects of Mr. Bounderby’s wedding speech do you think are parodied?

What are Louisa’s reactions as she bids farewell to her brother? Tom’s response? The narrator’s judgment?

As the first book, “Sowing,” ends, what choices have been “sown”? What results may the reader be expected to forsee?

Book II, Reaping

Chapter 1, “Effects in the Bank”

Which opinions of Victorian factory owners does Dickens satirize? (143-144) A weak Smoke Abatement Act was passed in 1853, and the Corporations Act of 1856 limited chemical pollutants within towns. What seems to have been Dickens’s views on environmental legislation?

What symbolism is conveyed by the collaboration of Mrs. Sparsit, Bitzer and James Harthouse within the confines of Bounderby’s bank?

How does Dickens describe the bank itself? What are the habits of the “Bank Fairy”? On what subjects does James Harthouse seek to engage Mrs. Sparsit, and what do we assume are his motives?

Chapter 2, “Mr. James Harthouse”

How does the narrator explain the association between James Harthouse and the Gradgrind/Bounderby set? (156)

What are Mr. Harthouse’s chief traits? (157, 161) Are these the stereotyped representation of a class? Would his Victorian audience have found them familiar or pleasant?

Does this novel have some of the features of Victorian melodrama?

What praises of his hometown does Mr. Bounderby repeat to Mr. Harthouse? (158)

What does Harthouse notice in Louisa’s manner and conversation? (159)

What judgements does the narrator provide of Harthouse’s character? (161) Is Dickens making any wider social critique at this point, and if so, what?

Why is Tom styled “the whelp,” and by whom? (162) What reflections does Louisa’s manner toward Tom prompt in Mr. Harthouse?

Chapter 3, “The Whelp”

What does the narrator tell us about Tom’s character and its origins? (164)

What metaphors/symbolic associations surround James Harthouse? (165) By what means does Harthouse obtain information about Louisa, and what does he learn?

What does Tom think has been his role in Louisa’s marriage? What reason does he give for assuming all will be well with her? (167)

What is meant by the chapter’s conclusion, “He then walked home pretty easily, though not yet free from an impression of the presence and influence of his new friend--as if he were lounging somewhat in the air, in the same negligent attitude, regarding him with the same look” (168)?

What ominous claim does the narrator make to enforce the seriousness of the scene?

Chapter 4, “Men and Brothers”

What sarcasm is latent in the title, “Men and Brothers”? In what ways are these men brotherly?

How do we know that we are not intended to respect the (Chartist) labor leader? What contrasts does the narrator make between him and his audience? (169)
Why do you think Dickens reiterates the innocence and decency of the men?

Do the men have concrete grievances? (170) What does the narrator think of their union?

What are some suggestions of the name, “United Aggregate Tribunal”? (As opposed to the Workmen’s Federation?) To what decision does the agitator attempt to lead the men?

On what grounds does Stephen defend his decision not to join the union? Why do you think Dickens chooses a workman who suffers from not joining the union--in contrast to the usual case, of a workman persecuted because he did join the union--as his hero?

What seems to have been Dickens’s attitude toward labor unions? By what means did he believe social change should or must come?

On what basis does Stephen decide to avoid political activity? Does he have a reasoned hope for a better life for working people? What circumstances have caused his own problems?

Chapter 5, “Men and Masters”

Why does Bounderby invite Stephen to his home to meet James Harthouse and Louisa? On what grounds does Stephen defend his fellow workmen? (178-80) Does his account describe specific grievances?

Does he agree with Mr. Bounderby that transporting “outside agitators” will mend labor unrest? (180-81) What does he suggest as the means for calming conflict? (181-82)

How does Bounderby respond, and with what consequences for Stephen? Is he aware of the consequences of his decision? (182)

Chapter 6, “Fading Away”

What do you make of Stephen’s instinctive response to Mrs. Pegler? (183)

What account does he give to Rachael of what has happened to him? Why doesn’t he tell her the full truth? (184) What is unusual about her response to questions about her family? About her reaction to the announcement of the name “Bounderby” at the door?

What is unusual in this scene for Louisa? (187) What aspects of Stephen’s character are shown in his response to her?

What do we learn of the reasons why Stephen will never join a union? Is this now something Rachael demands of him? (188) Why is this a moral principle to him?

What are we to make of Tom’s desire to talk with Stephen, and his disinclination for light?

Why does Stephen wait outside the bank for several evenings, and by whom is he observed? (192-93)

How is Coketown described as Stephen leaves it? (194)

Chapter 7, “Gunpowder”

What is meant by the “gunpowder”?

Why is Louisa attracted to the manner and conversation of Mr. Harthouse? (195) What “secret” does he discuss with her in the Bounderbys’ summer home?

Why does she confide in him? According to Victorian norms, should she have been more suspicious?

What recent turn of circumstances does she reveal to Mr. Harthouse? (200) What insinuations of her brother seem to confirm this? (203)

What aid does Mr. Harthouse promise to attempt, and what motivates his admonitions to Tom to treat his sister well?

What are some outward indications of Tom’s mental state? What significant information does Harthouse glean from his conversations with Tom? (205)

Chapter 8, “Explosion”

Has Mr. Harthouse intended to cause mischief in the lives of Louisa and Tom? (207)

What event shatters Mr. and Mrs. Bounderby’s peace of mind? What is known about the crime? What conclusions is the reader expected to draw?

Who is accused of the robbery, and on what grounds? What has Tom done to make this seem plausible?

What forms of marital alienation does Mrs. Sparsit’s visit place in relief?

What do Louisa and her brother discuss in their nighttime visit? Why does she ask him if she should mention their visit to Stephen? What thoughts and suspicions do her actions convey? (218)

Chapter 9, “Hearing the Last of It”

What are some effects of Mrs. Sparsit’s intense preoccupation with Mr. Bounderby’s household?

What perceptions does the mother attempt to express on her deathbed? (223) Is her death itself symbolic? (225-26)

How do father and daughter seem to respond to her death?

Chapter 10, “Mrs. Sparsit’s Staircase”

What metaphor is intended in the title? What do we learn about Tom from Louisa’s interview with Mr. Hearthouse?

Chapter 11, “Lower and Lower”

What is added to this portion of the narrative by the focus on Mrs. Sparsit’s reactions to the potential liaison between Louisa and James Harthouse? Does the reader know more than she?

How does Mrs. Sparsit’s presence and her sarcasms affect the tone of the scene in which Mr. Harthouse declares his love for Louisa?

What are some humorous aspects of Mrs. Sparsit’s chase after Louisa and Tom? Is she a clever voyeur?

What do you make of the scene in which she disguises herself in a cape in the train waiting room? (238) Is it plausible?

What symbolism is associated with the rain/flood? (239) The train? (238)

Chapter 12, “Down”

What are the implications of this chapter’s title?

Does it seem plausible that Louisa should confront her father and seek his aid in making up her mind whether to elope with Mr. Harthouse? In other words, is this scene realistic?

Of what does she accuse him? In addition to her emotionless rearing, what wrong has been done? (242-43, eloquent passage at end of 242)

Do you think his mild answers are consistent with his former belief that he had been correct in every way? (241-43)

Could this scene have been staged? What is the symbolism of Louisa’s final collapse on the ground?

Book III, Garnering

What are some of the things which will be garnered in this section? What is added by the metaphor of harvest?

Chapter 1, “Another Thing Needful”

What is the “another thing needful”? What responses indicate that Gradgrind is changed in attitude?

What effect has Sissy’s presence had upon the Gradgrind household? How does Louisa respond to her?

Chapter 2, “Very Ridiculous”

Who is “very ridiculous”? What symbolism is inherent in the fact that Mr. Harthouse must confront Sissy rather than Louisa? Why does he decide to decamp?

What motives does Mr. Harthouse give to Sissy for his behavior? Had he intended to cause damage? Had he loved Louisa?

What do you make of the fact that he obeys Sissy’s directive without waiting to hear from Louisa herself?

What does Mr. Harthouse decide to do next? How does this affect the reader’s sympathies? Does he come to regret his attempt to seduce an unhappily married woman?

Chapter 3, “Very Decided”

How is Mrs. Sparsit’s attempt to announce Louisa’s departure received?

What altercation occurs between Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby? What do you make of the fact that Louisa doesn’t confront her husband herself, nor make any arrangements with him?

Are aspects of this scene humorous? What parts of the conversation increase the reader’s sympathy for Mr. Gradgrind?

What ultimatum does Mr. Bounderby give Louisa, and with what justification? How is the chapter title ironic?

Would Dickens’s audience have felt sympathy for a husband whose wife had deserted him, and if so, what extenuating circumstances are here introduced?

Chapter 4, “Lost”

Who is “lost” as indicated by the title? Why has Stephen been forced to leave town?

What do we learn from Rachel’s interview with Louisa? What inferences about Tom’s behavior do Mr. Gradgrind and Louisa come to?

Chapter 5, “Found”

Is Stephen “found”? What hopes and fears does his absence evoke?

Again, an ironic title--who is “found”? What are some comic/public aspects of the scene in which Mrs. Sparsit forces Mrs. Pegler to confront her son?

What have been some of Mr. Bounderby’s fabrications revealed by his mother’s story?

Does the novel deal with the issue of why he may have grown into a lying bully, despite good parental care? If not, why not?

Chapter 6, “The Starlight”

What is the symbolism of the title?

How has the landscape been affected by mining? What is the name of the pit into which Stephen has fallen? Whom does Stephen/the author hold responsible?

What role in Stephen’s rescue is played respectively by Rachel and Sissy?

What are some dramatic features of the rescue scene?

What remarks on worker conditions does Stephen make before dying?

What is the thematic significance of Stephen’s dying prayer?

Chapter 7, “Whelp-Hunting”

What effect is created by seldom calling Tom by his name?

What is Sissy’s role in contriving Tom’s escape? What do you make of the nature of Tom’s circus disguise?

On what terms do Tom and Louisa part? What is his view of the latter’s behavior? (304)

What are we to make of Bitzer’s reappearance in the narrative?

Chapter 8, “Philosophical”

To what does the title refer?

What method does Mr. Sleary contrive for enabling Tom’s escape? What do you make of the fact that he has no compunction about helping a thief escape the law?

What news from the past does he give privately to Mr. Gradgrind? What had been the manner of transmission?

What final message does Mr. Sleary leave with Mr. Gradgrind? How has the circus served as a metaphor for some of the meanings of the book?

Would Dickens have considered his novel writing another form of popular art analogous to that of the circus?

Chapter 9, “Final”

What is added by the final scene between Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit? Had you expected them to settle down together as before?

What end is provided for Mr. Bounderby? Is the tone of the description comic or sad?

What is Louisa’s fate? Sissy’s? Are the endings provided appropriate and satisfactory to the reader?

Would Aristotle have called this novel a tragedy, a comedy, or both?

What final message is conveyed in the voice of the author? What dimension does this add to the book?

Final Questions:

Is this book an allegory? What is added (or detracted) by some possible allegorical readings of some of its incidents?

Do you think the use of moral allegory aids or hinders the novel’s effectiveness?

What purpose do you think may be served by minor characters such as Mrs. Sparsit? Of Bitzer?

Which central characters in the book hold our interest? Does the center of attention shift as the novel progresses?

What are the novel’s claims for the importance of emotion? What kinds of emotions are regarded as central to life?

In what ways does Hard Times reflect Victorian notions of childhood and its benign effects?

Are the changes in Gradgrind’s character toward the novel’s end believable?

Are you satisfied with the novel’s end? Why do you think the plot punishes both Louisa and Tom? Is justice done to other characters such as Mr. Bounderby and Mrs. Sparsit?

Is this novel sentimental? If so, how would you define “sentimentality,” and how may it be critiqued? Does its “sentimentality” detract or add from the novel’s value?

Do its allegorical features aid or hinder the novel’s effectiveness?

What are some elements of the novel’s structure? Are its careful balances effective?

Does this remind you of any other works by Dickens you have read--e. g. “A Christmas Carol”?

What types of reforms do you think Dickens would have advocated in order to improve the relations between factory workers and their employers? Who would have been entrusted with bringing these about?