- THOMAS GRADGRIND, SR.
A leading businessman of Coketown and governor of the school, Gradgrind
becomes a member of Parliament during the course of the story. He is married
and the father of five, including Louisa and Tom, Jr., two of the major
Gradgrind is a strict disciple of the philosophy of Utilitarianism that
prizes hard fact above all else. Anything not a fact is considered "fancy"
or sentiment. Gradgrind practices what he preaches- to the letter. Not only
are his learning techniques taught in the school he governs, but his children
have been raised by its laws. Their learning has been strictly scientific,
free from the "corrupting" influence of poetry, fairy tale, or
The novel charts Gradgrind's growing realization that his theories, when
applied without the humane influence of the heart, can be destructive. A
marriage arranged for profit and convenience between Louisa and Bounderby
ends in disaster. Tom, Jr., becomes a liar and a thief, forced to escape
the law in disguise.
A basically decent man (unlike Bounderby), Gradgrind is not beyond redemption,
according to Dickens. Largely through the influence of Sissy Jupe and the
trauma of Louisa's failed marriage, Gradgrind grows in wisdom and experience.
He pays for his earlier insensitivity by seeing the harmful results of his
philosophy: Tom's life of crime, Bitzer's cold-hearted practicality, and
Louisa's emotional breakdown. By the end of the novel, however, he is a
wiser and better man.
- LOUISA GRADGRIND (MRS. BOUNDERBY)
Daughter of Thomas Gradgrind and, later, wife to Josiah Bounderby, Louisa
is first seen curiously peeking at the goings-on at the horse-riding performance.
Her action is symbolic of her yearning to experience more than the hard
scientific facts she has learned all her life. Instinctively seeking romance
and laughter when all she has known are theory and statistics, Louisa is
viewed by Dickens as a pathetic product of her father's philosophy.
Attractive and sensitive, Louisa has always masked her emotions under a
cool and passive facade. She is often linked symbolically to fire: Dying
embers represent her fading hopes for happiness, and the fires of Coketown
chimneys that are frequently hidden beneath smoke represent her inward passions.
Her humanity emerges gradually as the novel progresses. At first she cares
only for her brother Tom; for his sake she marries Bounderby, a much older
man. But as the lovelessness of her marriage takes its toll, she reaches
out, first to Stephen Blackpool, an oppressed factory worker, and then to
James Harthouse, an arrogant aristocrat who tries to seduce her. Pressed
to the brink of madness by the temptation that Harthouse offers, Louisa
throws herself on her father's mercy. Nothing in her previous education
has prepared her to handle her emerging passions. She saves herself from
disgrace just in time, helped by the friendship of Sissy Jupe, who represents
the wisdom of the heart- a wisdom Louisa has never known.
Louisa and Gradgrind's changes of character mark the greatest progression
in the novel. Louisa begins as a passive, daydreaming girl and ends as a
mature, generous, and humane young woman. She dedicates her life to helping
those less fortunate than she.
- JOSIAH BOUNDERBY
A powerful citizen of Coketown, Bounderby owns a factory and a bank. If
Gradgrind represents the Utilitarian philosophy in the novel, Bounderby
symbolizes the greedy capitalist, shockingly insensitive to the needs of
Bounderby (whose name is British slang for "cad") is also the
"Bully of humility," a self-made man who endlessly repeats the
story of his rise from poverty and childhood abuse to his current position
of power. He claims to loathe the trappings of wealth- a grand home, beautiful
furnishings, art objects- but he nonetheless collects them avidly.
His greatest source of pride is Mrs. Sparsit, his housekeeper, a woman
of high station brought low by a bad early marriage. The delicious irony
that this highborn lady should now work for him- who was born a pauper-
is irresistible to Bounderby. He reminds everyone, including Mrs. Sparsit,
of this striking contrast time and again.
Bounderby is shattered by his marriage to Louisa, who never respects him
as he thinks he deserves. He is also highly embarrassed when it is discovered
that Mrs. Pegler is his mother and that he has paid her to stay out of his
life. He suffers a dual humiliation when Louisa deserts him and Mrs. Pegler
reveals that he has lied about his past. To make matters worse, he learns
that Mrs. Sparsit- the one person whose respect for him seemed unshakable-
has long held him in contempt.
Bounderby is a one-dimensional character. He learns nothing from his trials,
and he seems to have no inner life. He begins and ends as a blustering,
opinionated fool. Drawn from a comic tradition that Dickens began with The
Pickwick Papers, Bounderby is "flat," almost a cartoon. His effect
on other characters in the book, such as Stephen Blackpool and Louisa, is
powerful and real, but he is not as fully rendered a character as his friend
- CECILIA JUPE ("SISSY")
Daughter of a horse-riding acrobat and clown at Sleary's traveling circus,
Sissy is taken into the Gradgrind household when her father deserts her.
From the first, Sissy is treated by Gradgrind and Bounderby as a bad influence
on the Gradgrind children, one who has been poorly educated and corrupted
by the vulgar show folk who raised her. But Sissy symbolizes the "Wisdom
of the Heart" that has been sadly lacking among the Gradgrinds. Little
by little, her positive influence is felt. Louisa's sister Jane is visibly
happier than Louisa ever was as a child, and even the self-pitying Mrs.
Gradgrind wonders, as she lays dying, what has been missing from their lives.
When Louisa leaves her husband and returns to her childhood home, Sissy
becomes a dominant force in the novel. She offers Louisa the healing balm
of friendship to bring her from the brink of emotional breakdown. Sissy
confronts Harthouse with her ultimatum that he leave Coketown. She comforts
Rachael and helps find Stephen. And she provides Tom with a means of escape
via Sleary's circus. Sissy, more than any other character, proves to Gradgrind
that the wisdom of the heart is no myth, but is as real as any fact he ever
Sissy is awarded the Victorian ideal of true happiness- a husband and children.
Although never sure her father still lives, she painstakingly keeps the
jar of nine-oils to soothe his bruises should he ever return.
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