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    A forty-year-old factory worker, Stephen Blackpool is honest, hardworking, and kind. He symbolizes all the oppressed workers of the town as he toils long hours for little pay and lives in impoverished conditions. But Stephen is also burdened by circumstances that greatly add to his misery. His wife became a drunkard and a public disgrace some years ago. She returns from time to time, tattered and dirty, in spite of his having paid her to stay away. The divorce laws prevent Stephen from ridding himself of her and marrying his true love, Rachael. Even though passing thoughts sometimes tempt Stephen to kill his wife, he knows in his heart there is nothing he can do to improve his desperate situation.

    Stephen also refuses to join the workers' union on principle, a decision that causes him to be shunned by his fellow workers and ultimately fired. After having left town to find work, he is on his way back to Coketown to clear himself of a false accusation of crime when he falls into the shaft of an abandoned mine. His subsequent death makes him a helpless victim of a social system that abuses and exploits the working man.

    While Stephen Blackpool's surname suggests the waters clouded by industrial waste, his first name suggests St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Some readers see Stephen as a pathetic, even tragic figure. Others regard him as an obvious symbol, too contrived to be a successful fictional creation. As you read you'll have to come to your own assessment of him. Whatever opinion is held of Stephen, it is generally agreed that his catchphrase for the confused unhappiness of life- "It's a muddle"- is one of the novel's most memorable lines.


    Once a lady of wealth, Mrs. Sparsit was brought low when her young husband wasted a fortune and died, leaving her penniless. Known for her Coriolanian (Roman style) nose and dark eyebrows, she is first seen as Mr. Bounderby's housekeeper and then as his tenant in rooms at the bank. She and Bounderby enjoy a symbiotic relationship: he needs her to give him impressive credentials, and she needs him to remind the world of her lofty past.

    When Bounderby marries Louisa, Mrs. Sparsit is forced to watch the world go by from her window, but frequent visits to the Bounderby home provide her with plenty of opportunity to practice her busybody ways. She frequently reminds Bounderby of Louisa's weaknesses as a wife and begins an organized and obsessive effort to prove that Louisa and Harthouse are about to run away together. All the while, she praises Bounderby to his face and calls him a "noodle" behind his back.

    Eager to prove herself correct about Louisa, Mrs. Sparsit is shattered by Louisa's decision to return to the Gradgrind home. And she is reduced to embarrassment and misery when she unwittingly is instrumental in revealing Bounderby as a liar and a fraud. Her relationship with Bounderby ends with hostility and ill-bred name-calling.

    Mrs. Sparsit (the "sparse" of her name suggesting the scantiness or meagerness of her character) represents the faded aristocracy so hated by Dickens for its laziness, smugness, and disregard for those less fortunate.


    Tom represents another dismal product of the Gradgrind philosophy of education. From the very first he is selfish, self-centered, and insensitive. He sees his sister's disastrous marriage to Bounderby as a means for an easier life for himself, with little regard to what such a match might mean to Louisa. Tom is also easily swayed by the trappings of Harthouse's wealth, and it is his willingness to talk freely to Harthouse about Louisa that clears the path for the older man to try to seduce her. Even worse, Tom shows no guilt about robbing the bank to pay his gambling debts and then implicating Stephen Blackpool, an innocent man. Tom's actions indirectly lead to Stephen's death. But Tom is unrepentant; he even resents Louisa for telling the truth. Dickens characterizes him as a hypocrite and a monster.


    An aristocrat who comes to Coketown to enter politics for Gradgrind's Hard Fact party, Harthouse represents the jaded upper classes. Cynical and amoral, Harthouse sets out to seduce Louisa, motivated not by love or passion, but out of boredom. One philosophy is as good as the next as far as he's concerned, and his lack of commitment has driven him from one lackluster career to the next. He is not a villain in the sense that he sets out to do evil, but he is harmful nonetheless, like the drifting iceberg that wrecks ships. His only nod to goodness comes when he faces Sissy and decides to leave town at her request. His name ("hearthouse") is an ironic comment on his lack of compassion.

    Some have felt that Harthouse is a believable character. Others argue that he is just a plot contrivance. How do you feel? What evidence can you offer in support of your opinion?


ECC [Hard Times Contents] []

© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
Electronically Enhanced Text © Copyright 1993, World Library, Inc.
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