A STEP BEYOND
11. Stephen is considered unrealistic for two basic reasons. First, some readers charge that he has been burdened with an unbelievable number of obstacles- drunken wife, his inability to get a divorce, his rejection by both the union and Bounderby, his implication in the bank robbery- followed by his eventual accidental death in the pit of an abandoned mine. It is suggested that, by creating a character so oppressed by circumstance, Dickens strains the reader's credibility and weakens the social criticism implied by the character.
Second, Stephen is made the spokesperson for the factory worker, particularly in two scenes in Bounderby's house. His speeches are often considered unrealistic because they seem less like the words of a typical factory worker and more like Dickens's own sentiments. It is here, some charge, that Dickens the reformer overwhelms Dickens the writer of social realism.
12. "Sowing" suggests the seeds planted by the Bounderby/Gradgrind philosophy, particularly as seen through Louisa and Tom. They are raised as products of this strict philosophy and grow according to its dictates. By the end of the first book, Gradgrind has no reason to feel that his "crop" will be anything but successful: Louisa is about to make a profitable marriage, and Tom will begin a job at the bank. Stephen, too, is the product of this sowing. In "Reaping," however, this harvest reveals itself to be a bitter one. Louisa's marriage is unhappy, and she nearly runs off with another man. Tom turns out to be a gambler, liar, and thief, and Gradgrind's philosophy brutally explodes in his own face. Stephen is rejected by his fellow workers and loses his job. In "Garnering," the results of the harvest are gathered up and taken home. Gradgrind experiences the pain of an ungrateful and unrepentant son. Louisa faces a future without a family of her own. Tom must leave the country. And Stephen is dead.
All three titles have Biblical implications. The first two suggest the text, "Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Galatians 6:7). "Garnering" suggests the story of Ruth, who garnered corn in the fields of Boaz.
13. This is the phrase used often by Bounderby to signify what he believes to be the typical request of a Coketown factory worker. Such an opinion typifies Bounderby's awesome insensitivity to his worker's needs. He feels they are lazy, enjoy easy jobs, spend too much time at play, and live in healthful surroundings. Dickens goes to great pains in the novel to suggest how wrong Bounderby is, and how he is typical of what is wrong with a society that permits such stupidity and greed to prevail.
14. When we first see Louisa, she is compared to "a fire with nothing to burn," suggesting her "starved imagination" that has only fed on the thin diet of facts her father has given her. Later, Louisa is seen gazing into the fire as her marriage to Bounderby seems more and more inevitable. The fading embers are compared to her own concept of her future as hopeless and short. Most importantly, she refers to fire when Gradgrind tells her of Bounderby's proposal. Louisa's response is to mention the chimneys of Coketown, which seem to spew only languid and monotonous smoke until suddenly- a burst of flame! Louisa refers to her own passion for life that lurks beneath her cool exterior, hoping that her father will understand that a marriage to Bounderby will never unleash those passions. But Gradgrind is too insensitive to his daughter's hidden meaning, and the "burst of flame" (heralded by lightning) comes after her marriage and through her friendship with Harthouse.
15. Mrs. Sparsit is Bounderby's housekeeper, and at the beginning of the novel, she seems content with her role as Bounderby's chief source of pride. Because of her aristocratic heritage, Bounderby loves to point to her as an example of how far he has come in the world. Mrs. Sparsit is only too happy to listen to his praise. When Bounderby marries Louisa, the relationship between him and Mrs. Sparsit becomes more ambiguous. She is clearly jealous of Louisa, but whether she wants to be Mrs. Bounderby or simply his housekeeper again is uncertain. She is obsessed with proving Louisa to be an adulteress, but at times it seems that she wants to prove to Bounderby that he's the "noodle" she calls him behind his back. Their "friendship" ends when she unwittingly reveals him as a fraud by bringing Mrs. Pegler out in the open. Mrs. Sparsit's contempt for him is evident when he fires her from his employ, but whether the contempt is borne of love or hatred is never fully explained.
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