BOOK THE FIRST
Gradgrind walks homeward from the school, which is in Coketown, an industrial city some distance from London. Coketown is a fictionalized representation of many industrial cities in northern England. "Coke" to coal miners is a residue coal product that can be used for fuel.
Gradgrind's home is on the outskirts of town. There he lives with a wife and five children, who have been raised, of course, according to fact. No nursery rhymes or fairy tales for them! His house, Stone Lodge, is as square and imposing as its owner.
As Gradgrind nears home, he passes by "Sleary's Horse-riding," where Sissy Jupe's father works. Gradgrind notices with disapproval some of the circus's fanciful attractions.
NOTE: Dickens had great affection for the rowdy, good-natured world of entertainment. He viewed performers as overgrown children, fun-loving and generous. The acts printed on the leaflets Gradgrind sees are typical of those seen in traveling fairs of the nineteenth century.
The circus is in full swing, with flags flying and music blaring! Dickens contrasts the multicolored world of the circus with the plain, whitewashed schoolroom for an obvious reason: fancy vs. fact. What evidence can you offer to show that Dickens finds "fancy" more appealing?
Gradgrind is scornful of what he sees, but his scorn turns to shock when he spots two of his own children, Thomas and Louisa, among the children peeking at the performers. How can it be possible that his children should be here at such a hideous place?
The chapter title is "A Loophole." A "loophole" refers on one level to the opening where Louisa is trying to see the performance. Yet the term also means an escape or evasion from a contract. If we regard the relationship between Gradgrind and his children as a contract- formal, businesslike, and binding- then their appearance at the circus may be the first sign of their eventual escape. Remember this as you read.
Louisa explains that she simply wanted to see what the horse-riding was like, that she has been tired lately- of everything. She shows no guilt or sorrow, despite her father's anger.
Gradgrind ends the discussion abruptly and orders his children to come home with him. On the way, he attempts to instill guilt in them by asking them what their friend Mr. Bounderby will think about their behavior. The mention of this name causes a distinct change in Louisa's emotions.
NOTE: Dickens compares Mr. Bounderby to Mrs. Grundy, a character in a popular English play, Speed The Plough (1798). Mrs. Grundy is often referred to (but never seen) in the play. She is a proper prudish neighbor, about whom the characters often say, "What will Mrs. Grundy think?" The character is still seen to represent a model of British propriety. You'll soon see why Dickens compares Bounderby to Mrs. Grundy.
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