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“Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts” (9) pronounces Mr. Thomas Gradgrind in the opening line of Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times. Gradgrind employees this utilitarian philosophy in his schoolhouse and repeatedly reminds the reader that there is no room for idle fantasizing and that nothing matters but Fact. Not only does Gradgrind wield this belief in his school, but it is also the philosophy he teaches his own children within the walls of Stone Lodge. The mechanizing effects of Mr. Gradgrind’s teachings turn these children into true products of the Industrial Revolution—little machines. Gradgrind’s eldest child, Louisa, becomes the central example of the mechanization of people in Dickens’s Hard Times, and she serves as a powerful critique of the coldness and de-humanization of the Industrial Revolution.
Louisa Gradgrind is the central female figure in Hard Times; she strives to suppress her passions and curiosities so she might please her father by living a life led by Fact. Her schooling has been a “mechanical art” (71) that never stooped to “the cultivation of the sentiments and affections” (71). Louisa is repeatedly warned by her father to “Never wonder” and continually reminded of the importance of Fact. Louisa’s education has created a nearly lifeless character, one who is seemingly void of warmth and does not adequately know how to recognize or express her own feelings.
Louisa’s mechanical character is shadowed by a disturbingly mechanical world. The Industrial Revolution is at its height, and the effects of factory life on workers are paralleled by the effects of Gradgrind’s rational philosophy on his own children. The repetitive tasks of the factory workers are dangerous because they do not necessitate thought or evoke any sense of emotion. The factories themselves produce gray smog and dense haze that fills the sky of Coketown, and lifeless ashes that cover the buildings in which the workers must live. As a result, Coketown has been transformed into a “dense formless jumble”, covered by a “blur of soot and smoke,” (151) that creeps along the earth and proves to be nothing more than darkness. Thus, through this emphasis on setting, Dickens’s novel provides a damning appraisal of the Industrial Revolution, and implicitly argues that habit-intensive factory jobs threaten to transform people into things, to render them cold and hard like the machinery they operate, dark and blurred like the city they live in. Dickens suggests that when imagination is dulled, life will become a nearly unbearable existence, an existence without pleasure or meaning.
Louisa, “the triumph of [Mr. Gradgrind’s] system” (288), feels the agony of such an existence. She is exposed solely to the methodology of her father’s system, but throughout the novel she proves to have reservations regarding such a philosophy. Louisa feels deep sympathy for her brother, convinces him to peep at the forbidden fancies of the circus, empathizes with Stephen Blackpool, and experiences emotional turmoil upon the arrival of James Harthouse. Louisa’s education may prevent her from fully understanding her emotions, but unlike her father, she acknowledges that those emotions exist and have some purpose within the framework of her life. Louisa falls somewhere in between the two extremes of Gradgrind’s system—Bitzer, the ideal product produced from the “model school”, and Sissy Jupe, who despite living with Mr. Gradgrind remains impervious to his system.
At the close of the second book, the mechanization of Louisa’s education catches up with her, and she collapses at her father’s feet. It is her father’s repression of every outlet for play or fantasy that has created within Louisa an inability to properly deal with her emotions and has pushed her into a gray, lifeless depression. Before her collapse Louisa finally realizes her life is an unbearable litany of Fact, and as her long suppressed emotions break loose, she tells her father: “Your philosophy and your teaching will not save me. Now, Father, you have brought me to this” (288). It is only when he looks upon the “pride of his heart and the triumph of his system” in an “insensible heap” (288) at his feet that Mr. Gradgrind realizes his system has nearly destroyed his favorite child, and understands it is because of him that his daughter is so detached from others.
Louisa is the product of Mr. Gradgrind’s parental cultivation, and recognizes at the close of the second book that both her home and her heart are a wasteland— that the garden of both Stone Lodge and “the graces of her soul” (284) have not been cared for properly. Louisa exclaims “What have you done, oh, Father, what you have done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here?” (284) and Mr. Gradgrind realizes that by watering his daughter’s heart only with Fact, he has exposed Louisa to “the frost and blight” (284) that have “spoiled” her. It is when Mr. Gradgrind realizes there may be something that is needful beyond Fact that he and Louisa are able to transform into something more than cold, hard products of the System, and begin sowing fresh seeds in the empty wastelands of their hearts.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. New York: Pocket Books, 2007.
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