Coketown is a grimy, smelly industrial town in northern England, its houses and skies blackened by smoke from factory chimneys. One of its leading citizens is Thomas Gradgrind, future member of Parliament and governor of the local school. Gradgrind lives with his wife and five children, including the eldest, Louisa, and Tom, Jr.
When we first see Gradgrind, he is observing a typical class in his school, taught by Mr. M'Choakumchild. Gradgrind lectures the teacher on the school's philosophy: "Facts" are important, nothing else but facts. All else is "fancy"- sentiment, imagination. Cecilia Jupe ("Sissy"), the daughter of an acrobatic rider and clown with a traveling troupe of performers, is asked to define a horse. She can't, but Bitzer, an ambitious student, can. His answer is based entirely on fact.
Gradgrind later spies Louisa and young Tom outside the horse-riding (circus) tent, trying to catch a glimpse of the performers. Shocked at their interest in such frivolity, Gradgrind seeks the advice of his friend, Josiah Bounderby, a banker and factory owner. They conclude that it must be Sissy Jupe's influence that is responsible. They try to find her father, but discover that he's deserted Sissy to prevent her from seeing him lose his talents. Gradgrind offers to take care of Sissy by bringing her into his household, hoping that Louisa will see what happens to someone who was raised on fancy, not fact. Sissy accepts his invitation.
Bounderby objects to the arrangement. He has dragged himself up from poverty to a position of power and wealth. Treating the "lower classes" with such kindness is a mistake to him; these people are spoiled enough. Bounderby lives with his housekeeper, Mrs. Sparsit, a member of the faded aristocracy. She has lost her money, but not her disdain for those she considers beneath her.
Another resident of Coketown is Stephen Blackpool, a factory worker.
Once happily married, Stephen is separated from his wife, a drunkard who wanders off for months at a time, only to return to shame him. Stephen is in love with Rachael, another worker, but the two of them can't marry because of divorce laws that favor the wealthy. For Stephen and Rachael, life is a "muddle."
Gradgrind is elected to Parliament. It is decided that his son Tom should work at Bounderby's bank and that his daughter Louisa should marry Bounderby. Louisa tries to communicate to her father that the marriage would be a mistake, but Gradgrind refuses to hear of anything that speaks of love or sentiment. Only Sissy, who discontinues her education because she is thought "unteachable," but who stays on in the Gradgrind household, understands Louisa's plight. But Louisa is too proud to accept Sissy's compassion. When the wedding takes place, only Tom Gradgrind is truly happy, thinking his life at the Bounderby bank will be much easier with his sister around to defend him.
A year after the wedding, changes have taken place in Coketown. Mrs. Sparsit now lives in an apartment at the bank, where the sneaky Bitzer has become the messenger. And a new person has come to town- James Harthouse, an aristocratic young man recruited by Gradgrind's political party.
Harthouse is immediately attracted to Louisa, and he accurately senses that the Bounderby marriage is not a success. He makes plans to alleviate his own boredom by trying to win Louisa's affections.
Meanwhile, the workers of Coketown are attempting to form a union to protect their rights. They are led by Slackbridge, a power-hungry union organizer. Stephen refuses to join the union because he's convinced it won't help their plight, and because of a promise he's made to Rachael. True to their pact, the workers shun Stephen, who eventually loses his job when loyalty to his co-workers prevents him from denouncing them to Bounderby.
Stephen is forced to leave town to look for work. Louisa offers him money, which he refuses, but Tom has something else in mind. He asks Stephen to linger for several evenings around the bank, which Stephen innocently does. After waiting for three evenings, nothing happens, so Stephen sets off from Coketown.
The relationship between Harthouse and Louisa begins to intensify. Their every move is watched by Mrs. Sparsit, eager to prove the fact of adultery and to see the Bounderby marriage crumble.
Soon after Stephen's departure, it's learned that the bank has been robbed. Since Stephen was seen lingering outside the bank, he is implicated in the crime. So is Mrs. Pegler, a woman Stephen befriended, who comes to Coketown every year to watch Bounderby from afar. Louisa immediately suspects that Tom is responsible for the robbery, but he denies it.
Mrs. Sparsit believes that Harthouse and Louisa are about to elope. As Mrs. Sparsit sees Louisa board a train, she follows her, only to lose her along the way. But Louisa is not on her way to meet Harthouse. She is going to her father's home, and there she confesses to him that Harthouse is waiting to run away with her. She begs for her father's advice. Faced with the failure of his "facts-only" philosophy, Gradgrind is shattered. He offers Louisa shelter.
Sissy, now an important part of the Gradgrind household, goes to Harthouse on her own to persuade him to leave town. He is powerless in the face of Sissy's moral goodness, and he agrees to leave Louisa and Coketown behind.
The robbery still remains unsolved. Mrs. Sparsit is triumphant when she discovers Mrs. Pegler, but the old woman turns out to be Bounderby's mother, who had supposedly deserted him at an early age. Bounderby is revealed as a fraud and a liar, but he is unrepentant.
The search for Stephen continues. Rachael can't understand why he has not responded to her letter asking him to return. But the mystery is solved when Sissy and Rachael take a quiet walk in the country. They discover that Stephen has fallen into an abandoned mine and is near death. When he is brought from the pit, he is reunited briefly with Rachael before he dies.
Knowing that Stephen's death will point the finger of guilt at him, Tom runs away, on Sissy's advice, to Sleary's circus. When Louisa, Sissy, and Gradgrind find him there, he is playing a silly down in one of the circus acts. He feels no guilt for what he has done, and Gradgrind again must face a failed product of his philosophy.
Despite Bitzer's attempts to arrest Tom, Sleary helps the young culprit escape to a port where he can sail to safety. Sleary offers the final parting words of wisdom: people need amusement as much as they need work.
The characters go on to their respective futures. Mrs. Sparsit will live unhappily with her relative, Lady Scadgers. Bounderby will die of a fit. A repentant Tom will die before he has a chance to return home. Gradgrind will grow old, alienated from those who once shared his philosophy. Rachael will continue to live in town, occasionally helping a drunken wretch of a woman who shows up from time to time. Sissy will marry and have children, but there is no such reward in store for Louisa. She must be content with helping those less fortunate than she. Nothing changes for the workers of Coketown. They continue to be exploited from every side, all of life still "a muddle."
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© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.