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THE NOVEL

THE CHARACTERS
MAJOR CHARACTERS

  • THOMAS GRADGRIND, SR.

    A leading businessman of Coketown and governor of the school, Gradgrind becomes a member of Parliament during the course of the story. He is married and the father of five, including Louisa and Tom, Jr., two of the major characters.

    Gradgrind is a strict disciple of the philosophy of Utilitarianism that prizes hard fact above all else. Anything not a fact is considered "fancy" or sentiment. Gradgrind practices what he preaches- to the letter. Not only are his learning techniques taught in the school he governs, but his children have been raised by its laws. Their learning has been strictly scientific, free from the "corrupting" influence of poetry, fairy tale, or song.

    The novel charts Gradgrind's growing realization that his theories, when applied without the humane influence of the heart, can be destructive. A marriage arranged for profit and convenience between Louisa and Bounderby ends in disaster. Tom, Jr., becomes a liar and a thief, forced to escape the law in disguise.

    A basically decent man (unlike Bounderby), Gradgrind is not beyond redemption, according to Dickens. Largely through the influence of Sissy Jupe and the trauma of Louisa's failed marriage, Gradgrind grows in wisdom and experience. He pays for his earlier insensitivity by seeing the harmful results of his philosophy: Tom's life of crime, Bitzer's cold-hearted practicality, and Louisa's emotional breakdown. By the end of the novel, however, he is a wiser and better man.

  • LOUISA GRADGRIND (MRS. BOUNDERBY)

    Daughter of Thomas Gradgrind and, later, wife to Josiah Bounderby, Louisa is first seen curiously peeking at the goings-on at the horse-riding performance. Her action is symbolic of her yearning to experience more than the hard scientific facts she has learned all her life. Instinctively seeking romance and laughter when all she has known are theory and statistics, Louisa is viewed by Dickens as a pathetic product of her father's philosophy.

    Attractive and sensitive, Louisa has always masked her emotions under a cool and passive facade. She is often linked symbolically to fire: Dying embers represent her fading hopes for happiness, and the fires of Coketown chimneys that are frequently hidden beneath smoke represent her inward passions.

    Her humanity emerges gradually as the novel progresses. At first she cares only for her brother Tom; for his sake she marries Bounderby, a much older man. But as the lovelessness of her marriage takes its toll, she reaches out, first to Stephen Blackpool, an oppressed factory worker, and then to James Harthouse, an arrogant aristocrat who tries to seduce her. Pressed to the brink of madness by the temptation that Harthouse offers, Louisa throws herself on her father's mercy. Nothing in her previous education has prepared her to handle her emerging passions. She saves herself from disgrace just in time, helped by the friendship of Sissy Jupe, who represents the wisdom of the heart- a wisdom Louisa has never known.

    Louisa and Gradgrind's changes of character mark the greatest progression in the novel. Louisa begins as a passive, daydreaming girl and ends as a mature, generous, and humane young woman. She dedicates her life to helping those less fortunate than she.

  • JOSIAH BOUNDERBY

    A powerful citizen of Coketown, Bounderby owns a factory and a bank. If Gradgrind represents the Utilitarian philosophy in the novel, Bounderby symbolizes the greedy capitalist, shockingly insensitive to the needs of workers.

    Bounderby (whose name is British slang for "cad") is also the "Bully of humility," a self-made man who endlessly repeats the story of his rise from poverty and childhood abuse to his current position of power. He claims to loathe the trappings of wealth- a grand home, beautiful furnishings, art objects- but he nonetheless collects them avidly.

    His greatest source of pride is Mrs. Sparsit, his housekeeper, a woman of high station brought low by a bad early marriage. The delicious irony that this highborn lady should now work for him- who was born a pauper- is irresistible to Bounderby. He reminds everyone, including Mrs. Sparsit, of this striking contrast time and again.

    Bounderby is shattered by his marriage to Louisa, who never respects him as he thinks he deserves. He is also highly embarrassed when it is discovered that Mrs. Pegler is his mother and that he has paid her to stay out of his life. He suffers a dual humiliation when Louisa deserts him and Mrs. Pegler reveals that he has lied about his past. To make matters worse, he learns that Mrs. Sparsit- the one person whose respect for him seemed unshakable- has long held him in contempt.

    Bounderby is a one-dimensional character. He learns nothing from his trials, and he seems to have no inner life. He begins and ends as a blustering, opinionated fool. Drawn from a comic tradition that Dickens began with The Pickwick Papers, Bounderby is "flat," almost a cartoon. His effect on other characters in the book, such as Stephen Blackpool and Louisa, is powerful and real, but he is not as fully rendered a character as his friend Gradgrind.

  • CECILIA JUPE ("SISSY")

    Daughter of a horse-riding acrobat and clown at Sleary's traveling circus, Sissy is taken into the Gradgrind household when her father deserts her. From the first, Sissy is treated by Gradgrind and Bounderby as a bad influence on the Gradgrind children, one who has been poorly educated and corrupted by the vulgar show folk who raised her. But Sissy symbolizes the "Wisdom of the Heart" that has been sadly lacking among the Gradgrinds. Little by little, her positive influence is felt. Louisa's sister Jane is visibly happier than Louisa ever was as a child, and even the self-pitying Mrs. Gradgrind wonders, as she lays dying, what has been missing from their lives.

    When Louisa leaves her husband and returns to her childhood home, Sissy becomes a dominant force in the novel. She offers Louisa the healing balm of friendship to bring her from the brink of emotional breakdown. Sissy confronts Harthouse with her ultimatum that he leave Coketown. She comforts Rachael and helps find Stephen. And she provides Tom with a means of escape via Sleary's circus. Sissy, more than any other character, proves to Gradgrind that the wisdom of the heart is no myth, but is as real as any fact he ever learned.

    Sissy is awarded the Victorian ideal of true happiness- a husband and children. Although never sure her father still lives, she painstakingly keeps the jar of nine-oils to soothe his bruises should he ever return.

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© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.
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