- STEPHEN BLACKPOOL
A forty-year-old factory worker, Stephen Blackpool is honest, hardworking,
and kind. He symbolizes all the oppressed workers of the town as he toils
long hours for little pay and lives in impoverished conditions. But Stephen
is also burdened by circumstances that greatly add to his misery. His wife
became a drunkard and a public disgrace some years ago. She returns from
time to time, tattered and dirty, in spite of his having paid her to stay
away. The divorce laws prevent Stephen from ridding himself of her and marrying
his true love, Rachael. Even though passing thoughts sometimes tempt Stephen
to kill his wife, he knows in his heart there is nothing he can do to improve
his desperate situation.
Stephen also refuses to join the workers' union on principle, a decision
that causes him to be shunned by his fellow workers and ultimately fired.
After having left town to find work, he is on his way back to Coketown to
clear himself of a false accusation of crime when he falls into the shaft
of an abandoned mine. His subsequent death makes him a helpless victim of
a social system that abuses and exploits the working man.
While Stephen Blackpool's surname suggests the waters clouded by industrial
waste, his first name suggests St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
Some readers see Stephen as a pathetic, even tragic figure. Others regard
him as an obvious symbol, too contrived to be a successful fictional creation.
As you read you'll have to come to your own assessment of him. Whatever
opinion is held of Stephen, it is generally agreed that his catchphrase
for the confused unhappiness of life- "It's a muddle"- is one
of the novel's most memorable lines.
- MRS. SPARSIT
Once a lady of wealth, Mrs. Sparsit was brought low when her young husband
wasted a fortune and died, leaving her penniless. Known for her Coriolanian
(Roman style) nose and dark eyebrows, she is first seen as Mr. Bounderby's
housekeeper and then as his tenant in rooms at the bank. She and Bounderby
enjoy a symbiotic relationship: he needs her to give him impressive credentials,
and she needs him to remind the world of her lofty past.
When Bounderby marries Louisa, Mrs. Sparsit is forced to watch the world
go by from her window, but frequent visits to the Bounderby home provide
her with plenty of opportunity to practice her busybody ways. She frequently
reminds Bounderby of Louisa's weaknesses as a wife and begins an organized
and obsessive effort to prove that Louisa and Harthouse are about to run
away together. All the while, she praises Bounderby to his face and calls
him a "noodle" behind his back.
Eager to prove herself correct about Louisa, Mrs. Sparsit is shattered
by Louisa's decision to return to the Gradgrind home. And she is reduced
to embarrassment and misery when she unwittingly is instrumental in revealing
Bounderby as a liar and a fraud. Her relationship with Bounderby ends with
hostility and ill-bred name-calling.
Mrs. Sparsit (the "sparse" of her name suggesting the scantiness
or meagerness of her character) represents the faded aristocracy so hated
by Dickens for its laziness, smugness, and disregard for those less fortunate.
- THOMAS GRADGRIND, JR. (TOM)
Tom represents another dismal product of the Gradgrind philosophy of education.
From the very first he is selfish, self-centered, and insensitive. He sees
his sister's disastrous marriage to Bounderby as a means for an easier life
for himself, with little regard to what such a match might mean to Louisa.
Tom is also easily swayed by the trappings of Harthouse's wealth, and it
is his willingness to talk freely to Harthouse about Louisa that clears
the path for the older man to try to seduce her. Even worse, Tom shows no
guilt about robbing the bank to pay his gambling debts and then implicating
Stephen Blackpool, an innocent man. Tom's actions indirectly lead to Stephen's
death. But Tom is unrepentant; he even resents Louisa for telling the truth.
Dickens characterizes him as a hypocrite and a monster.
- JAMES HARTHOUSE
An aristocrat who comes to Coketown to enter politics for Gradgrind's Hard
Fact party, Harthouse represents the jaded upper classes. Cynical and amoral,
Harthouse sets out to seduce Louisa, motivated not by love or passion, but
out of boredom. One philosophy is as good as the next as far as he's concerned,
and his lack of commitment has driven him from one lackluster career to
the next. He is not a villain in the sense that he sets out to do evil,
but he is harmful nonetheless, like the drifting iceberg that wrecks ships.
His only nod to goodness comes when he faces Sissy and decides to leave
town at her request. His name ("hearthouse") is an ironic comment
on his lack of compassion.
Some have felt that Harthouse is a believable character. Others argue that
he is just a plot contrivance. How do you feel? What evidence can you offer
in support of your opinion?
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