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THE STORY

BOOK THE FIRST

CHAPTER VIII

Dickens opens this chapter with more information about the citizens of Coketown. He begins with a story of how Louisa was once overheard by her father to say, "I wonder," and had been sternly warned by him never to wonder again. The same warning might well apply to those who live in Coketown. The "bodies" of people who regulate their lives can't agree on how these citizens' lives can be improved. The one thing these bodies can agree on is that the citizens are never to wonder what their lives might be like. Yet to Gradgrind's dismay, even though the town library is stocked with books of fact, the fiction of Defoe and Goldsmith is always more popular than books on mathematics by Euclid and Cocker.

NOTE: Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was a writer of popular fiction whose most famous book is Robinson Crusoe. Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) was a novelist and playwright whose work Dickens greatly admired, particularly the novel of English country life, The Vicar of Wakefield. Euclid was an ancient Greek mathematician celebrated for his work in geometry. And Cocker was a seventeenth-century mathematician whose work was printed in so many editions that the phrase "according to Cocker" began to mean "according to fact." "According to Cocker" was one of the titles Dickens considered for this novel.

Dickens here points out the power of literature and man's need for fictional entrance into other worlds. Which do you feel is more necessary for daily life- fact or imagination? If you had an informal debate in your class, which side would you be on?

As Tom and Louisa sit alone before the fireplace, Tom insists that he hates everyone. More than anything, though, Tom hates his home, which he calls the "jaundiced jail."


NOTE: Jaundice is a blood disease that causes, among other symptoms, yellow skin, a feeling of apathy, and loss of energy. "Jaundiced" can also mean a distorted or prejudiced point of view. Can both of these meanings apply to the Gradgrind household?

Louisa is sorry she can't do more to help Tom out of his depression, but the things that a sister might do- tell stories, sing songs- are forbidden her.

Tom takes hope in his upcoming job at Bounderby's bank. There he'll have revenge on all the facts that have been stuffed down their throats. At Bounderby's he'll have more freedom. When Louisa warns that Bounderby might prove to be tougher than their father, Tom dismisses her fears. He knows how to handle Bounderby; he'll use the old man's affection for Louisa as a means of getting his way.

This is the first time you've seen Tom and Louisa alone. How do you feel about them? Do you sympathize with their plight? They're not the first young people to think of their home as a prison, but having watched Gradgrind you might feel that their unhappiness is more understandable than that of most young people.

Just as Louisa expresses her bewilderment about the future, Mrs. Gradgrind overhears her utter those forbidden words, "I wonder." Mrs. Gradgrind lectures her children in a pale imitation of her husband, but Louisa defends herself by saying that the dying fire reminded her of how short her life will be.

NOTE: Louisa is identified throughout the novel with fire. When we first meet her in Chapter III, she is described as having "a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn." Now she identifies her future with the fading embers of the fireplace. These images suggest a passion within her that has been given no reason or encouragement to blaze. Watch for other references to fire in relation to this important character.

Mrs. Gradgrind explodes, reminding them of all the advantages they have been given. She ends her tirade with a typical bit of illogic: if only she had never had a family, the children would know what life was like without her!

Mrs. Gradgrind is a minor character in the novel, but she represents another of those that Gradgrind has virtually destroyed with his insistence on facts. She always mouths her husband's opinions, never her own. Her addled mind offers some comic relief, but her situation is nonetheless serious.  

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