BOOK THE FIRST
Gradgrind tells Louisa that Bounderby has proposed marriage. This news can't be too surprising to you, given the number of hints about it up to now. Even Mrs. Sparsit has anticipated it, as evidenced by her comments to Bounderby about the troubles known to come to marriages of "unequal ages."
Louisa allows no emotion but merely asks her father a series of questions: Does he think she loves Bounderby? Does he ask her to love Bounderby? Does Bounderby ask her to love him? Gradgrind is uncomfortable, suggesting that the matter of love may be out of place. Love is "fancy"; it is sentimental. Bounderby is too aware of Louisa's upbringing to raise such an issue.
This is the first time you've seen Gradgrind uncomfortable. Louisa's questions about love find him completely off guard. Why does he react this way? Did he expect that Louisa would be overcome with joy at the prospect of marrying Bounderby? Or is it possible that he himself is uneasy about arranging this marriage? Your answer might depend on whether you feel that Gradgrind has a human side.
Louisa responds strangely. She talks of the fires of the Coketown chimney, saying that the "languid and monotonous" smoke by day gives way to fire at night. Then she says that she is "satisfied" to accept Bounderby's offer.
NOTE: Louisa's allusion to the Coketown chimney is another example of her connection to fire. It suggests that she is aware of the youthful passion that lies within her and will never be allowed to express itself. Why is the reference lost on her father? It is a plea from the heart to save her from future unhappiness, but Gradgrind is either blind or insensitive. Some readers have found this scene hard to believe. No father, they say, could be that unaware of his daughter's feelings. But the marriage is a necessary plot device, and Gradgrind's stony reaction- believable or not- is important to making it happen.
Gradgrind wonders if Louisa has accepted any other secret proposal, but Louisa says she hasn't. How could she, with her education, have secret dreams or hopes? Her answer pleases Gradgrind, and they go to break the news to Louisa's mother, who wishes her joy. But Sissy is shocked and saddened. When she looks at Louisa to try to see what is going on in her mind, Louisa becomes cold and aloof and pulls away from the girl.
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