Book the First: Sowing Chapters 1-4
The first chapter of Hard Times takes place in a schoolroom. Mr. Gradgrind
explains that children should be taught only facts. In the next chapter, he calls on
Sissy Jupe to give him a definition of a horse. She cannot do so, but a boy in the
class, Bitzer, defines a horse to the satisfaction of Gradgrind. Another of the
adults in the room, a government officer, now takes over the teaching. He asks
the girls and boys whether they would paper a room with representations of
horses. He makes it clear that the correct answer is no. He explains that it would
be incorrect to do so, because in real life horses do not walk up and down a wall.
For the same reason, he tells the children that they would not carpet a room with
representations of flowers, even though Sissy disagrees. Everything, says the
gentleman, must be regulated by Fact. They must discard Fancy altogether.
Gradgrind then hands over the lesson to the schoolteacher, M'Choakumchild,
who proceeds, we are led to believe, to fill up the children with a lot of Facts.
In chapter 3, Gradgrind walks home from school he passes by a circus, set up in
a wooden pavilion. He disapproves of such entertainments and walks on past it,
but the turn of the road takes him past the back of the circus booth. There, to his
annoyance, he finds two of his children, Louisa and Thomas, peeping in. He
rebukes them and leads them back home.
Chapter 4 introduces Mr. Bounderby, the rich banker. He is at Stone Lodge,
Gradgrind's home, talking to Mrs. Gradgrind, boasting, as he often does, about
his deprived and wretched childhood. He says he was abandoned by his mother
and raised by his grandmother, who was a drunkard. The point of his story is to
bring great credit upon himself for overcoming such a bad start in life.
Gradgrind and the children come home, and the children endure more
reproaches for showing an interest in the circus. Mrs. Gradgrind banishes them
to their studies. Gradgrind and Bounderby discuss why how children might have
been misled. They conclude it is because Sissy Jupe is the daughter of circus
folk, and she attends the same school as Gradgrind's children. They decide to
pay Sissy's father a visit.
The first chapters introduce one of the main themes of the novel, the contrast
between Facts and Fancy, and the one-sidedness of the educational philosophy
espoused by Gradgrind. He believes that all knowledge worth having must have
a practical value, and to this end he trusts only in the rational intellect. Matters of
the heart do not affect him; he dismisses imagination and entertainment as
worthless, with no place in a child's education.
In taking satirical aim at Gradgrind, Dickens was giving expression to his belief
that the schools in England were doing a poor job of educating the whole child. In
other of his writings of this period, Dickens complained that there was too much
emphasis on cramming the children full of facts and figures.
Dickens wrote Hard Times in 1854, at a time when there was an awareness in
society of the need to make education more widely available and to improve the
quality of schools. During the 1850s, the British government had established the
first training colleges for schoolteachers. M'Choakumchild, another object of
Dickens's biting satire, is obviously intended to be a graduate of one of these
new training colleges. The message is clear: such teachers may have a lot of
knowledge at their disposal (too much, according to Dickens), but if they look
upon children simply as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with information, the
results are going to be disappointing.
The disastrous effect of such an educational system can already be seen in
Louisa. As she is described in chapter 3, there is a dissatisfaction in her face, " a
light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination
keeping a life in itself somehow." But her father is unable to see this early sign of
distress in his daughter.