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Charles Dickens’ Hard Times focuses on the numerous relationships and interactions between characters, and the impact that people have on the behaviour of others. It is evident throughout the novel that several of these relationships are one-sided, in the sense that they are merely in the interest of one of the two parties. For instance, Tom’s influence over Louisa allows him to manipulate her for his own good. Similarly, James Harthouse’s pursuit of Louisa’s affection is not out of love, but simply out of aristocratic boredom. Rachel’s influence on Stephen Blackpool allows him to maintain his integrity and honour. Finally, Sissy Jupe’s impact on the Gradgrind family is all give and no take, as her broad imagination allows the family to finally realize that life is not merely about the theory of fact.
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The most obvious example of a one-sided relationship in Hard Times is the one between siblings Tom and Louisa. This relationship is far from mutually beneficial, as Tom continually takes advantage of his sister, solely for his own interests. The constant teachings of fact have made Tom’s life empty and mundane. Although Tom is tempted by creativity of the circus, he displays little emotion upon being disciplined by his father: “Indeed, Thomas did not look at him, but gave himself up to be taken home like a machine” (15). Due to the constant strict teachings of fact by his father, Mr. Gradgrind, Tom begins to grow tired of this way of life. His interest in the circus is symbolic of his desire to detach from his father and his dull existence. By embracing a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle, frequently drinking and gambling, Tom finds a sense of freedom. He wants to escape the dull lifestyle and teachings of the Gradgrind household and experience a new way of life. Tom and Louisa love each other deeply; however, Tom uses his sister’s love for him in order to manipulate her to do as he desires. Louisa’s strict upbringing prevents her from truly questioning Tom’s motives, allowing for her brother to take advantage of Louisa’s love for him by manipulating her into marrying Bounderby for his own gain. As Tom’s requests grow in number and in nature, the two grow further apart. The relationship shared by the two is filled with affection at the beginning of the novel, but Tom’s selfishness tears the relationship apart. He keeps Louisa in the dark regarding the bank robbery and, ultimately, his focus on materialism outweighs his feelings for his sister. Tom’s boredom with his lifestyle leads to radical changes in his attitude. A similar boredom leads James Harthouse to pursue Louisa’s love.
Dickens uses the character of James Harthouse to poke fun at the aristocracy at the time. Harthouse comes to Coketown with the intention of entering the world of politics and embracing Gradgrind’s theory of fact, simply out of boredom with his current life. He is a refined and wealthy gentleman from London, but as the old saying goes, ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’, leaving Harthouse constantly searching for new ways to amuse himself. Upon hearing about Louisa Gradgrind, he immediately makes it his primary goal to seduce the young woman. Although Louisa is resistant, this makes her even more attractive to him. She is so intriguing to him because of her uniqueness. She represents a new blend of beauty and intelligence, and her knowledge of economics is unparalleled. By discussing Tom’s gambling debts with Louisa, he exploits one of her main weaknesses, her unconditional love for her brother. He merely uses Tom’s predicament to exploit Louisa’s inexperience in interpersonal relationships. Although Harthouse’s pursuit of her helps lead to her eventual break-up with Bounderby, Sissy Jupe saves Louisa from the selfish, controlling Harthouse, when she demands that he leaves Coketown: “He was touched in the cavity where his heart should have been – in that nest of addled eggs, where the birds of heaven would have lived if they had not been whistled away – by the fervor of this reproach” (275). This passage exemplifies Harthouse’s lack of purpose in life. His great wealth and position as an aristocrat prevents him from every finding true love, as he will simply grow tired of stability. His lack of reluctance in leaving Coketown demonstrates how little Louisa truly means to Harthouse. Harthouse’s pursuit of Louisa is more of a quest for him to pass the time than it is about finding true love. His departure from Coketown reveals the little care he has for the feelings of others, as well as his selfishness and immorality. This is completely contrary to the relationship between Stephen Blackpool and Rachel.
Stephen Blackpool is the quintessential example of a considerate and moral individual. Although he is forced to combat the difficult working conditions and dehumanizing lifestyle of a factory worker during the Industrial Revolution, Stephen maintains his morality and honesty, with the help of Rachel. Stephen’s home, which originally serves as a safe haven from the long working days, is taken over by his alcoholic wife, forcing Blackpool to drift around Coketown. Blackpool’s inability to acquire a divorce from his misery of a wife prevents him from moving away from his past troubles, but Rachel provides him with glimmers of hope and happiness, leading to him calling her his angel. She is the complete opposite of his current wife, displaying qualities of compassion and sensitivity. The epiphanic moment in the relationship between the two occurs when Rachel prevents Stephen’s wife from killing herself. Stephen wakes up and sees his wife ready to drink poison; however, he is psychologically unable to get up and prevent her from doing so: “All this time, as if a spell were on him, he was motion-less and powerless, except to watch her” (102). In that moment, Stephen’s frustration and sadness with his life overrides his usual strong morals. The stress his wife places upon him leaves him unable to control his desire to see her deceases or harmed. He is unable to bring himself to stop his wife from committing suicide, yet Rachel is. In doing so, Rachel motivates Stephen to uphold his strong character and honor, despite the hard times. Rachel cares for his wife and plays a vital role in pushing Stephen to pursue his legitimate interests as both a worker and a gentleman. While his fellow workers abandon Stephen due to his beliefs about the union, Rachel supports him until the very end, when he dies essentially for Tom’s crime. Although Stephen’s death allows him to escape from his dreadful marriage, he leaves Rachel alone and saddened. Rachel is the driving force behind Stephen’s actions in the novel and allows him to maintain his true beliefs and morals about work and life. Much as Rachel encourages Stephen to pursue his true beliefs, Sissy Jupe enlightens the Gradgrind family of imagination and thinking.
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Sissy Jupe’s impact on the Gradgrind family is the most important relationship in the novel. The strict teachings of Thomas Gradgrind turn the household into one giant machine of fact, whereas Sissy’s upbringing in the circus has allowed for her constant indulgence in imagination. The contrast between Louisa and Sissy in clear; Louisa has been forced to think with her head, while Sissy thinks with her heart. Louisa hasn’t been allowed to be passionate about anything, and her submergence in fact has contained her desire for freedom. Sissy plays a vital role in enabling Louisa to reveal the warm and passionate qualities she has inside of her, despite being brought up in such as cold atmosphere. In fact, Sissy’s romantic way of thinking eventually allows the entire Gradgrind household to realize that there is more to life than merely fact. Thomas Gradgrind is initially disappointed by the circus entertainers and they represent imagination and idealism. These entertainers use their imaginations to find happiness, something that has always been lacking in the Gradgrind household. Sissy’s vast imagination and optimism is displayed by her belief that her father has abandoned her only to try and improve Sissy’s life. She expresses these sentiments to herself, maintain the belief that her father will one day return to her: “O my dear father, my good kind father, where are you gone ? Tou are goue to try to do me some good, I know! Tou are gone away for my sake, I am sure. And how miserable and helpless you will be without me, poor, poor father, until you come back!” (44). Sissy’s belief that he father has left the circus for her well-being starkly contrasts with Gradgrind’s teaching of fact. That being said, this attitude epitomizes Sissy’s hopeful way of thinking, which eventually brushes off on the Gradgrind household. Not only does Sissy help Tom find refuge with her old circus entertainers, but she also helps Mrs. Gradgrind recognize the void that has existed forever within their family, the lack of imagination within the household. While Mrs. Gradgrind is unable to clearly express this before her death, she recognizes these qualities in Sissy. Mr. Gradgrind ultimately finds out that his emphasis on fact has denied his family happiness for many years. Gradgrind accepts the fact that his teachings did not produce happiness; therefore, he appoints Sissy to aid in Louisa’s development as an individual. With Sissy’s help, Louisa is on the road to developing the ideal balance of fact and imagination.
To conclude, Dickens’ novel discusses the social impact of the Industrial Revolution and the dehumanization of workers by machines. Much like the repetitive actions involved in working in factories dull the lives of the workers, the teachings of fact prevent characters from reaching their full potential. Louisa’s inability to express herself prevents her from stopping Tom’s exploitation of her love for him. Similarly, Louisa needs Sissy Jupe to send James Harthouse away from Coketown, as her cold upbringing has limited her ability to interact with others. Stephen Blackpool is the best example of an individual who has been dehumanized by the stress and working conditions of being a ‘hand’ during the Industrial Revolution. Only with the help of his so-called angel, Rachel, is he able to maintain his morality and strong values. Finally, Sissy Jupe is arguably the most important character in the novel. Her impact on the Gradgrind family is extreme, as she allows Mr. and Mrs. Gradgrind to recognize that imagination is the key to happiness, not fact. While the relationships throughout the novel are often one-sided, the influence that each character has over others is essential in the demise of fact and the rise of critical thinking.
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