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Throughout Hard Times, the role of women is vital in the development and outcome to the story. In particular they cause Mr Thomas Gradgrind, the antagonistic school teacher, to change from his philosophy of rational self-interest and utilitarianism to become a thoughtful, selfless father, sickened by the realisation that his views and way of life have not been in the best interest of himself, his family and his pupils.
Hard Times was first published in 1853, well into the industrial revolution. This has a major impact not only in the story but also the characters. At the beginning of the book, Bounderby seems to be a self made man, who has benefited hugely from the industrial revolution, as he repeatedly describes himself with the phrase “Joshua Bounderby of Coketown.” This formal title gives the impression that he is proud of his title and the fact that it is usually followed by a description of his hard childhood. It seems to show the level of social and economic mobility of that era, but later on his mother reveals that he had a very good childhood. Although not rich he received a very good education, the opposite to what Bounderby suggested. This could be a symbol for the lack of social and economic mobility in the Victorian era or at least how Dickens saw it. Another way to look at it is that success through hard work and from a poor deprived back ground would have been seen to be virtuous in the Victorian time. This would cause Bounderby to be seen as more devoted and hard working than other people who had been born into wealth.
At first the power and status which the women possessed in this novel was in accord to the conventional role of women in Victorian society. They were supposed to try and marry into a wealthy family, have children and then take care of them and her husband. This was certainly what Gradgrind thought or expected should happen to Louisa, his daughter, when he set up a marriage for her with one of his best friends Bounderby. Because Louisa knew her place and he had been brought up with this way of thinking, she accepts his offer, and marries him. However, when James Harthouse, a sophisticated man from London turns up, she sees what she is missing and realises her unhappiness. She then flees back to her home and confronts Her father about how her upbringing has led her to be detached from her feelings, marry a man she does not love and be deeply unhappy. In standing up to Gradgrind and Bounderby, two stereotypical men of the Victorian times, and telling them what she believed could be seen to be representative of women of the era who were beginning to make a stand for women’s rights and liberation. Just a few years before this book was first published, a women’s rights reform was passed.
Throughout the story, women’s roles, their power and respect seemed to increase. We see this not only in Louisa, but also Cecilia (Sissy) Jupe. At the beginning of the novel, Sissy was referred to as “Girl number twenty”, by Gradgrind, showing no respect by denoting her to a numerical value. However, from his philosophy, she was no different to any other girl of her age in importance or uniqueness. But she was different, sent to school by her father, a clown at the local circus, and was everything that Gradgrind hated about modern day society. In her imagination, her manner of speaking and her views, she was the complete opposite of Gradgrind. As a result he saw it as his task to school and reform her from her utilitarian. When he finds out that her father has run away, he charitably decides to take her in and brings her up with his children Louisa and Tom. As she gets older, Sissy becomes a much more respected and loved member of the family, particularly by Louisa. She has enough power and authority to convince Harthouse to leave Coketown.
Although a lesser role in Hard Times, Rachael and Stephen Blackpool represent the only true requited love in the whole novel. However, ironically they cannot be together as Stephen is already married. Often referred to as an “angel” by Stephen, Rachael presented as more of a symbol than a character. “Thou art an Angel. Bless thee, bless thee!” Sissy and Rachael are both socially unimportant characters, with relatively small parts in the novel. However what they represent is the exclusion of moral and innocent people in the utilitarian world of Coketown, something which could be seen to represent Dickens’s view of the industrial revolution.
The three main female characters in Hard Times, Mrs Sparsit, Louisa Gradgrind and Sissy Jupe clearly represent the three social classes of the Victorian era. Mrs Sparsit being the distressed upper class gentle woman who has lost all her wealth, Louisa Gradgrind being the middle class daughter expected to marry into a wealthy family and Sissy being the working class circus girl, with few expectations for improvement
Mrs Sparsit’s lost wealth makes a lady of her status much more vulnerable. This would be quite comical to the Victorians as most of Dickens’ readers’ would be middle class, probably disliking the upper classes. Mrs Sparsit’s role in the story is to be a scheming house keeper who despises her master Bounderby. She always thinks that she is better than everyone who has not had her background. Throughout the novel, she plots and plans for her own advantage, this eventually ends up with her losing her position with Bounderby and being forced to live with her hated relative Lady Scadgers, when she caught Harthouse declaring his love for Louisa. Mrs Sparsit told Bounderby and he did not take it too well. This may have been surprising for Mrs Sparsit who probably thought that she knew what was best for everyone.
Mrs Sparsit’s power is really shown in the second book when she recruited Bitzer, an old student of Gradgrind and the product of his teaching method and philosophy. By ordering him around and getting him to do simple errands, she shows that the women in Hard Times have authority and power over the men, in this case and Sissy telling Harthouse to leave Coketown.
Louisa is different from the other two women in that she did not grasp the Victorian ideals of femininity. Instead, Louisa is silent cold and outwardly emotionless. This is evident when Gradgrind asks her if she would like to marry Bounderby and she looks out the window at the factories and thinks “There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out.” Unable to detect emotion, Louisa can only state the fact. However, in this case the fact or truth is a metaphor for her repressed love and passion which she feels. If the marriage was to go ahead, then she would not have experienced love.
It seems as if the three female characters are an anomaly in Coketown, and represent everything which is right about Victorian England, a time of change. As opposed to Coketown which shows everything which is wrong about the Victorian era, an over industrialised town run by people who only look at facts and figures rather than looking at the views and emotions of the people of the people. Hard Times may have been a book to criticise and make fun of utilitarianism. This is why the book has been pushed to both ends of the spectrum, from the ultra-utilitarian views and philosophies of Mr Thomas Gradgrind to the free thinking new female and imaginative Sissy Jupe. Dickens also did this to make people prefer Sissy much more the Gradgrind, and therefore prefer free will over utilitarianism.
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