Hard Times: Novel Summary: Book2Chapters 1-4
Book2 Chapters 1-4
Book the Second: Reaping
It is a sunny summer's afternoon about a year later. Bitzer, the bank porter, brings Mrs. Sparsit's tea to her apartment. (Bitzer is the boy who was in Sissy's class at school, and who gave the factual definition of a horse that pleased Gradgrind.) In addition to his duties as porter, Bitzer also acts as spy and informant for the bosses. He reports to Mrs. Sparsit that Tom Gradgrind, who is now a junior employee of the bank, is lazy and extravagant with money. Bitzer comments that most of the workers in the town are like that, and he carefully distances himself from them, emphasizing how prudent he is in saving money. These are sentiments with which Mrs. Sparsit heartily agrees.
A stranger, a gentleman, arrives to see Mrs. Sparsit. The visitor is Mr. James Harthouse, and he has a letter of introduction from Gradgrind in London to Bounderby. He inquires of Mrs. Sparsit where Bounderby lives, and as they chat, he asks her about Louisa Bounderby. He has heard alarming reports about her as being hard-headed and unapproachable. He is surprised when Mrs. Sparsit informs him that Louisa is young; he had imagined her to be much older. After Harthouse leaves, Mrs. Sparsit spends a long time in contemplation. But she does not reveal her thoughts.
It turns out that Harthouse has been recruited by Gradgrind and his friends in the "hard facts" school. They have sent him to Coketown so that he can become known there and in the neighborhood. Harthouse is not a true believer, however. He is a young gentleman who became bored with his leisurely life of traveling around the world and decided to do something else instead. It was convenient for him to get adopted by Gradgrind and his party, but he has no serious interest in their philosophy.
Harthouse meets Bounderby, who gives him an absurd picture of how healthy a place Coketown is: the smoke is good for the lungs, the mills are pleasant places to work in, and the jobs pay well too. Bounderby then introduces Harthouse to Louisa. Harthouse confides in her that he accepts Bounderby's opinions simply because one set of opinions is as good, or as bad, as any other. But he is quite prepared to act as if he did believe in them. At dinner, Harthouse is bored by Bounderby's conversation, but is intrigued by Louisa. He realizes she does not love Bounderby, but he notices her affection for her brother Tom. Thinking that the way to make an impression on Louisa is through her brother, he shows a liking for him.
That evening, Tom accompanies Harthouse back to his hotel. He is flattered by the friendship Harthouse is extending to him. Tom confirms Harthouse's impression that Louisa does not care for her husband. Tom adds that Louisa married Bounderby just to please her brother. He, Tom, had wanted the marriage because he didn't want Louisa to offend Bounderby, thinking this might have adverse consequences for himself, given that he was an employee at Bounderby's bank.
It is late at night before Tom leaves the hotel. He has unwittingly supplied Harthouse with enough information about Louisa to give Harthouse ideas about how to approach her romantically.
The scene switches in chapter 4 to a meeting of the factory hands' union. A union organizer named Slackbridge gives a fiery speech, telling the men they must unite to defeat their oppressors. Then he denounces Stephen Blackpool, calling him a traitor for refusing to join the union. Stephen rises to defend himself. He says he cannot support the proposed regulations that the union is promoting at the mill. He says they will not do the workers any good, although he does not explain why. However, he adds that this is not the reason he is not supporting the union. He has other reasons, although he does not elaborate on what they might be.
Stephen leaves the meeting knowing that he is likely to be shunned by everyone in the union. This is indeed what happens. He is "sent to Coventry," which means that no one will speak to him or even acknowledge his presence. After four days of this treatment, Stephen is summoned to a meeting with Bounderby.
The second book, appropriately called "Reaping," begins to show the dismal results of the Gradgrind educational philosophy. Bitzer has learned his lessons well and is ready to rise in the world. But Dickens does not intend this as a compliment to Bitzer. Bitzer shows promise only because he always acts from cold calculation, which Mrs. Sparsit mistakes as "principle." Bitzer is a very unpleasant young man, whose principal achievement so far appears to have been to get his mother confined to the workhouse (where the poor were sent to work for their keep).
Unlike Bitzer, Tom Gradgrind has not absorbed any lessons from his education. But he does not reject the "hard facts" philosophy in favor of something better. He has no knowledge of anything better, so his life simply falls quickly into ruin.
The devastating effects of Louisa's restricted upbringing and education are already apparent in her loveless marriage to Bounderby. But Dickens has more in store for her, and that is why he introduces Harthouse into the story. The amoral Harthouse cares little for anybody or anything, and is only out to amuse himself. When he sets his sights on Louisa, it is obvious that the outcome will be bad.
Stephen Blackpool is included as a contrast. He and Rachel are the only couple in the book who have a genuine, steadfast love for each other.