History: First published in 1854, the book is a condition-of-England novel, which aimed to highlight the social and economic pressures that some people were experiencing. Unlike other such writings at the time, the novel is unusual in that it is not set in London (as was also Dickens' usual wont), but in the fictitious Victorian industrialist Coketown, a generic Northern English mill-town partially based upon 19th-century Preston.
Plot: The characters make the story, and Louisa is the main one, I think. She married Mr. Bounderby, 30yrs older and whom she hated very much only for her brother, Tom’s sake. And all her life she suffers. Then there is Sissy, her father was a circus clown and left her, so that she could lead a better life without him. Mr. Gradgrind adopted her to modify her way of living. He tried to fill her with facts like he had filled his own children with, but Sissy was out-and-out indifferent to his practical facts and continued with her own childish and good beliefs. Stephen is married to a bad woman and in love with his ever-supporting friend Rachael who is also a worker at Bounderby’s. Stephen gets charged with a crime he didn’t commit (Tom committed it) and comes back from an exile he gave himself to clear himself but an accident occurred and he lost his life. As for Louisa, she was misunderstood by Tom for whom she had done everything she could. She was turned out of house by Bounderby and she lived (lets not say very happily but usefully) with her no-more-stoic father, sisters, brothers(not Tom who didn’t live to say sorry to Louisa for the wrongs he did to her) and the ever sweet friend Sissy.
Review: This book had some fine writing, a good variety of characters, plenty of British understated witticisms, and an intriguing story. But, frankly, I found it too depressing. Since Dickens wrote many of his novels as serials with weekly chapters in the newspaper he had to leave his readers hanging in suspense until the next chapter. I personally don’t enjoy having my emotions toyed with in that way. My favorite character from the beginning of the book had so much suffering heaped upon in him in chapter after chapter that I thought it was a mercy when he finally died. Emotionally I just couldn’t take any more.
The back of the book says it’s a diatribe against the havoc wreaked during the Industrial Revolution. That may be true, but it’s much more than that. The main conflict in the story is not worker against capitalist factory owner. The main contention is between head knowledge and heart knowledge. The contrast is drawn early in the story between the “facts only” Gradgrind school and the “uneducated, but full-of-heart” circus people.
Two of the major victims of the head vs. heart dilemma are Gradgrind’s own children. Tom’s feelings have been denied all his life and almost as soon as he leaves home he gives himself over to sensual appetites. His sister, Louisa, marries a man she doesn’t love because her father tells her it’s the sensible thing to do. His “proposal” to Louisa is heartbreaking in its coolness. So is her acceptance. Later she discovers that she does have a heart and that all her father’s educational principles had failed to prepare her for real life. Chapter 8 is the final showdown between the circus’ folks’ view of the world and Gradgrind’s. The shocking revelation is that without heart there can be no grace: Gradgrind discovers too late that his man-made, sensible world is a living hell that offers him no mercy when he most needs it.
Opening Line: “Now, what I want is, Facts.”
Closing Line: “We shall sit with lighter bosoms on the hearth, to see the ashes of our fires turn grey and cold.”
Quotes: “Day was shining radiantly upon the town then, and the bells were going for the morning work. Domestic fires were not yet lighted, and the high chimneys had the sky to themselves. Puffing out their poisonous volumes, they would not be long in hiding it; but, for half an hour, some of the many windows were golden, which showed the Coketown people a sun eternally in eclipse, through a medium of smoked glass.”