Hard Times

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Themes and Colors
Fact vs. Fancy Theme Icon
Industrialism and Its Evils Theme Icon
Unhappy Marriages Theme Icon
Femininity Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Hard Times, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Unhappy Marriages Theme Icon

There are many unhappy marriages in Hard Times and none of them are resolved happily by the end. Mr. Gradgrind's marriage to his feeble, complaining wife is not exactly a source of misery for either of them, but neither are they or their children happy. The Gradgrind family is not a loving or affectionate one. The main unhappy marriage showcased by the novel is between Louisa Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby. Louisa marries him not out of love but out of a sense of duty to her brother, Tom, the only person in the world she loves and who wheedles her into saying "yes" because he works for Bounderby and wants to improve his chances at rising in the world. Bounderby's intentions regarding Louisa seem a bit creepy at first, but he turns out to mean no harm to her (except that he deprives her of any marital affection). The only solution to this bad marriage, once Louisa has escaped the hands of Jem Harthouse, is for Louisa to live at home the rest of her days. She will never be happy with another man or have the joy of children, though Dickens hints she will find joy in playing with Sissy's future children.

Stephen Blackpool, too, is damned to unhappiness in this life as a result of his marriage. The girl who seemed so sweet when he married her many years ago becomes, by a gradual process, a depraved drunk who is the misery of his life. She periodically returns to Coketown to haunt Stephen and is, as he sees it, the sole barrier to the happiness he might have had in marrying Rachael. Mrs. Sparsit (an elderly lady who lives with Mr. Bounderby for some time) was also unhappily married, which is how she came to be Mr. Bounderby's companion before he marries Louisa.

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Unhappy Marriages Quotes in Hard Times

Below you will find the important quotes in Hard Times related to the theme of Unhappy Marriages.
Book 1, Chapter 12 Quotes

No word of a new marriage had ever passed between them; but Rachael had taken great pity on him years ago, and to her alone he had opened his closed heart all this time, on the subject of his miseries; and he knew very well that if he were free to ask her, she would take him.

Related Characters: Stephen Blackpool, Rachael
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn more about why Stephen Blackpool is so unhappy. Stephen loves a woman named Rachael, but he can't marry her--he's already involved in a preexisting marriage, and can't get the divorce. Dickens suggests that because of society's narrow-minded rules and laws, Stephen is unable to enjoy the life he wants.

The passage has been criticized by some for suggesting that the real source of Stephen's misery is love, not his harsh existence at the factory. By focusing too much on the "human melodrama," one could argue, Dickens dilutes his own critique of factory conditions in England, so that his novel is moving but not especially politically progressive.

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Book 1, Chapter 15 Quotes

‘Father,' said Louisa, ‘do you think I love Mr Bounderby?'

Mr. Gradgrind was extremely discomfited by this unexpected question. ‘Well, my child,' he returned, ‘I — really — cannot take upon myself to say.'

Related Characters: Thomas Gradgrind (speaker), Louisa Gradgrind (speaker), Josiah Bounderby
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, from the final pages of Book One, Louisa makes the crushing decision to marry Bounderby, a man she instinctively dislikes. Louisa goes to her father for help and advice, and finds that he's extremely unhelpful. Gradgrind has always trained Louisa to think of facts, not feelings. So when it comes time to decide whether or not to marry Bounderby, Louisa has no way of making a decision--there's simply no way that facts alone can decide a marriage. Gradgrind's weakness and incompetence is crystal-clear in this passage: he seems to acknowledge (albeit ten years too later) the hole in his education program. By focusing so exclusively on information, Gradgrind has impoverished his own soul, and left his two children lonely and repressed, without even a conception of what real love is (as this darkly humorous passage shows).

Book 2, Chapter 7 Quotes

‘Your brother. My young friend Tom — '

Her colour brightened, and she turned to him with a look of interest. ‘I never in my life,' he thought, ‘saw anything so remarkable and so captivating as the lighting of those features!'

Related Characters: James Harthouse (speaker), Louisa Gradgrind, Thomas Gradgrind, Jr. (Tom)
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Harthouse begins his seduction of Louisa. Harthouse pretends to run into Louisa by accident; then he proceeds to flatter her excessively. Because Louisa has never been treated with anything but callous efficiency, she's immediately interested in Harthouse; he represents an alternative to her usual way of life.

The passage also suggests that what really interests Louisa about Harthouse isn't exactly his flattery--rather, it's his association with Tom, Louisa's beloved brother. Louisa shows affection for Tom long after the point when it's obvious that Tom doesn't really love her. She has nobody else to love, and so she pours all of her emotion and affection into her lazy, undeserving brother. Harthouse realizes this, and so emphasizes his relationship to Tom in order to endear himself to Louisa.

Book 2, Chapter 9 Quotes

But from this day, the Sparsit action upon Mr Bounderby threw Louisa and James Harthouse more together, and strengthened the dangerous alienation from her husband and confidence against him with another, into which she had fallen by degrees so fine that she could not retrace them if she tried.

Related Characters: Louisa Gradgrind, Josiah Bounderby, Mrs. Sparsit, James Harthouse
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, a comical, tertiary character becomes villainous and critical to the plot of the novel. Mrs. Sparsit is jealous of the relationship between Louisa and Mr. Bounderby, and she resents the fact that she was kicked out of the house as soon as Bounderby married Louisa. To retaliate, Mrs. Sparsit tries to draw Louisa and Bounderby apart--thus, she tries to flatter Mr. Bounderby excessively, making him more conscious of Louisa's coldness. By the same token, Sparsit's flattery draws Louisa closer to James Harthouse.

The passage shows Mrs. Sparsit engaging in manipulation that's pretty obvious, at least from our perspective. Perhaps it's because Louisa is so unfamiliar with emotional matters that she can't see through what Mrs. Sparsit is trying to do, and thus falls for James.

Book 2, Chapter 12 Quotes

‘This night, my husband being away, he has been with me, declaring himself my lover. This minute he expects me, for I could release myself of his presence by no other means. I do not know that I am sorry, I do not know that I am ashamed, I do not know that I am degraded in my own esteem. All that I know is, your philosophy and your teaching will not save me. Now, father, you have brought me to this. Save me by some other means!'

Related Characters: Louisa Gradgrind (speaker), Thomas Gradgrind, Louisa Gradgrind, James Harthouse
Page Number: 164
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, we learn the truth: after Mrs. Sparsit loses sight of Louisa, she doesn't go to meet with Harthouse in Coketown--instead, she goes to visit her father. Louisa pours out her heart to her father, accusing him of raising her to be emotionally clueless, so that she was naturally victim to smooth flatterers like James Harthouse. She demands that her father help her out of her current emotional problem--a problem for which facts and figures are absolutely beside the point.

In many ways, the entire novel has been building up to this scene. We've seen ample evidence of the limitations of Gradgrind's methods of education, but it's not until now that Louisa has shown real anger with her father for stunting her emotional development. Louisa, we always knew, still had some "fire" in her--here, she finally lets the fire out.