Book1 Chapters 1-4
Book the First: Sowing
The first chapter of Hard Times takes place in a schoolroom. Mr. Gradgrind explains that children should be taught only facts. In the next chapter, he calls on Sissy Jupe to give him a definition of a horse. She cannot do so, but a boy in the class, Bitzer, defines a horse to the satisfaction of Gradgrind. Another of the adults in the room, a government officer, now takes over the teaching. He asks the girls and boys whether they would paper a room with representations of horses. He makes it clear that the correct answer is no. He explains that it would be incorrect to do so, because in real life horses do not walk up and down a wall. For the same reason, he tells the children that they would not carpet a room with representations of flowers, even though Sissy disagrees. Everything, says the gentleman, must be regulated by Fact. They must discard Fancy altogether. Gradgrind then hands over the lesson to the schoolteacher, M'Choakumchild, who proceeds, we are led to believe, to fill up the children with a lot of Facts.
In chapter 3, Gradgrind walks home from school he passes by a circus, set up in a wooden pavilion. He disapproves of such entertainments and walks on past it, but the turn of the road takes him past the back of the circus booth. There, to his annoyance, he finds two of his children, Louisa and Thomas, peeping in. He rebukes them and leads them back home.
Chapter 4 introduces Mr. Bounderby, the rich banker. He is at Stone Lodge, Gradgrind's home, talking to Mrs. Gradgrind, boasting, as he often does, about his deprived and wretched childhood. He says he was abandoned by his mother and raised by his grandmother, who was a drunkard. The point of his story is to bring great credit upon himself for overcoming such a bad start in life.
Gradgrind and the children come home, and the children endure more reproaches for showing an interest in the circus. Mrs. Gradgrind banishes them to their studies. Gradgrind and Bounderby discuss why how children might have been misled. They conclude it is because Sissy Jupe is the daughter of circus folk, and she attends the same school as Gradgrind's children. They decide to pay Sissy's father a visit.
The first chapters introduce one of the main themes of the novel, the contrast between Facts and Fancy, and the one-sidedness of the educational philosophy espoused by Gradgrind. He believes that all knowledge worth having must have a practical value, and to this end he trusts only in the rational intellect. Matters of the heart do not affect him; he dismisses imagination and entertainment as worthless, with no place in a child's education.
In taking satirical aim at Gradgrind, Dickens was giving expression to his belief that the schools in England were doing a poor job of educating the whole child. In other of his writings of this period, Dickens complained that there was too much emphasis on cramming the children full of facts and figures.
Dickens wrote Hard Times in 1854, at a time when there was an awareness in society of the need to make education more widely available and to improve the quality of schools. During the 1850s, the British government had established the first training colleges for schoolteachers. M'Choakumchild, another object of Dickens's biting satire, is obviously intended to be a graduate of one of these new training colleges. The message is clear: such teachers may have a lot of knowledge at their disposal (too much, according to Dickens), but if they look upon children simply as empty vessels waiting to be filled up with information, the results are going to be disappointing.
The disastrous effect of such an educational system can already be seen in Louisa. As she is described in chapter 3, there is a dissatisfaction in her face, " a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping a life in itself somehow." But her father is unable to see this early sign of distress in his daughter.