Book the First: Sowing
Coketown is described as an industrial town marked by a stultifying conformity. The streets and buildings all look alike, and the people all follow the same routines. The red brick houses are all dirty from the smoke that belches from the many factories. Gradgrind and Bounderby walk down the street, trying to find out where Sissy's father lives. Then Sissy comes running by, chased by Bitzer, and Sissy shows them the way. She leads them down a narrow road to a small, shabby tavern called the Pegasus Arms. Her family lives upstairs. Her father is not there, however. Sissy goes to find him. Bounderby and Gradgrind meet E. W. B. Childers, one of the circus performers who is known for his daring acts on horseback, and Childers's assistant, a young man named Kidderminster. Childers informs his visitors that Sissy's father, troubled by his poor performances in the circus, has left her and will not return. He has not provided anything for his daughter. Sleary, the circus owner then appears. Taking pity on the deserted Sissy, Gradgrind offers her the chance to live in his house, and continue to attend the school, as long as she agrees never to communicate with any of the circus folk again. Sissy agrees because she knows, and is reminded by Sleary, that her father wanted her to have an education. She believes that her father will one day return.
Chapter 7 introduces Mrs. Sparsit, Bounderby's elderly housekeeper. Bounderby is discussing with her the matter of Gradgrind's decision to take in Sissy Jupe. Bounderby does not approve of it, and has taken Sissy in for a night so that Gradgrind might have more time to consider. He feels that Sissy will not be a good influence on Louisa. Gradgrind arrives with Louisa, and Sissy is sent for. Gradgrind confirms that he will take Sissy in to his house, and she will attend the school. When she is not at school, she will help Mrs. Gradgrind, who is something of an invalid.
In chapter 8, Tom Gradgrind complains to his sister about how much he hates his life. He hates the kind of education he is receiving. Louisa regrets that she cannot do more to cheer him up, but Tom acknowledges that she is the only pleasure he has. He resolves that when he leaves home and is apprenticed to Bounderby, he will find a way of enjoying himself. He thinks he knows how to handle Bounderby by playing on the affections Bounderby has for Louisa. Louisa gazes into the fire and wonders what the future holds for them both, only to be reproached by her mother, who entered the room unheard, for indulging in wonder, which her father has forbidden her to do.
Chapter 5 introduces another major theme of the novel, the disastrous effects of industrialism. The description of Coketown, actually based on conditions in Manchester in the mid-nineteenth century, emphasizes the conformity and the narrowness of people's lives. The city is noisy, polluted, unnatural.
The circus folk are the antithesis of Bounderby and Gradgrind. Not only are they more warm-hearted than the two "eminently practical" men, they also represent fancy, as opposed to fact. Significantly, they live above a tavern (public house, or "pub" in English terminology) called The Pegasus Arms. Pegasus, the winged, flying horse from Greek mythology is pictured on the sign-board of the pub. Inside, there is a framed portrait of one of the circus horses, "with real gauze let in for his wings, golden stars stuck on all over him, and his ethereal harness made of red silk." He is described as "another Pegasus." The fact that the circus riders perform incredible feats on their "flying" horses can be set against the incident in chapter 1, in which the schoolchildren were told they should not paper walls with depictions of horses, since horses do not climb walls. But the circus horses, so skillfully handled by their riders, show that the merely factual description of a horse approved by Gradgrind conveys nothing of how the circus horses appeal to people's sense of wonder. This sense of wonder is something that mere facts and figures can never supply.