Book the First: Sowing
Stephen returns home, to find Rachel attending his sick and injured wife. Rachel is trying to do what little she can for her. She says she will stay until three o'clock in the morning. Stephen sees a bottle of medicine that Rachel is applying to the woman's wound. He shudders because he knows that the medicine is poisonous if drunk. Then on Rachel's suggestion, he sits in his chair and falls asleep. When he wakes up he sees Rachel dozing on another chair. He also sees his wife reaching out a hand for the medicine table. She is about to drink the deadly poison when Rachel wakes up, realizes what is happening, and wrests the bottle from the woman's hand. It is now three o'clock, and Rachel leaves. Stephen feels extremely grateful for her saintliness and all she does for him.
A few years go by. Gradgrind tells Sissy that there is no point in her continuing at the school, but he allows her to continue to live with the family as general helper. Young Tom Gradgrind is apprenticed to Bounderby and moves to his house. Mr. Gradgrind gets elected as Member of Parliament for Coketown.
Gradgrind informs Louisa that Bounderby has made a proposal of marriage to her. Although Bounderby is fifty years old and Louisa only twenty, Gradgrind clearly wants Louisa to accept the proposal. He asks her to consider the matter in a wholly practical manner, just as she has been trained to do everything else. Although she has no love for Bounderby, Louisa decides to accept his proposal. She does so in part because she wants to please her brother Tom. Tom knew what was coming and hinted to her that she should accept, because then they would be living in the same house, and he would like that.
Bounderby is anxious about how Mrs. Sparsit, his housekeeper, will take the news of his forthcoming marriage. But she accepts it with equanimity and wishes him great happiness. In reality, she pities him. Bounderby knows that Mrs. Sparsit will not wish to remain living in the house now that he is to marry, so he offers her a private apartment at the Bank. He will also grant her an annual allowance. She accepts his offer.
After an eight-week engagement, Bounderby and Louisa marry.
Dickens rarely lets up in his satire on the utilitarian philosophy, with its emphasis on practicality and facts. No hint of romance is permitted to intrude itself on the engagement and marriage of Bounderby and Louisa.
Gradgrind, for example dismisses the problem of the disparity between the ages of Louisa and Bounderby by the use of statistics. He reports that a large proportion of marriages in England and Wales are made between people of very different ages, and in more than three out of four cases, the elder party is the man. For Gradgrind, that settles the matter.
The wedding is an entirely practical affair. All the preparations for it take on, as Dickens puts it, "a manufacturing aspect." As befits the manufacturing town of Coketown, things are made in honor of the occasion: dresses, jewelry, cakes, gloves. There is no poetic talk about time flying or slowing down. Time in Coketown always passes with monotonous regularity. The wedding day comes "as all other days come to people who will only stick to reason."
Gradgrind and Bounderby are too obtuse to notice it, but Louisa's spirit is already broken by the restricted education she has received. She has never been allowed to flourish emotionally or imaginatively, or in any way other than the strictly practical. Dickens creates a telling image of her when she speaks to her father about her lack of experience in anything other than "problems that could be demonstrated, and realities that could be grasped." As she says this, "she unconsciously closed her hand, as if upon a solid object, and slowly opened it as though she were releasing dust or ash." Louisa has a habit of gazing into the fire to stimulate her imagination; the image here of emptiness and ashes show how her inner life has withered or been burnt up until it hardly exists any more.