Book1 Chapters 9-12
Book the First: Sowing
Sissy struggles at school, failing to master all the facts and figures that are thrown at her by Mr. and Mrs. M'Choakumchild. She thinks she is stupid. However, her conversations with Louisa about her education reveal that she is not stupid at all. But she looks at everything from the point of view of the heart, and this does not suit her well to the type of education she is receiving. She stays on at the school only because she knows her father wanted her to have an education. She still believes that one day he will return. Sissy confides in Louisa and tells her stories about her father. A friendship begins to grow between them.
Chapter10 introduces Stephen Blackpool, a hard-working factory hand. After work one evening he walks his long-time lady friend Rachel home. Then he returns to his own lodgings, which consists of a single room above a shop. When he lights the candle he discovers that his drunken wife, having apparently been gone for some while, has returned. Stephen is appalled. It is clear that there is no love between them.
The next day at noon, Stephen walks to Bounderby's house and requests an interview with Bounderby. Bounderby has a generally low opinion of the factory hands, but he has a reasonably good impression of Stephen. Stephen asks Bounderby's advice. He has been married to his wife for nineteen years, but soon after they married she "went bad," meaning that she took to drink. He was patient with her, but on many occasions she would sell everything he owned to keep herself in drink. She left him several times but always came back. He tried paying her to stay away. But now she has returned. He tells Bounderby that he cannot stand it any more and wants to be rid of her. Bounderby is unsympathetic. He tells Stephen that marriage is a sacred bond and he must live with the situation. Stephen persists. He knows that rich people can get divorced, and wants to know if he can too. Bounderby replies that a divorce would cost him much more than he could afford, and the procedure is complicated. Stephen complains that everything is a muddle, which angers Bounderby, who begins to lose his earlier favorable impression of the man.
After he leaves Bounderby, Stephen encounters an old woman who makes a lot of inquiries about Bounderby, but does not explain why she wants to know about him. She says she has traveled forty miles to see him. Now she must go back without even having caught a glimpse of him.
After leaving the factory in the afternoon, Stephen waits for Rachel but she does not come. He thinks regretfully of the future they will never have together.
Stephen Blackpool is introduced into the story to show the essential decency of the working man, as opposed to the callous indifference and stupidity of men such as Bounderby and Gradgrind.
Dickens's purpose in describing Stephen's bad marriage was to attack England's restrictive divorce laws. What Bounderby tells Stephen is accurate. It was almost impossible at the time for a man of Stephen Blackpool's limited means to get a divorce. Divorce was available only for the wealthy. During the 1850s there was considerable pressure on the government for a change in the divorce laws. Dickens contributed to the debate not only in Hard Times but also in articles he wrote in his magazine, Household Words. In 1857, a few years after Hard Times was published, a Divorce Act was passed by the British parliament. The intention was to make divorce more easily available. However, although the number of reasons for which a divorce could be granted were increased, in practice there was still one law for the rich and another for the poor.