The Characters of Hard Times

by , 2000

In his novel, Hard Times, Charles Dickens used his characters to describe the caste system that had been shaped by industrial England. By looking at three main characters, Stephen Blackpool, Mr. Josiah Bounderby, and Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, one can see the different classes that were industrial England.

Stephen Blackpool represented the most abundant and least represented caste in industrial England, the lower class (also called the hands) in Charles Dickens' novel. Stephen was an honest, hard-working man who came to much trouble in the novel, often because of his class. He came to Mr. Bounderby one day seeking a divorce from his alcoholic and runaway wife who did nothing but drink his earnings away. When he asked about if there were any laws that could separate them, Mr. Bounderby replied that there was but "it's not for you at all. It costs money. It costs a mint of money" (70). Later, Stephen was framed for the robbery of a bank, in part because of his class. Young Tom Gradgrind made it appear that Mr. Blackpool robbed the bank by telling him that he would help him and to wait outside the bank for several nights. Because he was just a hand, he was quickly suspected whereas young Tom was not until much later, because he was of a higher social order. The ordeals that Stephen Blackpool faced were used by the author to show the troubles that the entire lower class faced.

Mr. Josiah Bounderby was used as an example of the growing middle class or bourgeoisie. He constantly talked of how he had grown up on nothing (which was slightly exaggerated, but he still did grow up poor) and was constantly flaunting his wealth. He bought a country estate, something that many middle class members did to imitate the upper classes. He married a daughter of a wealthy man and hired a former member of high society to keep house for him. In general, he and other members of the bourgeoisie attempted to become high society by acting like them.

The final class in industrial English society was the upper class, a class represented in Hard Times by Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, the elder. This class was presented in the novel as being less worried about money than the bourgeoisie but having plenty of it. The Gradgrind estate, Stone Lodge, was said to have "everything that the heart could desire" (9). Mr. Gradgrind spared no expense when it came to his children's educations (although he later found his methods to be flawed) and was quick to donate money to those who helped him, such as Mr. Sleary who helped young Tom escape to America. The novel portrayed Mr. Gradgrind and the upper class as people who did not care so much about their finances.

Charles Dickens used Stephen Blackpool, Mr. Bounderby, and Mr. Gradgrind to display the lower, middle, and upper classes in the English caste system created by industrialization. He showed that the lower class often faced troubles and unfairness, the middle class attempted to impersonate the upper class, and the upper class seemed not to care about money at all.