Hard times is set out in three different books: The Sowing; The Reaping; The Garnering. They are named so as it has a special reference to the education and upbringing of children. The titles collectively underlines the basic plot. It suggests that the grounding children received in their formative years would directly affect their adult lives. This comes evident as pupils of the Gradgrind system of education is not ready to tackle situations which require imagination or experience in life.
In Hard Times the two characters that are most affected by the Gradgrind system of education are Tom and Louisa Gradgrind. The Gradgrind system of education is the reason why Tom and Louisa Gradgrind are lacking in imagination and therefore are not ready to tackle every day human life. The Gradgrind education system was very common in Victorian times and was probably devised by the many rich powerful people ready to employ the pupils once graduated. As this type of education teaches its pupil's to be a passive unthinking work force, therefore the employers could manipulate their minds, doing whatever they were told. The system forces the pupils to intake pure hard facts, nothing else, therefore not exercising the imagination at all. Leading the pupils to be lost in the surrounding world when a difficult problem requiring experience or maturity arises, as the Gradgrind system of education denies access to this knowledge.
The Gradgrind system of education seems to wipe out any chance of any fiction or fantasy in the minds of the pupils. If Louisa or Tom happen to even have the slightest hint of fantasy or fiction it would be immediately be destroyed by their father who was a teacher of facts and facts alone. This is proved when Louisa and Tom were caught by their father peeping into a circus ring. When they where caught Mr Gradgrind immediately told them off, later asking "what can you possibly want to know about circus shows?" This implies that children shouldn't see the circus as it doesn't teach you anything. From this we can assume that that the children studying the Gradgrind system of education can't do the many things that are enjoyable in their lives as it would not teach them anything. This view is not healthy towards the pupils as the system is denying them the enjoyment of childhood, therefore affecting their adulthood in later life as all they would want to do is earn money, and be, less experienced in the virtues of life. Although maybe it doesn't teach you anything educational, it teaches you about life, how to enjoy yourself how to be a well rounded person. Mr Gradgrind was again suppressing his son and daughter' imagination, not letting them experience normal everyday life. This suppression of imagination leads to curiosity as shown by Louisa as when she was told off after watching the horses, she states that she 'just wanted to see what it was like', which shows that she was curious about it. This curiosity could be dangerous in later life as we see in Louisa that she ventures in a risky relationship once married.
In contrast to the Gradgrind children, Sissy Jupe was not even in the slightest affected by the Gradgrind system of education. Sissy, daughter of a 'horse breaker', has managed to keep all her imagination throughout the book and hence become the so called heroine of the book. She is unlike Tom and Louisa who have almost lost trace of any imagination in their mind. Sissy the least educated person in Hard Times, yet is the only person to understand Louisa when she decided to marry Bounderby. She takes pity on her as she sees the petty motive of marrying. This wasn't taken kindly by Louisa although she knew that she was right. Later on in the book Sissy makes amends with Louisa, making Louisa feel good when she admits it was her fault that their relationship got distant over this matter, which is was not.
Dickens is trying to convey that to be a well rounded person such as Sissy, does not need the factual requirement of the Gradgrind system of education, in fact the totally opposite. In Sissy the chance to let her own imagination wonder when she was just a child travelling with her real father, has led her to be the most individual and most rounded person in Hard Times. Sissy understands and is able to deal with the even most complicated problems that crosses her path. For example, she confronts James Harthouse when she saw that Louisa was in trouble when she was almost seduced by him. Even James Harthouse, the smooth talking calculating individual, could not deal with her very honest and natural way of talking and thinking.
However Louisa has managed to keep a little bit of imagination through all the boring factual bombardment from her education. Proof is when she is constantly asking questions to people once in the outside world about life she is constantly curious about things that she was never taught. However because of her lack of exposure to the world outside books and facts she is unable to use it. This is proved when Louisa faces Rachel and Stephen, which was the first time that Louisa encountered anybody from the Coketown dwellings i.e. people who has not been brought up the Gradgrind way of education. Arriving with good wishes, she is not able to convey her services that she wishes to share with them but instead, she sounds rather rude. This is another example of inexperience in life which the Gradgrind system of education has imposed on her. This is also proved by when in the third chapter first book, the narrator says about Louisa 'would have been self-willed but for her bringing up'.
The character Bounderby claims that he made it into this world by himself when his mother abandoned him when he was young, but this is not true as we find later in Hard Times as his mother turns up later in the book to put him to shame. He claims that he was raised in the "gutter" as it helps to boost his ego and make him stand out from other business colleagues. However he is not telling the truth, far from it, when his mother turns up on the doorstep, she humiliates him quite unintentionally. In fact she really cares for her son as she quotes "Lord forgive you, sir, for your wicked imaginations" after Mr Gradgrind curses her saying she deserted Josiah in his infancy. Mr Bounderby is a bad person thinking about himself and himself only at all times, doing things for only his own personal gain. Sissy who was actually was abandoned by her parents, is the opposite of Boundaby, she is a good person with a good view of life, she is a well rounded person, knowing that life shouldn't be based on money and that people have feelings.
Tom appears to be a clever schemer and frames Stephen Blackpool in secrecy. However Tom in fact is a very weak and feeble, and it is not very hard to bring out his weaknesses. Tom as a result from his upbringing would never do anything for other people unless there was something in it for him. When Stephen decides to leave Coketown, Tom uses it to his advantage. He tells Stephen that he might help him, but he will have to wait outside the bank on three consecutive nights making sure he was seen. After these three nights have passed nothing happened. Later on in the book we learn that the Bank is robbed and it looks like Stephen robbed the bank as all the facts point to him. But in fact it was Tom who carried it out as a probable result of his gambling debts
Tom has been brought up to be a mercenary with regards to other people in higher places. Because of this attitude Tom goes to great lengths to impress or make happy people in higher places than himself therefore improving his place in society. Because of his education he received he goes to any extents to get money, with no regards to other peoples feelings an example of this is when he set Stephen Blackpool up, with the framing of the bank robbery, see above.
Tom as a result of his mercenary behavior has become addicted to money. Consequences from this has been an addiction to gambling, running gambling debts of up to one hundred pounds, which was lots of money in the Victorian times. When Tom is in financial debt, he turns to his sister for money, this shows how dependent Tom is on Louisa, and how incompetent he is to look after himself.
As to Louisa, her mind has been twisted and she has remained naïve and curious about life. Louisa is a precious child, she treats Bounderby with contempt throughout the book, even early in the book when he insists a kiss from her. It comes evident all through the book of her love for Tom, she would do virtually anything for him. As a result of her inexperience in life; and love for Tom, Louisa though she knew it was a bad thing, had no other possibility but to marry Boundaby when the proposal was put to her because again of her love for Tom, as Tom asked her to, again for his personal gain. Her father stated that the age difference did not matter that 'the Calmucks of tartary, the British in India and a considerable part of China' don't take age into account. These places were totally useless in helping her to decide and was another example of useless facts. A factor that made her decide most certainly would be the influence of Tom, Tom wanted her sister to marry Boundaby because it would help him get into a high position in Bounderby's company, again this shows his mercenary behavior. Because Louisa really cares for Tom she married Bounderby because she did not want to upset Tom. So Louisa married Boundaby even though she did not want to. We can tell that she did not really want to marry him because, when she said 'There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, fire bursts out, father!'. This quote seems to incline symbolism to a negative view to marrying Boundaby, as in other words she is saying that there would be repressed feelings of passionate love, if this marriage would go ahead as its denies her the opportunity of Love, therefore she is susceptible to being seduced. As this does almost happen with Mr James Harthouse.
Bitzer is the perfect product of the Gradgrind system of education. Bitzer appears to be like Bounderby when he was young. He does whatever he is asked to do. In the classroom when asked to define a horse, he give a text-book style definition of facts, not commenting on the horses natural beauty. He states that "the whole social system is a question of self-interest.". Bitzer like Tom does not care for other peoples feelings. This is proven when Bitzer tries to capture Tom so that he will get his job when he is fired if caught, he would not even take a bribe from Tom's father, as getting his job would benefit him more.
Theft with adultery, were serious issue when Hard Times was written. The notion of that a woman belonged to a man was true. Therefore I believe that it was the reason why Dickens did not create an affair in Hard Times as in doing so he may have offended the people reading his material, therefore losing readers. Also I think that was the reason why Louisa close relationship with Harthouse was justified by the way Bounderby treated her.
Summing up all the evidence I have deduced that the Gradgrind system of education was designed by powerful people to make a unthinking passive workforce so that they could take advantage of them and they wouldn't rebel. The system was probably intended to produce people with no ability to think for themselves, with suppressed imaginations. The Gradgrind system of education has no interest in making pupils into well rounded people and is only an evil way of denying children their childhood for their own personal benefit. In Hard Times Dickens uses the book as the medium to express his bitter feelings against systems of education that were like Gradgrind's, that were plentiful in Victorian Times.