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5 of Air - Thomas Gradgrind


Thomas Gradgrind


Hard Times

    Thomas Gradgrind is a middle-class businessman, school board superintendent, and later a Member of Parliament. He would have everything in its place, quantifiable and accounted for. Such concepts as pleasure, metaphysics, creativity - these are anathema to his philosophy. The model school he runs is attended by his son Tom and his daughter Louisa, and it is dedicated to the pursuit of profitable enterprise and cold hard facts. As a rigid pedagogue disparaging of the imagination and emotion, he is a satire on the Utilitarian movement in general and the Scottish philosopher James Mill in particular.


 When he becomes an M.P., Dickens describes him as a Member for


ounce weights and measures, one of the representatives of the multiplication table, one of the deaf honourable gentlemen, blind honourable gentlemen, lame honourable gentlemen, dead honourable gentlemen, to every other consideration. Else wherefore live we in a Christian land, eighteen hundred and odd years after our Master?


 He is, of course - as father, schoolmaster, and M.P. - a master himself; one who has misheard and distorted his Master's message. His daughter he compels to enter into a loveless marriage – as a result she lives in misery, is almost driven to a disgraceful affair, suffers something of a breakdown, and ends up childless and alone. His son becomes a thief, frames an innocent man for his crimes, and absconds to America. His model student Blitzer, grown into nothing but a cold-hearted egotist, ignores his old headmaster's appeals for mercy and instead simply regurgitates Gradgrind's own uncaring materialistic precepts back to him.


 Yet, despite becoming a byword for someone concerned only with data and verifiable facts, Gradgrind shows the capacity for generosity and change. He accepts the abandoned Sissy Jupe into his school and home. He helps his son escape justice. He is sympathetic to his daughter's despair, even as he can't comprehend it and has no idea the proper manner with which to respond. Indeed, in the end, Gradgrind comes to understand his stringent pragmatism has been narrow-minded and wrongheaded. As his attitude changes, so does his behaviour, to the point where he finds himself ostracized by the other members of his party in Parliament.


 The names Dickens gives his characters are often descriptive or allude in tone to their essential nature - Gradgrind being an example. In Hard Times, Dicken's otherwise most realistic novel, a schoolmaster at Gradgrind's institution has the honour of holding the most improbable and egregious name in all of the author's work, namely: McChoakumchild. 


 Charles Dickens visited many schools in his time, from Boylston school in Boston to Stepney Pauper Union at Limehouse, and his observations and responses to them are interesting to note. The poor boys in Boston "answered correctly, without book, such questions as where was England; how far was it; what was its population; its capital city; its form of government; and so forth." He applauds their smartness at carrying out military drills. The girls are learning to "clean up everything about them in an orderly and skillful way."  The Stepney Pauper Union children bristle with raised right arms at every new query, "Ever faithful to fact." Dickens announces triumphantly that these products are in great demand by the better class of customer - naval captains, regiment colonels. The girls, he adds, "make excellent domestic servants."  Not a word about music, art, dancing horses.


 A novel, of course, is a work of fiction. To fancy that poor children's imaginations must be tenderly nurtured is an enchanting, self-flattering fiction perfectly tailored to the collective conscience of the middle class. In the real world, Dickens knows as well as McChoakumchild that the indigent and underprivileged child is to be made an obedient menial as quickly as possible so that they may be fully exploited - the less imagination they have, the better for all involved. 


 Shorthand : Pedantic twit - denier of everything supple and human - the utter impracticality of utter practicality - defeat - loss - dishonor - all must be accepted before any thought of future success - insufferable stubbornness - chickens that come home to roost - pride swallowed - order as a way to disguise disorder - double-dealing - a pedagogue - hoist by his own smoke & mirrors.

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