It is set in Coketown, a typical Victorian industrial town in the north of England where the air is polluted by smoke and ash. Coketown is a fictitious name for the “town of coke” and it is an ugly and unpleasant place where life is hard, boring, sad and monotonous. It is highlighted by the comparison between the town and its people and it is emphasized by the repetition of words and sentence structures.
People lead a very monotonous life because they do the same thing at the same time and all the places are alike. The main principle that rules the town is a factual knowledge and Utilitarianism.
The novel is built around two Issues: the inhumanity of the factory system and the application to school programmes of the principles of the utilitarian philosophy, which judged the value of everything according to its practical value. For Dickens Utilitarianism was based on a wrong conception of human nature and it left no space for human qualities such as generosity, altruism and imagination.
Mr Gradgrind is one of these people, he believes that education should be merely practical and factual, allowing no place for imagination or emotion and he never doubts the correctness of his opinions. Also he isn’t interested in having personal relationship with the children.
Gradgrind is an example of Dickens’ humor in inventing names: the word “grind” refers to the mechanical idea of reducing something to its elements; “grad” is an abbreviation for “grade”: to judge the quality of a student’ work by giving it a letter or a number.
Bounderby is another example of Dickens’ invention in name: it derives from “bounder” who is a man who behaves badly especially towards women.
Choakumchild seems to be made up of two words: choke and child. Choke means to make somebody unable to breathe. Just like the polluted air of industrial town suffocates the people, Mr Choakumchild kills pupils from spontaneity and creativity by basing his teaching only on facts.
Mr Gradgrind has founded a school where his educational theories are put into practice: children are taught nothing but facts and he educates his own children, Louisa and Tom, in the same way.
Mr Gradgrind suggests his daughter should marry Bounderby a rich factory-owner and banker.
Louisa consents to the marriage. Tom is given a job in Bounderby’s bank and eventually steals some money from it. Discovered he hides among the circus folk, who show kindness and sympathy by sheltering him.
In the end Gradgrind understands the damage caused by his narrow-minded and materialistic philosophy.
Sissy and Bitzer Passage
The passage highlights the principles of the utilitarian philosophy applied to schools and focuses on the differences between Sissy and Bitzer. Sissy and Bitzer are momentarily connected by the path of sunbeam (a symbol of the light of reason) that enter the classroom and has a different effect on each of them: it irradiates Sissy who is dark enough to resist but it draws out what little color Bitzer ever had.
Sissy’s complexion can be extended to her personality: darkness as a form of resistance to the sunlight (rationality) while Bitzer is both psychologically and physically consumed by this light and it is transformed into a dehumanized fact machine. Sissy stands for spontaneity, emotion, imagination and simplicity, while Bitzer for rationality, materialism and Utilitarianism.
The narrator is a third-person omniscient narrator who knows everything about his fictional word and through a lively dialogue and a style rich in humor and satire shows the author’s criticism of contemporary society.
The scene is full of moments which are both naturalistic and highly symbolical.
In the first paragraph there are two Similes and one Metaphor: they have in common that all the three images are taken from the world of savages and wild animals, this suggests that industrialism represented a retrograde step for civilization in Dickens’ view.
This idea/view is also stressed by the use of adjectives and adverbs such as unnatural, interminable, monotonously and melancholy.
The narrator is an external third-person omniscient narrator.