Hard Times is a novel of social protest which attacks utilitarianism, Bentham’s theory which only considered the practical aspects of happiness and ignored emotional, spiritual and moral values. It is set in Coketown, a fictious industrial city in northern England in the mid-1800s. It has been said that Coketown has the characteristics of real factory towns like Manchester. Thomas Gradrind is a strictly functional; the arts and literature are totally excluded because they have no use, and students must learn nothing but facts, to the detriment of their imaginations. He has imposed this learning method on his own five children, and they are like so many carbon copies of each other.
Mr Gradgrind’s closet friend is Josiah Bounderby, a self-made banker and the chief villian of the novel. The two of them decide that Sissy Jupe – one of the students – must be expelled from the school because, being an emotional and imaginative child, she has a bad influence on the other students. But when they learn that Sissy’s father seems to have abandoned his daughter, Gradgrind takes pity on her and, against Bounderby’s judgement, decides to let her live in his home. She becomes like a sister to Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa, an unhappy teenager whose imagination and emotion cannot find expression
As Louisa grows older, she agrees to marry Bounderby – who is twice her age – only to be in a position to help her brother Tom, a selfish and unscrupulous young man who works at Bounderby’s bank and proves to be an efficient, unreliable employer. Louisa is unhappy because she is trapped in a loveless marriage, and she becomes vulnerable to the seduction of a handsome young politician, James Harthouse, who has been sent to Coketown to conduct a government survey. It looks as though she is willing to leave her husband for him, but in fact she returns to her father’s house. Sissy acts as a sister to Louisa: she meets Harthouse and tells him that he will never see Louisa again. In the meantime it is discovered that the bank has been robbed, and the blame falls on Stephen Blackpool, an honest worker who has left Coketown. Blackpool returns to prove his innocence, but he falls down a mine shaft and dies. Before long it comes out that Tom is the robber. Gradgrind is devastated when he realizes that ruined his daughter’s life and that his son is a criminal. Tom is arrested, but manages to escape abroad, catches a fever overseas, and dies. Bounderby loses his reputation and finally shows his real face, he will die of a stroke five years later. Louisa finds comfort in Sissy’s happy marriage and children, and Gradgrind, who is a good man at heart, finds his own humanity and asks forgiveness of his daughter.