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Charles Dickens wrote “Hard Times” in monthly instalments in “Household words” in 1854. It describes the life of the citizens in an industrial town whilst covering family values, the education system and the plight of workers. Tom Gradgrind is the eldest son of Mr Gradgrind and through him Dickens shows the impact of a factual childhood.
Tom is first introduced with Louisa in chapter three when they are reprimanded heavily for looking at the “Tyrolean flower act”. Gradgrind is “dumb with amazement” at the sight of his “mathematical Thomas abasing himself”. Tom immediately gave himself up to be “taken home like a machine” yet Louisa is defensive of their actions showing her to be far more passionate than Tom. She also takes responsibility when her father immediately blames Tom, something which he is only too happy to let her do which is shown later in the book when Louisa “softens up old Bounderby” allowing Tom´s appalling behaviour to be excused. However, Tom does express affection to his sister by using the nickname “Loo” so he has not grown up to be as harsh as Bounderby although he sometimes flatters his sister for his own benefit forcing doubts to his sincerity. Another difference between Louisa and Tom is that she treats her hopeless situation with indifference stating “what does it matter”, she is “tired” of life whereas Tom is “sick” of his life hating both it and everybody in it, bar Louisa. He also thinks that everybody hates him, which could account for his selfish attitude, his disrespect and disregard for others and his careless way of life. He also has no self-respect as he refers to himself as a “donkey” and from his “sulky” manner he seems to enjoy wallowing in self-pity. He also speaks of having his “revenge” against facts and he vows to “recompense” himself for his upbringing through a wild lifestyle when he joins Mr Bounderby´s bank. He boasts that he can “manage and smoothe old Bounderby” with the threat of his sister´s disapproval. His plans for freedom seem to backfire however as towards the end of the first book it is implied that without the restrictions of his home life he has become a gambler a “young gentleman of pleasure”.
In the second book “Reaping” a year later, Tom´s lifestyle has got the better of him and through Bitzer´s critical eyes he is a “dissipated extravagant idler, not worth his salt”. Tom´s slackness and impudence shows the gossip side to both Bitzer and Sparsit as they both enjoys voicing their disapproval´s when really they too should be working, showing even they do not work as hard as the “hands”.
Book two also brings about the entrance of James Harthouse who is to have a great impact on Louisa´s life and also Tom´s. Harthouse notices Louisa´s affection for Tom and he uses it to find a way into her heart. Harthouse shows Tom to be a fool, he easily manipulates him as he is taken in by James´s false exterior appearance. He is shown as inexperienced when Harthouse gives him rare “tobacco” and is too busy “admiring his new friend” to realise that he is simply and successfully trying to extract information from him. He refers to Harthouse as a “true friend” and cannot see that he is merely using him to get to Louisa. Tom cannot comprehend that he would call him “the whelp” showing him to be a bad judge of character, easily deceived probably due to his naivety and lack of experience with life. Dickens observes that despite his rigid upbringing of “unnatural restraint” he is a hypocrite incapable of governing himself and as a result of an imagination that was “strangled in his cradle” he has to peruse other sensualities to feel fulfilled. James Harthouse educated in the ways of the world notices this and takes advantage of it. Tom is a good comparison to Harthouse as Tom may have been like him had his education not been so restraining.
Tom´s education along with that of the other Gradgrinds was one of “facts sir; nothing but facts”. Tom had never known the “silly jingle” twinkle twinkle little star, and had never seen a “face in the moon” as all through his life his father had taken childhood captive and “dragged it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair”. Each child had their own science cabinet and attended lectures from an early age but lacked greatly in life experience. Mrs Gradgrind being a weak and pathetic creature of “surpassing feebleness, mentally and bodily” was no role model for her children and severely lacked maternal instinct. Mr Gradgrind despite being rigid in his beliefs was an “affectionate father in his own way” and even if his ideas seem misguided he does appear to want the best for his children and pupils. Although there are some examples of Gradgrind´s kindness towards Louisa and Sissy, Dickens has not shown him to be in any way affectionate to Tom which may explain why he becomes self absorbed and manipulative whilst Louisa although unimaginative does not. Dickens may be expressing his opinions on the difference between girls and boys. Tom realises that his life has been constrained and often uses it to excuse his gambling and blames it for all his problems, asking “what is a fellow to do for money?” when the Dickens opinion is to work for it like the working class do.
In the intricate web that Dickens weaves with the plot, Tom´s character also has relevance with that of Stephen Blackpool. When Tom offers to help Stephen out of his predicament Dickens creates another sense of mystery as it is so uncharacteristic of him to help anyone other than himself. When it later becomes clear that he has in truth conspired against him by framing him for the robbery the reader feels disgust as Stephen is portrayed as an innocent simple man. It is really only Louisa´s feelings for Tom that prevent him from being the main villain in the book, along with his pathetic behaviour and Bounderby´s more despised character. Through this event Dickens is able to show how the wealthy manipulate the poorer classes for their own ends. The robbery at the bank adds drama to the tale but also puts Louisa in a morally compromising situation.
The imagery used to describe Tom portrays his self-absorbed carelessness. The way he is shown “idly beating the branches. Stooping viciously to rip the moss” shows his disregard for nature and life. He bites roses, scattering the buds on the ground looking white in comparison to them, which may be symbolic to his relationship with Louisa. He is also described as wretched and appears to cry more than any other character in the book creating an image more pathetic than his mother. The term “whelp” first created by Harthouse but then used by Dickens in his narration and describes his wet, useless existence. Yet for all his “hatefully and unprofitably spurning all the good in the world” he does love Louisa however “grudgingly”.
Tom Gradgrind´s is a pitiful wretch selfish and self absorbed who holds the world and all those in it in contempt. His only redeeming quality is the way he feels for his sister although he still takes advantage of her kindness towards him. However he is an important character “Hard Times” because he allows Louisa to show her warmer aspects, her affection and generosity but he also shows how he both manipulates others like Bounderby and Stephen Blackpool and how others manipulate him like James Harthouse showing his worldly inexperience. Tom adds mystery and drama to the novel and even more intricacy by framing Stephen Blackpool for the robbery and allows the other characters to bicker and gossip about him. But most importantly Dickens shows through Tom the error of raising children as Gradgrind does as it leads to naivety and hatred and unhappiness ultimately his downfall.
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