The setting is Coketown, a factory town befouled by industrial smog and populated by underpaid and undereducated laborers. The novel's most prominent character is one of the town's richest citizens, Josiah Bounderby, a pompous blowhard who owns a textile mill and a bank and whose conversation usually includes some boastful story about his impoverished childhood and the hard work that led to his present fortune.
Bounderby is the commercial projection of Thomas Gradgrind, a local schoolteacher and an extraordinarily pragmatic man who instills in his students and his own children the importance of memorizing facts and figures and the iniquity of indulging in entertaining activities. Gradgrind offers to Bounderby his son, Tom Jr., as an unwilling apprentice, and his daughter, Louisa, as an unwilling bride.
On the other end of the town's social scale is Stephen Blackpool, a simple, downcast man who works as a weaver at Bounderby's mill and slogs through life misunderstood and mistreated. When he refuses to join his fellow workers in a labor uprising, he is ostracized; when he criticizes the economic disparity between Bounderby and the workers, he is fired and forced to leave town; when Bounderby's bank is robbed one night, he is suspected as the thief. So halfway through the novel, Dickens grants his reader an interesting, albeit somewhat contrived, plot element to embellish the narrative.
If this novel contains a ray of sunshine, it is in Sissy Jupe, a girl abandoned by her father and adopted by Gradgrind, whose oppressive educational method nearly breaks her. However, she grows up with her own intuitive sense of propriety, which she uses as a tool to eject a dishonorable character from the novel. Her strong and independent spirit will allow her to do much better in life than Louisa, who withers away in an unhappy marriage, and Tom Jr., whose boredom renders him vulnerable to temptations.
Compared to his other novels, "Hard Times" is relatively short and straightforward and has few characters, as though Dickens felt that what he had to say was so important, it had to be said quickly and bluntly. He is less interested in realism than in making a point, and it's really the poetic power of his prose that enables him to get away with the overbearing sentimentality and often ridiculous caricatures that accompany his poignant human truths.
Dickens does an admirable job in covering new ground concerning the factory owners and bankers exploitation of the poor, as well as exploring the beginnings of labor unrest in 1850's England. There is much for the factory laborer to be unhappy with in Cokestown, where the factories belch out dirty, polluted smoke all day long. Dickens combines these issues with his examination of the difficulties inherent in parenting and gives truth to the old adage that how the branch is bent, so grows the tree. Through much grief and contrition years later, school master Thomas Gradgrind learns that a cold, no nonsense approach to bringing up his daughter Louisa and his son, Tom, was wrong. Louisa has a good heart and dotes on her younger brother, but is otherwise very distrustful of humanity and exists in the world suffused in apathy; Tom is simply, as Dickens calls him, "a whelp", and a dishonest one at that. Louisa marries Josiah Bounderby, a banker who turns his nose up at the factory hands and mocks their aspirations to move up in the world. Bounderby refers to these individuals as trying to put a "gold spoon" in their mouths. The actions of Bounderby and the Gradgrinds directly lead to tragic consequences for Stephen Blackpool, an honest and courageous loom worker, who merely chooses not to be involved with the townspeople or their labor leader. Another old truth that there is no justice in the world is as real today as it was in Dickens' time.