The novel follows a classical tripartite structure, and the titles of each book are related to Galatians 6:7, "For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap." Book I is entitled "Sowing", Book II is entitled "Reaping", and the third is "Garnering." Book I: Sowing
Mr. Gradgrind, whose voice is "dictatorial", opens the novel by stating "Now, what I want is facts" at his school in Coketown. He is a man of "facts and calculations." He interrogates one of his pupils, Sissy, whose father is involved with the circus, the members of which are "Fancy" in comparison to Gradgrind's espousal of "Fact." Since her father rides and tends to horses, Gradgrind offers Sissy the definition of horse. She is rebuffed for not being able to define a horse factually; her classmate Bitzer does, however, provide a more zoological profile description and factual definition. She does not learn easily, and is censured for suggesting that she would carpet a floor with pictures of flowers "So you would carpet your room—or your husband's room, if you were a grown woman, and had a husband—with representations of flowers, would you? Why would you?" She is taught to disregard Fancy altogether. It is Fancy Vs Fact. Louisa and Thomas, two of Mr. Gradgrind's children, pay a visit after school to the touring circus run by Mr. Sleary, only to find their father, who is disconcerted by their trip since he believes the circus to be the bastion of Fancy and conceit. With their father, Louisa and Tom trudge off in a despondent mood. Mr. Gradgrind has three younger children: Adam Smith, (after the famous theorist of laissez-faire policy), Malthus (after Rev. Thomas Malthus, who wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, warning of the dangers of future overpopulation) and Jane.
Gradgrind apprehends Louisa and Tom, his two eldest children, at the circus. Josiah Bounderby, "a man perfectly devoid of sentiment", is revealed as being Gradgrind's boss. Bounderby is a manufacturer and mill owner who is affluent as a result of his enterprise and capital. Bounderby is what one might call a "self-made man" who has risen from the gutter. He is not averse to giving dramatic summaries of his childhood, which terrify Mr. Gradgrind's wife who is often rendered insensate by these horrific stories. He is described in an acerbic manner as being "the Bully of Humility." Mr. Gradgrind and Bounderby visit the public-house where Sissy resides to inform her that she cannot attend the school any more due to the risk of her ideas propagating in the class. Sissy meets the two collaborators, informing them her father has abandoned her not out of malice, but out of desire for Sissy to lead a better life without him. This was the reasoning behind him enlisting her at Gradgrind's school and Gradgrind is outraged at this desertion. At this point members of the circus appear, fronted by their manager Mr. Sleary. Mr. Gradgrind gives Sissy a choice: either to return to the circus and forfeit her education, or to continue her education and never to return to the circus. Sleary and Gradgrind both have their say on the matter, and at the behest of Josephine Sleary she decides to leave the circus and bid all the close friends she had formed farewell. Back at the Gradgrind house, Tom and Louisa sit down and discuss their feelings, however repressed they seem to be. Tom, already at this present stage of education finds himself in a state of dissatisfaction, and Louisa also expresses her discontent at her childhood while staring into the fire. Louisa's ability to wonder, however, has not been entirely extinguished by her rigorous education based in Fact. We are introduced to the workers at the mills, known as the "Hands." Amongst them is a man named Stephen Blackpool or "Old Stephen" who has led a toilsome life. He is described as a "man of perfect integrity." He has ended his day's work, and his close companion Rachael is about somewhere. He eventually meets up with her,...
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