Louisa Gradgrind: Utilitarianism's Sacrificial Lamb

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Humans are born with a fundamental desire to explore the world around them. As one grows this desire turns into ideas that lead to new inventions, works of art, and brilliant literature. In Charles Dickens Hard Times, individuals are not encouraged to follow these desires, and are overpowered by the ideals of utilitarian society. The masses are drilled with facts, and never taught to explore their minds or experience any sense of fancy. Individuals are turned from people to mindless workhorses, not knowing anything but pure cold facts. Talents are put to waste that if fostered would have blossomed into exceptional skills. The greatest example of this present within Hard Times is Louisa Gradgrind. Louisa is brought up in a house headed by a Utilitarian school teacher, her father Thomas Gradgrind Sr., and with a quite and docile mother, Mrs. Gradgrind, who is unable to convey her own emotions, let alone foster any in her children. Due to her father ’s suppression of her emotions and Utilitarian society, Louisa-who held so much potential- is quelled and left as an empty and hollow device. When Louisa is introduced in Chapter three, she is described as a “fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow.” (12). This description Louisa depicts her as a cold vacant nothingness, void of all emotion. Louisa’s father, Thomas Gradgrind was not a strong paternal figure being distant and not allowing Louisa any thing from life but facts. However, Louisa has somehow kept her inner thirst for knowledge and fancy alive, still able to recognize that she has been wronged by her father and the Utilitarian system. On a less metaphorical level, fire is also what keeps the factories running, and produces all of Bounderby’s money. In Hard Times, fire represents both the good that Louisa has within her, and the evil that is Bounderby and the Utilitarian system’s prosper.

The manner in which Gradgrind runs his schoolhouse demonstrates the type of environment in which Louisa grew up. David Lodge categorizes the way in which Gradgrind teaches into three categories, “(1) It is authoritarian, fanatical and bullying in its application, (2) It is rigid, abstract and barren in quality, (3) It is materialistic and commercial in its orientation.” (Lodge) When Gradgrind notices Sissy, a new pupil, he automatically tries to remove her individuality and puts his method of teaching into effect. He demands that she never refer to herself as Sissy, but rather Cecelia and promptly begins referring to her as “girl number twenty.” Gradgrind is attempting to remove Sissy’s individuality by making her name conform to that of a normal victorian society, and furthers this process of removing her individuality by referring to her in class as girl number twenty, demonstrating the bullying and authoritarian nature of his teaching. Gradgrind is turning Sissy, the name that embodies the life of fancy of the circus within which Sissy grew up, into girl number twenty. The name “girl number twenty” an attempt to turn Sissy into a faceless, nameless, and emotionless utilitarian pawn, just another one of the masses, just a number in line to the emotional slaughter house. But Sissy has grown up in a society unlike that of the other children and Louisa and she is able throughout the novel to keep her emotions and individuality in tack. Gradgrind, with another attempt to batter Sissy’s being, asks her to define a horse. Growing up on the circus with horses, Sissy is unable to define that animal that has played such a role in her life. Asking Sissy to define a horse is comparable to one being asked to define air. Sissy, unlike the other children, has stood face to face with a horse, stroked it, and watch her father or even herself ridden upon a horse in the circus ring. Asking Sissy for a simple definition is impossible and she is baffled.

Gradgrind calls on another student, Bitzer, to finish the task for her, he answers: “Quadruped. Graminivorous....
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