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Louisa Gradgrind: Utilitarianism's Sacrificial Lamb

By smithla Oct 16, 2012 3396 Words
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. Forty teeth, namely, twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring: in marshy countries sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.” Within the first five pages Dickens is able to demonstrate an extreme, emotionless, and perfect utilitarian individual in Bitzer. Bitzer is the embodiment of utilitarianism. He relies only upon facts to run his life, casting out anything that is not self bettering, this including all “useless” emotions. Bitzer is an extremists view of utilitarianism however, this being the way Dickens wished to portray Utilitarianism. In regards to a family, Bitzer scorns the subject, it having no self fulfilling purpose in is utilitarian society. Having a family requires some small amount of emotions that Bitzer is not capable of comprehending, and also requiring money, taking away from himself. When asked about families, Bitzer states he does not care at all that he is alone, “I have only one mouth to feed, and that’s the person I most like to feed.” (90). Bitzer as described by Edgar H. Johnson, is the “ultimate product of the system,” being boring, soulless, and basing every aspect of his life upon “bargain and sale, controlled by self-interest.” Bitzer demonstrates what Gradgrind would want all of his school children to become including Sissy, rather than what his daughter Louisa had become. Louisa, unlike Bitzer is unable to void herself entirely of fancy, but has not been taught how to control and use her emotions that have remained through her utilitarian up bringing.

Sissy, being Louisa’s foil, embodies what was seen as the perfect woman of the era. Sissy is warm, loving, nurturing and gentle. Louisa is unfeeling, depressing, and dark. By creating such characters Dickens is not attempting to emphasize Louisa’s foul nature, but trying to draw precedence to the fact that Louisa’s upbringing, void of human connection, has molded her to this person. Louisa has been given nothing in life but facts. When Louisa is told about Bounderby’s marriage proposal, she cannot express how she feels, so she states, “There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out.” (96). Louisa cannot simply express to her father that she detests bounderby because she is what would best be described as the “languid and monotonous smoke.” This fact however, is an expression of her true emotions. Louisa is expressing how she is this dreary, disgusting, poisoned smoke, but when the “fire bursts out” at night, there is something more to this smoke than would appear before. This fire to these smokestacks represents the passion and the creativity that is present within Louisa, that if nurtured could become the change from the utilitarian shell that she has been forced to embody.

Due to her inability to understand her own emotions, and without any paternal or maternal figure in her life, Louisa channels all of her love to her brother Tom. Louisa is unable to “distinguish sensual passion from fraternal affection,” (Fabrizio) and there for is forced into what Richard Fabrizio describes in his essay -Wonderful No-Meaning: Language and the Psychopathology of the Family in Hard Times- as “unmanageable” thoughts that both children foster, as these are the only feelings they are able to have. Their relationship is “abnormal” in terms of a normal sibling love and is turned into one that is much more romantic than that common to siblings. Tom is effected by Utilitarian society for the worse, however and is completely engrossed

with his own self fulfillments. Tom appreciates Louisa’s affections, but is not able to return them entirely as he is much more passionate towards money and gambling. Tom apprentices at Josiah Bounderby’s bank, and when Bounderby proposes the idea of marriage to Mr. Gradgrind, although Mr. Gradgrind pressures Louisa into this marriage, it is in fact Tom who sways his sister most greatly into this horrific marriage. Fabrizio describes this perverse and twisted relationship between the two siblings as this: “ Tom actively uses Louisa while passively accepting her love, while she passively accepts his usage while actively loving him.” (Fabrizio). Tom abuses Louisa, the only person to ever attempt to give him love, and “knowingly trades Louisa to secure his pleasure,” (Fabrizio) that he has found in money. By accepting this marriage, and the betrayal from Tom, Louisa has committed a figurative and emotional suicide. She has given up and is turned into a hollow and broken individual. When Louisa returns home and attempts to express her emotions to her father, Mr.Gradgrind, they come out in somewhat of a jumbled mess, but she is still able to get her point across, screaming at her father, "And I so young. In this condition, father - for I show you now, without fear or favour, the ordinary deadened state of my mind as I know it - you proposed my husband to me. I took him. I never made a pretence to him or you that I loved him. I knew, and, father, you knew, and he knew, that I never did. I was not wholly indifferent, for I had a hope of being pleasant and useful to Tom. I made that wild escape into something visionary, and have slowly found out how wild it was. But Tom had been the subject of all the little tenderness of my life; perhaps he became so because I knew so well how to pity him...” (209). Even though Louisa is unable to fully understand her emotions, she is more capable of feeling than her father had previously thought. Louisa agreed to marry Mr. Bounderby because her father convinces her that it is a rational decision, and so broken by facts she does not appear to care at first. Mr. Gradgrind, to convince Louisa even uses statistics to entice her, stating that the difference of their ages does not inevitably effect their happiness. Louisa is miserable as Bounderby’s wife, and this inclusion of statistics might have been included as part of his “war on statistics,” showing that statistical data does not always apply well to real life situations. Louisa is distraught in this quote and is expressing whatever tangled emotions she is able to express to Her father.

Louisa is married to Josiah Bounderby, who although he proposed the marriage, is not able to give Louisa any sort of love. Bounderby is so consumed by his money, his factories, and by his own arrogance that he cannot engage in any true relationship with Louisa. She is left broken emotionally by this forced marriage that is built upon nothing but her brothers greed and her fathers blindness due to his utilitarian facts and rationality. Louisa’s life is composed of suppression by her father, betrayal by her brother, and a loveless marriage from Bounderby. It is not until James Harthouse, a London gentleman studying politics under Mr. Gradgrind, comes into the picture that Louisa first meets a man that has anything beneficial to offer her. Although she is married to Bounderby, Harthouse is entered by Louisa and sets off to seduce her. But Harthouse is more than just a romantic lover to Louisa, “......chance then threw into my way a new acquaintance; a man such as I had had no experience of; used to the world; light, polished, easy; making no pretences...conveying to me that he understood me, and read my thoughts" (209). Harthouse offers a splash of color into the dark, black, and oppressive atmosphere of Coketown that had been prior to his arrival, all that Louisa had known. With only simple conversation, Louisa feels as though Harthouse can “read” her thoughts, the only way that she is able to describe the instant connection that she was able to make with Harthouse. Louisa also explains to her father that Harthouse made “no pretences,” meaning that he did not pretend to be caring and actually be coldhearted, as everyone else in her life had prior. Louisa also say that Harthouse understood her, which appears actually to be little more than Harthouse simply letting her say what she felt, and in truth listened to her, never telling her that the expression of her emotions was ludicrous or senseless in the manner that her father had.

Louisa’s cold nothingness, along with her brother Tom’s cruel and guiltless betrayal to her can be associated if not completely linked to the children’s upbringing. Thomas Gradgrind Sr. ran his home in the exact same mechanical and emotionless way that he ran his school house. Mr. Gradgrind never allowed his children to feel a human connection, and never encouraged any learning besides the drilling of facts. Dickens demonstrates to the reader the way in which the children were raised by showing one the fact the children’s lives were based upon: “No little Gradgrind had ever had ever associated a cow in a field with that famous cow with the crumpled horn who tossed the dog who worried the cat who killed the rat who ate the malt, or with that yet more famous cow who swallowed Tom Thumb: it... had only been introduced to a cow as a graminivorous ruminating quadruped with several stomachs.” (9). Louisa was never allowed to foster her most basic needs for creativity. Her natural yearnings for a human connection, for love, or for any expression of emotion being instantly quelled by the oppressive Mr. Gradgrind turning her into this very confused and empty “individual.” Louisa was never encouraged to view a cow as an animal with feelings, or a cow personified in a classic fairy tale. The little Gradgrind’s had never had toys, had never been read or given books containing any sort of fancy, and had never been allowed to think. Louisa’s inability to interpret emotions or to have even a single free thought in her head are due to her poor upbringing. Her weak mother, Mrs. Gradgrind, unhappy in her own marriage and a sickly person, was never able to foster any humanity within her children. Dicken’s also used Mrs. Gradgrind to portray the perfect victorian woman. Mrs. Gradgrind had little to say within the text, being seen but not heard, an “angel in the house.” This angel would be out of place if she had attempted to step into her children's lives and correct a mistake her fact driving husband had made. Louisa’s distant father and weak mother are what turn her from person to a hollow shell. Utilitarianism, and her fathers devotion to this philosophy wrecked havoc on Louisa’s life and emotions. His obsession with facts left room for nothing else to enter into Louisa and Tom’s lives. When Louisa returns home after being brutalized emotionally by her loveless marriage to Bounderby, and after having her eyes opened by Harthouse, she is able to make a realization about her father, stating in a factual manner, “ What you have never nurtured in me, you have never nurtured in yourself...” (208). It is not only that Mr.Gradgrind did not support Louisa’s use of her mind or her embracing of her emotions, but rather that Mr.Gradgrind had never been taught to express his emotions himself. When pelted by Louisa with painful criticism of his fathering, Mr.Gradgrind is left speechless. He is unable to swallow the vast amount of emotion that Louisa is thrusting upon him and is left to sort through all the guilt that he was the one to destroy his daughter. Gradgrind is unable to do so however, never having experienced nor needing to access such emotions while engrossed with his strict Utilitarian facts. Louisa is furious, and within this scene, Dickens truly allows Louisa to let go off all the pent up and suppressed emotions that had been forced to remain stagnant within her person for so many years.

This release of Louisa’s inner fire to an external one shows an abandonment of Utilitarian society within Louisa, as she is finally able to express herself, declaring, “How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from a conscious death? What are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, oh, Father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here?” (208). Louisa’s inner flame bursts from within her, expressing all the hateful feelings she held towards her father for transforming her into such a hollow shell. Without any limitations, Louisa finally is able to reciprocate the misery that her father had thrust upon her. Dickens uses this scene to compare the two Louisa’s, the Louisa that held reservations against her emotions, and the Louisa that is finally able to let go. Prior to this rebirth, when confronted by her Father with Bounderby’s marriage proposal, Louisa is not able to convey her revulsion on the matter and is not able to express her emotions. Louisa is simply able to state a fact, having been so drilled upon her, stating of Coketown,“There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out.” (96). This fire that Louisa speaks of in her factual description of Coketown is an attempt of Louisa’s to describe how she wishes her to describe herself. Louisa wants to be the same change in her own life that the fire has on Coketown, she wishes to set free her emotions. Louisa is finally able to return to her father ’s house and state in an outward eruption of feelings how he had ruined her, how he had ruined all the potential which she had held. The majority of Louisa’s life was spent in this state of “conscious death” and her father removed all traces of any humanity. Louisa is finally able to renew herself as a person, disowning her father and Utilitarianism completely. However, Louisa’s talents, potential, and most importantly her happiness all had to be victimized by Utilitarianism before Mr.Gradgrind was able to realize the mistake in his ways.

Louisa’s life is dominated by her father ’s suppression of her emotions and Utilitarian society, all the potential for greatness that she had once had quelled by facts. Louisa is left as an empty and hollow device, but the sacrifice of herself is able to bring realization to her father about his ways. This realization however -that Utilitarianism and a life based solely upon facts cannot bring happiness- is not enough to make up for the guilt that Mr. Gradgrind is left to deal with for the rest of his dreary life. After the breakthrough of her emotions, Louisa collapses at her fathers feet, laying upon the floor: “... he laid her down there, and saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system lying, an insensible heap, at his feet.” (211). Dickens finally allows one to see the emergence of cracks of doubt appearing within the strict character of Mr. Gradgrind. Through his daughters heart ache and confusion, Gradgrind is able to make the realization that the system of Utilitarianism has failed him, and seeing his daughter heaped upon the floor, he is able to feel the emotions of failure as a father and regret for not nurturing within his daughter the emotions that had never been given to him. The story of Louisa Gradgrind is a tragic one, but within this novel, her sacrifice was needed. With Hard Times, Dickens was able to portray the flaws in this seemingly prefect system, alerting those who consisted of the “greater good” to the suffering of the poor masses of England during this era. Dickens Hard Times depicts a hardship that if left unanswered would have wrecked the lives of many more than the fictional, yet tragic character of Louisa Gradgrind.

Works Cited
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times (Bantam Classics). New York: Bantam Classics, 1981. Print. Fabrizio, Richard. "Wonderful No-Meaning: Language and the Psychopathology of the Family in Hard Times." Print.

Johnson, Edgar H. "Critique of Materialism." Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1952. 47-63. Print. Welsh, Alexander. "Louisa Gradgrind's Role." Dickens Redressed: The Art of Bleak house and Hard Times. New Haven: Yale UP, 2000. 168-85. Print.

Lodge, David The Rhetoric of Hard Times Columbia University Press, New York, 1966.

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