The Father Buried His Face in His Hands, And the Son Stood in His Disgraceful Grotesqueness Biting Straw by Charles S. Reinhart. 13.2 cm wide by 10.4 cm high. This final plate in the series illustrates Book Three, Chapter Seven, "Whelp-Hunting," in Charles Dickens's Hard Times (American Household Edition, 1876), 224 (half-page, horizontally mounted). Running head: "A Mere Question of Self-Interest" (225).

Context of the Illustration: Tom's Confession is not Contrition

In a preposterous coat, like a beadle’s, with cuffs and flaps exaggerated to an unspeakable extent; in an immense waistcoat, knee-breeches, buckled shoes, and a mad cocked hat; with nothing fitting him, and everything of coarse material, moth-eaten and full of holes; with seams in his black face, where fear and heat had started through the greasy composition daubed all over it; anything so grimly, detestably, ridiculously shameful as the whelp in his comic livery, Mr. Gradgrind never could by any other means have believed in, weighable and measurable fact though it was. And one of his model children had come to this!

At first the whelp would not draw any nearer, but persisted in remaining up there by himself. Yielding at length, if any concession so sullenly made can be called yielding, to the entreaties of Sissy — for Louisa he disowned altogether—he came down, bench by bench, until he stood in the sawdust, on the verge of the circle, as far as possible, within its limits from where his father sat.

"How was this done?’ asked the father.

"How was what done?" moodily answered the son.

"This robbery," said the father, raising his voice upon the word.

"I forced the safe myself over night, and shut it up ajar before I went away. I had had the key that was found, made long before. I dropped it that morning, that it might be supposed to have been used. I didn’t take the money all at once. I pretended to put my balance away every night, but I didn’t. Now you know all about it."

"If a thunderbolt had fallen on me," said the father, "it would have shocked me less than this!"

"I don’t see why," grumbled the son. "So many people are employed in situations of trust; so many people, out of so many, will be dishonest. I have heard you talk, a hundred times, of its being a law. How can I help laws? You have comforted others with such things, father. Comfort yourself!"

The father buried his face in his hands, and the son stood in his disgraceful grotesqueness, biting straw: his hands, with the black partly worn away inside, looking like the hands of a monkey. The evening was fast closing in; and from time to time, he turned the whites of his eyes restlessly and impatiently towards his father. They were the only parts of his face that showed any life or expression, the pigment upon it was so thick. [Book III, "The Reaping," Chapter 7, "Whelp-Hunting," 223]

Commentary: A Criminal by Statistical Probability

Throughout Reinhart's pictorial programme, Thomas Gradgrind (who appears in detail five times) is something of a "joke" figure until almost the end. In Plate 2, he is a wooden, black column (shades of Charlotte Brontë's description of the Reverend Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, perhaps) who cannot see what is immediately before him (his children peeping through a hole in the circus tent) without the aid of his monocle. Complementing this depiction of monocular vision, Reinhart implies that Gradgrind's physical stiffness is a metaphor for his Utilitarian dogmatism and mental inflexibility. Gradgrind's misshapen, bald skull (reminiscent of the skulls of the precursors of homo erectus), bristling eyebrows, and hooked nose impart a bird-like quality in plate 3. In the sixth plate, illustrating his marriage proposal to Louisa on Bounderby's behalf, Gradgrind's skull is noticeably indented on the top, as if he had an extra brain, as he discounts the importance of mutual affection in a marriage.

In the thirteenth plate, however, Gradgrind is, as Dickens observes he should be, "much softened" by recent experiences and much more human in aspect, as he puts his hand to his brow to signify his despondency at the failure of rational knowledge (suggested by the map behind his head) to produce happy, well-adjusted children in his own house. This is the chastened figure of a father who candidly admits to his personal and political ally (and unnaturally old son-in-law whom Louisa has just left for good) that "we are all liable to mistakes" (Book III, Ch. 3).

Readers now encounter a "forlorn" Gradgrind, bent over, humiliated but ultimately humanised by despair in the fifteenth and final plate, appalled by his failure to inculcate any sense of morality in his eldest son. The "whelp" himself is characteristically biting a straw as he stands apart from the concerned group of Louisa (right), Sissy (hand extended, comforting Gradgrind), and the grieving father. In the centre of the sawdust ring, as in Dickens's text, Gradgrind sits in the performing clown's chair, for fortune has exposed the utter folly of his "system" of education and child-rearing, and he is Fortune's fool indeed. In contrast to his respectably dressed sister and father, Tom is still clad in his disguise, the "comic livery" (Book III, Ch. 7) of one of Jack's black-faced servants in "Jack the Giant Killer." While the figures of Sissy and Louisa are primarily white, Tom is thoroughly black. The ill-fitting, outlandish outfit specified by the text — including exaggerated waistcoat, the mad cocked hat, and beadle's coat with immense cuffs and pock-flaps — is not as repulsive in its total effect visually as Dickens insists it should be "grimly, detestably, ridiculously shameful."

Reinhart successfully suggests through Tom's posture the boy's utter lack of concern for those who care about him. Tom is withdrawn, and does not even glance in his family's direction. Already, however, he has in fact come down from the benches into the ring, and confessed to his father his having committed the robbery, so that Reinhart has conflated the moment of description (when Tom is still on the back benches) with the moment indicated by the caption, immediately after Tom, like a good (i. e., amoral, logical) Utilitarian, has archly pleaded statistical necessity for his violating the trust of his employer. His moral lapse, he contends, was statistically inevitable. To this shuffling off of personal responsibility for the crime (which, in implicating an innocent man, has caused that Stephen Blackpool's death), "Gradgrind buried his face in his hands," while, descending the Darwinian scale of evolution (Origin of Species having been published in 1859 but The Descent of Man in 1871, after the Household Edition of Hard Times, one could make too much of the simian imagery in Dickens's text, but Reinhart's illustration at least post-dates the dawn of Darwinism), his monkey-pawed son bites his straw. But in Reinhart's characterisation of Tom there is no redeeming "whiteness" (indicative of conscience) in either his hands or face; the artist's depicting Tom with utterly seamless, black pigmentation implies no likelihood of redemption for Gradgrind's prodigal son.

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Dickens, Charles. Hard Times for These Times. Illustrated by C. S. Reinhart. The Household Edition. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1876.

Houfe, Simon. The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club, 1978.

Pennell, Joseph. The Adventures of An Illustrator Mostly in Following His Authors in America and Europe. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1925.

Created 22 September 2002

Last modified 7 August 2020