n the opening paragraph of the second chapter of Hard Times, Dickens creates the straw man Thomas Gradgrind, a creature of mere fact and no humbugging sentiment, a modern, no-nonsense figure of the industrial age. His Utilitarian abode, "Stone Lodge," might even imply that he is something of an ogre, a perversion of the giants of myth and fairytale who imprisons children not in dungeons but in school-rooms. We note that Dickens repeats the Christian name "Thomas" four times, perhaps connecting Coketown's educational philanthropist with Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834), whose Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) had justified disease and famine as useful natural checks upon the unrestricted growth of human population. Gradgrind's being a disciple of Malthus (just as Scrooge's cant about decreasing "the surplus population" betrays himself to be one) is implied the names he has selected for his two youngest children: "Malthus" and "Adam Smith" (named for the eighteenth-century political economist and originator of the mercantile doctrine of Laissez-faire under which England's factory system had flourished).
Gradgrind's Christian name also implies a connection to the Apostle who doubted, and who has therefore come to epitomize skepticism. Although St. Thomas was not a bad man (indeed, in later life he supposedly initiated a mission to India), he is noted, like many people in Victorian Britain, for being prepared to take nothing on faith. Although "Gradgrind" has since become a class-name for a callous Victorian industrialist, Dickens from the outset wishes to suggest that his Gradgrind is no more beyond redemption than that other man of business Ebenezer Scrooge. His education scheme, after all, seems intended to produce a better world for its young charges since it will equip them with the skills of literacy and numeracy that will enable them to work in offices rather than factories and join the lower ranks of the middle class. If Gradgrind wants "no nonsense" from them, he also wants no ignorance, unemployment, and starvation for them. Unfortunately, as Dickens would have us recall in the case of the Reverend Malthus's works, that sort of thinking, no matter how well motivated, can her disastrous repercussions if it seeks to eliminate all "fancy" (creative imagination and lighthearted entertainment) from our daily lives.
The name "gradgrind" is associated with the mechanical, repetitive drudgery of the factory system in Dickens's working notes for the novel, which indicate that on January 20th, 1854, he was toying with such possible titles as "The Grindstone," "The universal grindstone," "Two and Two are Four Prove It!" (Stone, p. 251). Behind the gritty cacophony of the double alliterative "Gradgrind" we hear the roaring of assembly-line machinery that mutilated a factory girl, as reported in journalist Henry Morley's editorial "Ground in the Mill" (Household Words, 22 April, 1854). As a verb "grind" means "oppress, harass with exactions," as well, of course, as "crush." The Coketown educational reformer, "interposing between his pupils and reality a blanket of words, abstract notions, mathematical tables and formulae, crushes the world of actual experience by laying upon it too heavy an explanatory superstructure" (Magnet 18). What Gradgrind oppresses are his charges, his own children as well as those in his school, who enter the education factory imaginative Sissy Jupes (perhaps with a pun on "dupes") but leave it rote-memorizing, anemic Bitzers. In such establishments, stated Dickens in a speech he delivered in November, 1857, "I have never seen among the pupils, whether boys or girls, anything but little parrots and small calculating machines" ("Schools I Do Not Like" 311).
The "grad" in "Gradgrind" may imply that he himself is a graduate of a such a system, or may simply be an abbreviation of "gradually." In Allegory in Dickens (1977), Jane Vogel sees the name "Gradgrind" as part of a pattern of stoning, noting that like schoolmaster Headstone and step-father Murdstone, "Mr. Gradgrind . . . gradually grinds childish fancy, curiosity about wonders seen and unseen . . . on the remorseless grindstone of fact, rule, law" (44). For Vogel, the stones that compose Stone Lodge are the tablets of the Mosaic law, the strict adherence to which kills such spirits as Stephen Blackpool's.
Ironically, in the marriage of bustling and philanthropic Thomas Gradgrind, patron of education and Member of Parliament for Coketown, and his invalid wife (whose obsession with her own health amounts to hypochondria) we have yet another reflection of the marital relationship of Catherine and Charles Dickens, even though the fictional couple have but half the number of children.
A Brief Bibliography
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Last modified 12 June 2001