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English Literature Coursework – Pre 1900 Prose

The purpose of this essay is to describe the characters of Mr. Thomas Gradgrind (Senior) in Hard Times by Charles Dickens, and Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bront�. Both are important characters, however, Gradgrind is more crucial to the plot of Hard Times than Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, as he appears only in the early chapters. Both authors use their language to show their opinions of the characters, and the societies in which they exist. The authors, especially Dickens, use the very names of the characters to portray their opinion of them.

Mr. Brocklehurst is a clergyman and proprietor of a school for poor children. His doctrine for the education of the children in his school is similar in ways to that of Thomas Gradgrind as it is ‘not to accustom them to habits of luxury and indulgence, but to render them hardy, patient, self-denying’, which is similar to the factual education of Gradgrind.

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We first encounter Mr. Brocklehurst when he comes to the house of Mrs. Reed, Jane’s aunt, regarding Jane attending his school, Lowood Academy. Jane (who is the narrator) described him as ‘a a black pillar’ with a ‘grim face’ and his features and all the lines of his frame are said to be ‘harsh and prim’. This description, in the same way as that of Gradgrind, gives a clue to the persona of the character, giving an impression of a strict, severe man. Because the novel is written in the first person, from Jane’s point of view, we see Brocklehurst through her eyes, a deliberate device used by the writer to influence our opinions of characters.

Bront had similar experiences in her youth to those of Jane in the novel, and so the feelings felt by Jane in the novel are probably the same as those of Bront�. Due to this method of writing, we come to the same conclusions as Jane, i.e. we see Brocklehurst as a daunting, overpowering and intimidating man.

During this first encounter with Brocklehurst, we discover his religious beliefs. He describes a five year old child who died and ‘whose soul is now in heaven’, and goes on to say that ‘the same could not be said of you [Jane] were you called hence’. This harsh judgement comes not five minutes after he encounters Jane, and he has virtually no knowledge of her character. He also believes that the fact that Jane does not like the Psalms and calls them ‘not interesting’ proves she has a ‘wicked heart…of stone’. These harsh early judgements, however, are based on his religious beliefs and cannot yet be criticised, similarly to Gradgrind’s belief in Fact. Gradgrind, however, is not a religious man, as religion is not precise enough for him to accept.

However, later in the chapter, the authenticity of his beliefs in living plainly and without luxury are called into serious doubt, as he describes a visit to Lowood by his wife and one of his daughters, saying that the girls looked at their dresses ‘as if they had never seen a silk gown before’. The fact that his family are wearing silk gowns yet his pupils ‘almost look like poor people’s children’ highlights underlying hypocrisy in his schooling methods. Here the similarities with Gradgrind cease, as he can never be described as a hypocrite.

Every piece of fact he taught to the children in his school, he also taught to his own children (although this eventually destroyed them). Another similar display of Brocklehurst’s hypocrisy comes later in the book, when he visits his school along with his daughters. After making strict orders that ‘each of the young persons before us that has a string of hair twisted in plaits…must be cut off’.

However, a mere few seconds later, his daughters enter with ‘a profusion of light tresses, elaborately curled’. Again this shows the difference in treatment of his pupils and his family. This shows he has one of two frames of mind. Either he does not believe in the rules he is inflicting upon his pupils at Lowood and is telling them that they will go to hell unless they humble themselves merely for cruelty’s sake, or he believes that poor people are different to rich people in the eyes of God. I believe the latter is correct, as he does speak very passionately and convincingly on the virtues of humility in the young girls who attend his school, for example, ‘Oh madam, when you put bread and cheese…in these children’s mouths, you may indeed feed their vile bodies, but you little think how you starve their immortal souls’.

Although this may be his religious belief, Bront has no compassion for his character whatsoever and shows this in several instances. One is the cold and heartless way he wishes the girls to be treated if their food is spoiled. Despite the fact that they are fed very little as it is, he thinks the girls should miss the meal in order to ‘save their immoral souls’. No such unbridled cruelty is ever shown by Gradgrind, who only ever does harm with good intentions.

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Despite all of his lecturing and preaching, however, Brocklehurst is little respected by his pupils or his teachers, merely feared. Helen teaches this to Jane just after Brocklehurst punishes her. Jane believes that her peers will hate her after Brocklehurst announced that she was a servant of Satan and a liar, but Helen responds saying that ‘Mr. Brocklehurst is not a god; nor is he even a great and admired man; he is little liked here’. This is also dissimilar to Gradgrind, who is respected greatly within Coketown, being an M.P. and often being described as an ’eminently practical friend’. The lack of respect from teachers for Mr. Brocklehurst shown later in the book, when Miss Temple revokes his decision that no one should talk to Jane, saying to the school that she was ‘most happy to be able to pronounce her cleared from every imputation’.

Bront� also illustrates the different types of Christianity through a comparison between Brocklehurst and Miss Temple. Brocklehurst preaches loudly on the qualities a good Christian should have, but does not follow any of his own guidelines. Miss Temple, on the other hand, never claims to be a perfect Christian but does do her very best to help people and be kind. Bront� is trying to show that we should be Christians through our actions, and not through words alone.

Brocklehurst finally meets his end after an outbreak of typhus fever, when an inquiry is made into its cause, and it is found that the site is unhealthy and that the quality and quantity of food given to the girls are substandard, among other things. After these facts become public knowledge, Mr. Brocklehurst is shunted into the background and becomes a mere treasurer of the school, and a committee replaced his previous position. His stereotyped ideas towards poor people have now become outdated and are no longer accepted.

The first time we see Thomas Gradgrind in the novel, he states that ‘Facts alone are wanted in life’ and this gives us a fair idea of his character. He is an undoubting believer in utilitarianism at the beginning of Hard Times. In the opening chapters, he is speaking at a school, founded by him, which teaches ‘Fact’ and no more.

He describes himself as an ’eminently practical’ man, and this is so. Thomas Gradgrind not only teaches the ideals of the utilitarian lifestyle but also believes in and follows them himself. This practicality, and the matter-of-fact way in which he interprets life is one of the most significant aspects of his character and becomes very important in his relationship with his children.

Dickens’ physical description of him comes in the very first chapter, when he is attending his school, and addressing its pupils. He is described as having ‘a square wall of a forehead, eyes that ‘found commodious cellarage in two dark caves’ and a ‘wide, thin and hard set’ mouth. Dickens is using the appearance of Gradgrind as the quintessence of his character by making everything about him average and not remarkable. Dickens goes on to describe the rest of his body in the same manner, describing his ‘square coat, square legs, square shoulders’. The repetition of the word ‘square’ is Dickens’ way of stressing the boredom of his appearance.

Dickens clearly does not want us to think that Gradgrind is an amiable or cheerful man. The fact that the description of Gradgrind is made through the eyes of children also influences the reader’s opinion of him. This is similar in ways to Bront’s description of Brocklehurst, as both men are portrayed as having nothing attractive or fanciful about their appearance, and both are described through the eyes of children.

Thomas Gradgrind has a wife and five children, all of whom live at Stone Lodge, a suitably unremarkable house. Mrs. Gradgrind is described as ‘a bundle of shawls’ as she is a quiet and detached character, who never says or does very much. Of Gradgrind’s five children, only two become involved in the novel – Thomas and Louisa, the two eldest. Both are raised on the utilitarian doctrine from an early age, but understand nothing of life and love. The first time we encounter them they are, to Gradgrind’s extreme disappointment, visiting ‘Sleary’s Circus’ which is in town to ‘see what it was like’, having experienced nothing similar in their lives.

The first time we witness compassion in Gradgrind is when he discovers that Cecilia ‘Sissy’ Jupe, a pupil at his school who lives with the circus, has been abandoned by her father. Gradgrind decides, much to his friend Mr. Bounderby’s dismay, to take her in and raise her. This incident illustrates to us that while he is a man of Fact, Gradgrind is compassionate and does care for other people. Dickens also uses the occasion to show us the difference between Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, a much less benevolent man. Although Gradgrind does seemingly do a cruel thing in not allowing Sissy to return to the circus, and forcing her to make up her mind immediately, he is doing what he believes is best for the girl.

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Sissy, while not as successful in studies as Gradgrind hoped for, is liked by him, and described as ‘an affectionate, earnest, good young woman’. A small example of how Gradgrind changes as the novel progresses is the fact that at the beginning of the book, he tells Sissy that ‘Sissy is not a name, don’t call yourself Sissy. Call yourself Cecilia’. However, by the end of the novel, he himself calls her Sissy, showing that his utilitarian belief has been slackened by the events of the novel, not least by Louisa’s marriage to Mr. Bounderby.

Another notable occurrence involving Sissy came earlier in the novel when Sissy was attending Gradgrind’s school. Gradgrind refers to her as ‘girl number twenty’, and asks for her to describe a horse. Sissy, although she works with horses every day of her life, hesitates to answer and Gradgrind declares that she is ‘unable to define a horse’. Bitzer, however, a model pupil of the utilitarian regime, describes a horse as a ‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth…’ and this is ironic because Bitzer, who has probably never seen a horse in his life, is praised for his description while Sissy, who knows much better than him what a horse is, is accused of being unable to describe one. This is Dickens’ small way of mocking the utilitarian method of teaching and mocking Gradgrind for his belief in it.

Bounderby does not propose to Louisa but asks Gradgrind to do it for him. Even at this most important of times in Louisa’s life, he still considers it a question ‘of tangible fact’, quoting statistics of mixed-age marriages, and reduces the considerable act of marriage to the mere question ‘Shall I marry him?’ without any consideration of love. Louisa accepts Bounderby’s proposal not for her own sake but for her brother’s, him being the only person she truly cares for, although he is described by Dickens as ‘The Whelp’ due to his heartless attitude towards everyone and everything, including his sister.

One of the most redeeming arguments for the decency of Gradgrind is his lack of hypocrisy. Although we realise that his system of education is ultimately damaging to it’s pupils, Gradgrind subjects his children to that same system, saying in his opening speech in the school ‘this is the principle on which I raise my own children’. Even though the children who attend his school come from much less wealthy families to his own, he does not educate them any differently to his own children. If he were similar to Bounderby, who lives in the lap of luxury while accusing the ‘Hands’ (working-class people) of wishing to be ‘fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon’, then we could be more condemning of him. However, as it is, we realize that Gradgrind believes in utilitarianism, and does not subject children to his system for cruelty’s sake, but for their own. Here lies another difference between Gradgrind and Brocklehurst, as Brocklehurst is a hypocrite, who treats his family much better than the orphaned girls at his school.

One failure of Gradgrind’s ‘System’, which is not wholly understood until the third book of the novel, is the fading decency of Tom (Jnr.). It is clear right from the beginning of the novel that Tom is the only person who Louisa really cares for. Although even from the beginning we realize that although Tom does not quite hold Louisa in the same high regards, he does care for her.

However, as the novel progresses we see his character change. He manipulates Louisa’s relationship with his employer, Mr. Bounderby, for his own gain, and takes advantage of Louisa’s love for him by getting money off her. These newly developed character flaws are the result of the upbringing he suffered, during which he had no emotional outlet and no fun. Dickens calls him ‘The Whelp’ and describes him as ‘a hypocrite’, ‘incapable of governing himself’ and ‘a monster’. It is clear that Dickens does not wish us to like Tom, through the language used to describe him. He brags to Mr. Harthouse about the fact that he convinced Louisa to marry Bounderby, in order to make it much easier for him to work for Bounderby. He is altogether an unsavoury, greedy, manipulative character, but the worst was yet to come.

When he hits cash-flow problems, and Louisa no longer has the money to support his gambling, he resorts to stealing money from the bank. However, worse even than that, he deliberately implicates an innocent man for his crime, a man who consequently dies. Tom’s fate is another way in which Dickens criticises the utilitarian upbringing of the children, as it is clear that Tom’s severe character flaws are a result of a lack of emotional outlet in his childhood.

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Another important point that can be made about Gradgrind is that during the course of the novel, his character changes. We discover that by the end of the novel, he no longer believes in the utilitarian system he held dear for so long. A number of factors influence this change of opinion and character, not the least important being his children, Tom and Louisa. Both were educated under their father’s system and he believed all was well, however, as the story progresses he comes to realize that neither is happy. Louisa, who married Bounderby for her brother’s sake, only comes to realise her unhappiness when Mr. James Harthouse arrives.

However, the first to give her a clue that her education had been inadequate had been her mother on her deathbed, who said that ‘there is something – not an Ology at all – that your father has missed, or forgotten’. At this stage, Louisa does not understand what she means, but her affair with Mr. Harthouse helps her to understand. He gives her a small vision of what life could be like without Bounderby, through his secret courting of her.

Gradgrind is finally enlightened of the unhappiness of Louisa when she comes to visit him and accuses him of ‘robbing me [Louisa] … of the immaterial part of my life, the spring and summer of my belief’. Although she does not wholly blame him (‘I don’t reproach you, … what you have never nurtured in me, you have never nurtured in yourself’), her outburst has a profound affect on Gradgrind, as in Louisa’s downfall he ‘saw the pride of his heart and the triumph of his system, lying, an insensible heap, at his feet’. This was the first time he had seen his system fail, and it started him thinking that there is more to life than fact.

When Gradgrind finally discovers his son’s deception and crime, a change comes over him. He spends a day in his room, considering how the two feelings of pride of his ‘System’ had turned out so wrong, and comes out of the room a different man.

He is described as ‘a wiser man, and a better man, than in the days when in his life he wanted nothing but Facts’. He even saves his son from the law, an act that involved a confrontation with Bitzer, a former pupil and ‘success’ of the System. This final change is another of the main redeeming features of Gradgrind, as he learns from his mistakes, and we learn that his other children are not raised merely on Fact. I think that although his actions were indisputably cruel, he learns from these mistakes and in the end, turns out to be an amiable man.

The change in Gradgrind’s character is the main difference between himself and Mr. Brocklehurst. Although at no point in the novel does Dickens appear to agree with the utilitarian education taught by Gradgrind, and appears to agree with Sleary that ‘the people must be entertained’, he does seem to respect Gradgrind’s belief in his system, and the fact that in the end, he seems remorseful for all the things he has done. In the final chapter, we are told that Gradgrind ends up ‘making his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity, and so we end up liking him more than we did earlier in the novel, when ‘facts alone are wanted in life’. Mr. Brocklehurst, on the other hand, does not change, and Bront� seems to despise him as much at the end as she did at the beginning. For these reasons, I think that Thomas Gradgrind is by far the more amiable of the two, and that he should be respected for his integrity, while Brocklehurst should be scorned for his hypocrisy.

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