Symbolism of Geometry in Dickens’ Hard Times

May 10, 2019 by Essay Writer

In Charles Dickens’ literary satire, Hard Times, geometry–especially that of squares and circles–serves an important thematic function. The “man of hard facts,” Thomas Gradgrind, has a “square forefinger,” “square wall of a forehead,” and a “square coat, square legs, square shoulders.” (11) The very schoolroom in which Gradgrind teaches is described as “plain, bare, monotonous vault” (11)–this again evoking a square–on an inclined plane, with lines of children filling the room. In contrast, Sleary’s circus, where Sissy Jupe comes from, suggests an ongoing, perfect circle, that never changes. Even when the reader visits the carefree and lively circus a decade after Sissy first attends Gradgrind’s model school, the same clowns performing in the circus and Sissy herself are still present. Thus, Dickens uses the geometry of shapes to demonstrate the differences in lifestyle between the hard-edged, “square” Gradgrind, and the vivacious, “circular” Sissy. In geometry, a circle is a figure with no starting points or ending points, and can be rotated any way and look the same. Sissy, who has grown up in the circus ring, represents imagination, independence, and, most important, endurance. At the start of Hard Times, the dark-eyed and dark-haired girl is not very smart, but content; she expresses her creativity–not her ability to recite facts–through her dreams of a carpet that “was very pretty and pleasant” (16). By referencing her circus roots, Dickens reminds the reader that “happy Sissy’s happy children [loved] her” even after a decade has passed in the novel (292). Compared to the Gradgrind children and model students, Sissy is quite probably the most stable character in the novel, because the never-ending pulse of circus life has ultimately shaped her into an individual of perfect, eternal love; Dickens reinforces this by continually referring to the circular aspect of the ring. While others change around Sissy, she offers guidance, as she does to Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa, even when she admits that she hated Sissy, responding: “‘I have always loved you, and have always wished that you should know it’” (224). The perfection and continuity of a circle suits the personality of the reliable Sissy Jupe. Conversely, Thomas Gradgrind has become emotionally hardened by his mantra: “Stick to Facts, sir!” (11) Like the square that Dickens so often compares him to, he is rigid, sharp, and like a box for holding facts and knowledge. Gradgrind has no support or sympathy for his daughter Louisa, or any other human being: all he essentially wants to accomplish is filling “the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged [at his school]” with “imperial gallons of facts…until they were full to the brim” (12). However, the appearance of Sissy Jupe immediately begins to melt away the corners of his box-shaped heart. Early in the novel, Dickens uses the word “square” to describe Gradgrind and his household at least ten times, but as the novel progresses as Sissy begins to take an active role in his life, the reader notices the word less and less. Gradgrind begins to regain his redemption from insensitivity by letting Sissy stay at his model school and house very early in the novel. By the end of Hard Times, Sissy’s influence on his household has affected him deeply; he allows Louisa to come back home after her disastrous marriage fails, but most importantly, he learns to ask for kindness and he realizes his failure as a teacher of all things factual. The cold, calculating, and determined Bitzer, a former model pupil of Gradgrind’s, is willing to sacrifice Gradgrind’s son Tom Junior for his own betterment, but Gradgrind surprisingly feels compassion for his son and asks for compassion: “ ‘Is [your heart, Bitzer,] accessible,’ cried Mr. Gradgrind, ‘to any compassionate influence?’” (281) Formerly, the square and sensible Gradgrind would have never begged for help, but under the influence of Sissy, Gradgrind pleads and realizes the mistake of his utilitarian schooling system. In the first two chapters of Hard Times, the reader immediately sees the stark difference between the severity of the cubic schoolroom and the lively circus. While Sissy Jupe infects and changes all with the virtue she carries from the circus–which carries on even without her–Gradgrind initially stifles the imagination of his young schoolchildren and pours facts into their box-like minds. However, Sissy, who is the catalyst of change, manages to transform the character, the shape, of her employer. Sissy melts the hard edges of Gradgrind’s square façade into a loving, kind human being, who in turn becomes part of the circle of life.

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