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Mr. Gradgrind’s Teaching Philosophy With Sissy Jupe’s Creativity and Imaginative Thinking

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Satire is a powerful literary tool used by writers and social commentators to entertain and reform by exposing a problem in society, combining comedy and criticism. Classic examples of satirical writing include Moliere’s Tartuffe and Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” but Charles Dickens was also a master of satire. As Moliere satirizes the character of the Jesuits and their hypocrisy and Swift satirizes the English contempt of Irish poverty, Charles Dickens uses satire in Hard Times to target British education’s lack of innovation through the teaching in Mr. Gradgrind’s school, which lacks imagination and critical thinking. In the first two chapters of Hard Times, Dickens ridicules the extreme emphasis on factual knowledge and mathematical analysis in the students’ education. He juxtaposes Mr. Gradgrind’s teaching philosophy with Sissy Jupe’s creativity and imaginative thinking.

Dickens represents his satire in absolute terms, punctuating the absurdity of Mr. Gradgrind’s teaching through extremism. Mr. Gradgrind’s sole emphasis in education is on facts. From the very first sentence he stresses, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else” (Dickens 9). The repetition of the term “Facts,” as well as the consistent capitalization of it, accents the importance of relying on facts in education—and nothing else. Mocking the utilitarian school of thought, Dickens further satirizes the absurdity of only using facts in education at the expense of creativity and imagination. Later in the second chapter, the unnamed gentleman asks the students if they would use a wallpaper on which there are horses to cover the walls of a room. “Of course no,” was the answer to the question, according to the gentleman, “…you are not to see anywhere, what you don’t see in fact; you are not to have anywhere, what you don’t have in fact.

What is called Taste, is only another name for Fact” (13). Again, the capitalization of the final “Fact” emphasizes the importance of it in his answer, taking from the teaching philosophy of Mr. Gradgrind. Later, the gentleman continues the thread of this philosophy by adding, “You must use […] for all these purposes, combinations and modifications (in primary colours) of mathematical figures which are susceptible of proof and demonstration. This is the new discovery. This is fact” (14). The exaggerated emphasis on fact in Mr. Gradgrind’s school can be supported only by mathematical proof and demonstrations. The gentleman specifically mentions primary colors to show that they are the only colors that are acceptable, as primary colors exist without mixing or innovation. Mixing and innovation would involve imagination—which is not allowed at all. The teachers in Mr. Gradgrind’s school make a point to have everything be matter-of-fact and unimaginative, but Dickens presents his satire in such a way as to make their teachings ridiculous by showing the absolutism of that philosophy, highlighting the complete contradiction in their institution: a totally unrealistic teaching approach to teach information solely based in concrete reality and fact.

Mr. Gradgrind and the rest of the teachers in his school only see right and wrong answers, with no acceptance of any thoughts that could be considered up for debate or opinion. Dickens illustrates that “With a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in [Mr. Gradgrind’s] pocket, sir, [he is] ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to” (10). Mr. Gradgrind conducts his entire life strictly through mathematical and factual analysis, with no room for any speculation. Everything is concrete and has a definitive, measurable answer, which he calculates using the tools he always carries with him. Even in the initial description of Mr. Gradgrind, Dickens makes it apparent that he is a square—both figuratively and literally. He describes the teacher as having a “square forefinger,” a “square wall of a forehead,” and a “square coat, square legs, [and] square shoulders” (9). The square shape is a metaphor for Mr. Gradgrind. A square is a very precise shape, which has certain dimensions—ninety-degree angles and sides equal in length. There is no room for error in the dimensions of a square, just as there is no room for debate or opinion for Mr. Gradgrind. The rigidity of the square also represents Mr. Gradgrind’s own rigidness in character and belief.

Sissy Jupe serves as a critical character in the opening two chapters of Hard Times because Dickens uses her as the foil to Mr. Gradgrind. She is not a square in any capacity, but rather a being that is fluid in thought with creative ideas. Dickens highlights the dichotomy between these two characters through his use of names. Sissy is the creative nickname for Cecilia, which consists of unvoiced soft consonants, giving it a more whimsical and light sound. Mr. Gradgrind is a much more formal name, which consists of hard-voiced consonants, making it more rigid and definite. Sissy, being from a society of circus performers, represents the freedom of thought and expression present in imagination and creativity, as depicted by her name. Mr. Gradgrind is the complete opposite; he is from a society of strict factual knowledge based on mathematical analysis, representing a lack of emotion, creativity, and critical thinking. Dickens uses the opposition between the backgrounds and ideologies of Sissy and Mr. Gradgrind to further highlight the lack of imagination and critical thinking in Mr. Gradgrind’s school—the literary microcosm of British education and his satirical target.

Sissy is a juxtaposing power to Mr. Gradgrind, which is why he picks on her and has her answer questions so often during class. Sissy, being aware of her differences in thinking from the rest of Mr. Gradgrind’s pupils, sees her answers as mistakes. Through Dickens’ descriptions, it is clear that Sissy’s answers are in fact not mistakes, but different interpretations of the question asked that stem from extrapolation and experience. When asked to define a horse, Sissy cannot come up with a factual definition, and Mr. Gradgrind is baffled. He then calls on Bitzer, who defines a horse as a “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” (12). This definition is so monotone and scientifically precise, it is almost robotic. Bitzer includes no colorful descriptors and speaks in stark, unimaginative terms, just as Mr. Gradgrind prefers. Although Sissy is embarrassed by her inability to provide a purely factual description, most people would be unable to envision a horse with the absolute facts provided by Bitzer. They would actually have trouble defining it as Mr. Gradgrind wants, without imagining a horse in its beauty rather than its quantitative attributes. In another instance, the teachers ask Sissy if she would carpet her future husband’s room with a flowered pattern. She answers, “If you please sir, I am very fond of flowers […]

It wouldn’t hurt them, sir. They wouldn’t crush and wither if you please, sir. They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant” (13-14). Her answer is practical, as she understands that the flowers are not actually real, and because she loves their beauty, she would benefit from the imaginative aspect of having them on the floor of her home. This is an acceptable answer for Sissy, but because it is not purely factual and scientific, it is considered an impractical response. The gentleman chastises her by telling her that she is wrong because flowers would never be found on the floor of a house, and even though she likes flowers, “You are never to fancy” (14). His answer is solely focused on the practical, with no room for creativity or personal opinion. Dickens includes these anecdotes to show how in Mr. Gradgrind’s society, one must be able to provide a definition or factual claim for everything because the imagination is unwanted, further highlighting the absurdity of the concept that Dickens is satirizing. However, in Sissy’s society, one is able to imagine and think creatively.

Dickens’ further satirizes the exaggerated emphasis on imperial facts in Mr. Gradgrind’s school by the way that the teachers refer to the students. From the beginning, the students are described as “little vessels, then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim” (9). The students are reduced to vessels, and are identified by numbers. Mr. Gradgrind refers to Sissy as “girl number twenty,” accentuating his reliance on mathematics and imperial facts over creative things such as individuals’ names. Dickens’ inclusion of this example of the use of numbers in Mr. Gradgrind’s school further targets the predictable and unimaginative British society through the lack of innovation and creativity in Mr. Gradgrind’s teaching philosophy.

Through the use of satire, Hard Times exposes British education and the utilitarian philosophy of the day. Sissy Jupe is the foil to Mr. Gradgrind, and the juxtaposition of the two characters emphasizes the lack of imagination and critical thinking in Mr. Gradgrind’s school. Dickens uses Mr. Gradgrind’s insistence of only using facts, his squareness, and his purely mathematical approach to life to comment on the absurdity of this British extremism.

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