Thomas Gradgrind

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
Don't tell me, another of Dickens's sadistic schoolmasters?

Not at all. Actually a retired retailer who has generously set up his own school that's run on the Utilitarian model.

Sounds ideal

No, that's Utopian. Utilitarian to Dickens means cramming kids with information. "Facts alone are what's wanted in life," says Gradgrind. His star pupil, Bitzer, can recite seven useless bits of data on the graminivorous quadruped known as a horse (including how many grinders, eye-teeth and incisors you'll find in its mouth).

Hang on, is that on the national curriculum?

This was 1850. You could teach anything you liked in those days. McChoakumchild, who works for Gradgrind, as a licensed fact-crammer, makes sure his pupils know the watershed of every river in the world but is at a loss to explain what exactly a watershed is. As Dickens says: "If he had learnt a little less, how infinitely better he might have taught."

I'm with Dickens on that one

Oh, there's no doubt where our sympathies are supposed to lie. Dickens believed that a practical attitude to life drove out love and imagination. Look at Scrooge who puts money before love, or Dombey who puts the family firm before love. Not that it stopped Dicken making sure he amassed a fortune of his own while publicly detesting the Utilitarian philosophers such as Malthus and Adam Smith.

Is that the same Adam Smith as with Lady T?

Indeed. Dickens definitely belonged to the Victorianchattering classes. He ridiculed market forces in characters such as Gradgrind who, somewhat unsubtly, has sons named Malthus Gradgrind, Adam Smith Gradgrind and Thomas Junior, all brought up knowing a very wide range of facts.

But without spiritual values?

You really are catching on. Young Thomas robs the bank he works for, while his sister enters into a loveless marriage with banker Josiah Bounderby.

And they both come to a bad end?

Tom Jnr frames Stephen Blackpool, an honest weaver, for the heist and Blackpool dies on the run. Meanwhile, Louisa is caught planning to elope with a local dandy. But in the end Gradgrind sees how his emphasis on facts and market forces has driven out the beauty of the human spirit. Instead of retiring to Dulwich and going quietly potty, he sits alone, "a white-haired decrepit man . . . making his facts and figures subservient to Faith, Hope and Charity".

Lady T wouldn't approve

Well, let's face it, Charlie wasa wet.

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