Throughout the whole book, Dickens refers to Louisa’s suppressed spirit, but it is particularly evident in Book One. When Louisa is first introduced in chapter 3, “a Loophole”, Louisa is described as, “struggling through the dissatisfaction of her face, there was a light with nothing to rest upon, a fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life itself somehow..” This description suggests that Louisa has not been completely manipulated by her father’s moulding and she still has life inside her, she just needs to know how to express and handle her emotions, which her father has never taught her to do. This is ironic as he has taught her facts upon facts about things she will probably never need to know. Dickens is highlighting the fact that Gradgrind’s utilitarian way of thinking does not account for the feelings of individual humans.
Louisa is beginning to emerge as a fault in Mr Gradgrind’s system which he believes to be flawless. In chapter 4, “Mr Bounderby”, Mrs Gradgrind questions why Louisa went to the circus when she has enough to do with all the facts at home. Louisa says “that’s the reason!” suggesting that she is trying to let out her emotions and get away from the facts she has been forced to live by. However, her family are unable to recognise these emotions and ignore her, “don’t tell me that’s the reason, because it can be nothing of the sort.” Dickens uses the metaphor comparing Louisa’s suppressed character to fire again, to a greater extent, in chapter 8, “never wonder”.
Throughout the scene she is “sat in the darker corner by the fireside…looking at the bright sparks as they dropped upon the hearth” showing the fire is captivating her. She gazes into it, “as if she were reading what she asked, in the fire, and it were not quite plainly written there,” this suggests she can see more than just fire in it. Her mind is able to comprehend more than just simple facts. She can see things for more than just what they are, which is a huge criticism of Gradgrind’s methods as he has taught his own children as models for others, and now Louisa is not conforming to his teaching. Louisa says to her mother, “I was encouraged by nothing, mother, but by looking at the red sparks dropping out of the fire, and whitening and dying. It made me think, after all, how short my life would be, and how little I could hope to do in it.”
To Louisa, these sparks represent her life going nowhere. They also represent her emotions and feelings – as soon as she feels anything it’s very unfamiliar and she doesn’t know how to handle it, so the emotions just die out and fade away. The chapter title alone is ironic and Dickens is using it to undermine Gradgrind’s methods. Louisa says, “I often sit here wondering” which again shows she has not been completely influenced by her father and is rebelling against his strict education. Eventually, Louisa’s inner fire and suppressed spirit become destructive and begin to burn “within her like an unwholesome fire.” Dickens is here suggesting the importance of imagination and emotion by showing the consequences of their restraint.
Fire is also presented in another element of the book – the factories and industries in Coketown. Gradgrind’s teaching methods are a parallel to Coketown. “It was a town of red brick, or a brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black…” also applies to the people in the education system. They would all be individual if it was not for the mechanical method by which they are taught. But they have all been changed into a multiple of something they’re not. All of the buildings are painted the same, and you don’t know what’s inside, “all the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in the severe characters of black and white”. This is similar to the pupils in the model school who are all manufactured to fit one moulded person so you don’t know what they’re actually like inside.
Dickens sets up a link between Louisa and Coketown and the monotony in both her life and everyday life in the city. In chapter 15 the narrator describes, “The distant smoke very black and heavy” coming out of the factories. This highlights the bad products that the workers are producing. It suggests a darker side to the mechanism, on top of the good for the richer people. This echoes the fact that even though the model school is churning out many “model” pupils who fit Gradgrind’s ideal human, it also produces people like Louisa, who feel suppressed and don’t know how to handle their foreign emotions. Louisa says, “There seems to be nothing there, but languid and monotonous smoke.
Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out, father!” This is her way of trying to express to her father that she has life inside her, but he is unable to recognize the parallel she is trying to draw between the facts and herself. He says plainly “I do not see the application of the remark.” Gradgrind’s “eminently practical” philosophy has made him unable to grasp these emotions which are vital to human beings.
Mr Gradgrind’s utilitarian thinking has a strong effect on the way Louisa and her Family relate to one another. The Gradgrind family are dysfunctional and unable to communicate in a normal way. Louisa is the only person who feels any sort of emotion and she is completely incapable of expressing them to any of her family, except for Tom. Louisa’s relationship with Sissy is another way Dickens undermines Gradgrind. In chapter 9, “Sissy’s Progress”, Sissy says, “it would be a fine thing to be you, Miss Louisa…I should not be the worse”, to which Louisa says, “I do not know that”. This is a good example of Dickens using Louisa to challenge Gradgrinds way of thinking. She is saying she is not happy with herself and her life which Gradgrind perceives to be unblemished. Louisa is fascinated by the relationship between Sissy and her father. She asks, “did your father love her…
Tell me more about him…And you were his comfort through everything?…And your father was always kind? To the last?” She repeatedly questions her about this relationship, “with a strong, wild, wondering interest peculiar to her…contravening the great principle, and wondering very much.” Sissy has allowed Louisa to let out her emotions for the first time, “an interest gone astray like a banished creature, and hiding in solitary places.”
She is so captivated by their bond as she has never been exposed to such a relationship with her father. Louisa would love to be close to her father like Sissy was with hers. Whilst talking to Sissy, “Louisa has a brighter laugh than usual” showing that Sissy makes her happy. Mr Gradgrind thinks Sissy is a bad example for his children, when in fact she is making Louisa happier and brings her out of her shell. Louisa admires Sissy and her ability to voice her feelings, but she is also jealous of her, “You are more useful to my mother, and more pleasant with her than I can ever be…you are pleasanter to yourself than I am to myself” Gradgrind’s own daughter is jealous of someone who has not been moulded by his manipulative education.