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Hard Times is set in and around Coketown, a fictitious, Victorian mill town in the North of England. A town of red brick, machinery, and tall chimneys. A town blackened by soot, shrouded in mist, and choked by smoke. The working men and women of Coketown, referred to generally as "Hands" as if they were merely extensions of the machinery they operate, and not individuals with loves and likes, memories and inclinations, souls to weary and souls to hope.
Among the masters of Coketown are the boastful and blusterous Josiah Bounderby, mill owner and banker; and the founder of the Coketown school, Thomas Gradgrind, a man of rigid facts and calculations; Gradgrind's children, Louisa and Tom, are model examples of his educational system: replete with facts and useful knowledge, and without a taint of fancy.
Other characters include the highly connected Mrs. Sparsit; and the tender-hearted circus girl, Sissy Jupe, and the genial circus master, Sleary, whose entertainments provide relief from the monotony of Coketown life.
Hard Times is Charles Dickens' tenth and the shortest of his full-length novels. It was first published as a serial in the weekly publication, Household Words, between April and August 1854.