The story mainly revolves around an individual named Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, who had devoted his life to all things factual and calculated, only to discover in the end the importance of compassion and content in a person’s life. He brings up his children, Louisa and Tom under the same discipline, failing to understand that it has turned Tom into a self-interested man while Louisa suffers from being unable to comprehend her own emotions. However, although the siblings are dissipated towards other individuals, they themselves are very close to each other, as Tom concludes that his sister is the only person in his life that he cares about.
At the beginning of the plot, Mr. Gradgrind is shown to be teaching a class on the importance of facts in a school that he himself has founded. He calls out student no. 20 and asks her to state her name. On learning that her father has nicknamed her Sissy, Mr. Gradgrind is incredulous, even furthermore when she discloses that he works as a horse-rider in a circus. Nevertheless, Sissy Jupe, or Cecelia, is taught that there is no room for ridiculous nicknames and flower adorned carpets in this world and that she must remember not to be tempted by fanciness.
Readers are also introduced to another major character of ‘Hard Times’, a friend of Thomas Gradgrind, Mr. Josiah Bounderby. A wealthy banker and merchant, Mr. Bounderby has always insisted that he is the origin of the term, ‘self-made man’; that after being left in the dumps by his mother, he had only himself to take support from to reach the success he is today. He is present during Mr. Gradgrind’s class and insists that Sissy Jupe is withdrawn from school premises so as to prevent her from encouraging other students onto deviating from facts as well. They take off towards her home to inform her father of this but find out that Sissy’s father has left her behind and fled, leaving behind a destitute daughter with no means. However, it is heavily implied that he has done so in order to give her a better chance at life. And indeed, Mr. Gradgrind has a change of mind and decides to take her in as a ward. It is a difficult choice for Sissy to make since as a condition, she would have to leave behind the circus that she grew up in but in the end, Sissy agrees to become a member of the Gradgrind family.
After showing a preview of the norms and lifestyle of the members of the Gradgrind family, the narrative takes a shift towards the lower-class people of the society, the laborers, also known as ‘The Hands’. Stephen Blackpool is an honest and hardworking worker who may not have much intelligence but does have a good heart. He harbors affections for a fellow worker named Rachel, whom he has known for quite some time now. After the working hours are over, they walk home together and make small conversation about their lives. Coming from impoverished backgrounds, the laborers are given small and dirty quarters to live in. Stephen does not own a house; he lives in an upstairs room of a shop, paying rent to an old woman.
Although he wishes to marry Rachel and it is shown that she too has a romantic interest in him, he is bound due to the fact that he is already married to a woman who leaves him from time to time, even for years at hauls. After seeing off Rachel, Stephen returns to his room only to find his wife returned from god-knows-where in a drunken and handicapped manner. She passes out in front of him and he is left to take care of her despite his reluctance.
The story switches back to the Gradgrind family where Louisa and her father are having a conversation about her future. Mr. Bounderby has sent a proposal of marriage for Louisa despite him being twice his age and both father and daughter discuss the benefits and drawbacks of such a potential relationship. Instead of showing any form of emotion, Louisa asks her father’s opinion on the matter who insists that the disparity in age is not important, rather the other facts involved should be considered. When he asks her to make a decision, she dismisses the importance of the matter and agrees without enthusiasm. Her offhanded remarks irritate Mr. Gradgrind although, ironically, it is he who has taught her to regard matters in such a manner. The rest of the family is elated except for Sissy Jupe who is the only one to remotely understand the confused mixture of emotions behind Louisa’s proud demeanor.
Years pass away and many of the characters have moved on to newer positions. The former Louisa Gradgrind is now Mrs. Bounderby. Instead of showing her own narrative, she is judged from the perspective of a new character, a young Mr. James Harthouse who is to join the Gradgrind School as a teacher of mathematics. Although he comes from a promising background as the younger brother of a Member of Parliament, he is aimless and ventures into teaching not as a vocation but more as a hobby. He befriends his employer’s son, Tom who is now working at Bounderby’s bank as an employee. From a disinterested young man, he has now turned into a greedy and dishonorable adult who has no affections for any person whosoever except for his sister. He takes a liking to Mr. Harthouse due to his expensive clothes and openly criticizes Mr. Bounderby in front of him. He even goes as far as disclosing to him that it is only for his sake that Louisa had agreed to marry Mr. Bounderby. As Tom gets even more drunk at the pub, he reveals even more and more secrets and thus without intending to, he has made his sister an object of interest to Mr. Harthouse who is now determined to meet the unhappy wife of Mr. Bounderby.
And he does. Mr. Harthouse has Tom take him to meet the Bounderbys. While he is at there, Stephen Blackpool arrives on the premises and another concurring event is explained. The Hands have been rebelling against their employers by demanding to form a trade union that would secure them better wages and living conditions. However, Stephen disapproves of the union as he correctly believes that such a rebellion would worsen the situation. He is brought in front of the Bounderbys and Mr. Bounderby, in an attempt to prove a point to Mr. Harthouse about the lower-class mentality, orders Stephen to spy on the fellow workers. His plan backfires though when Stephen refuses to do so in the name of integrity. Mr. Bounderby is offended and accuses Stephen of being a traitor, firing him from his job at once. Now unemployed, Stephen Blackpool decides to leave Coketown.
The taciturn but observant Louisa makes an appointment with Stephen before he leaves town, assisting him with financials means as she believes he has been unjustly treated. Tom accompanies his sister and after the transaction, he offers help of his own. He tells Stephen that if he loiters outside the bank for a few nights, he will be provided with assistance. The advice is actually a ploy. Naïve Stephen follows Tom’s orders but when even after waiting for a few nights, help does not arrive, he leaves town. Soon after his departure, the bank is robbed and everybody begins to raise questions about Stephen’s suspicious activities from the nights before the robbery.
Meanwhile, Mr. Harthouse has successfully seduced Louisa who agrees to meet him at night. This encounter is witnessed by Mrs. Sparsit, a bitter employee at the bank. However, instead of meeting him that night, Louisa instead returns to her former house and accuses her father of raising her to be a woman who willfully agreed to a loveless marriage. Watching his daughter in such a miserable state, Mr. Gradgrind finally starts to understand the errors of his ways. Sissy, who still lives with the Gradgrinds, meets with Mr. Harthouse to convince him to not ruin Louisa’s reputation.
The story is now progressing at a faster pace. Stephen returns home to clear himself off blame only to die in an unfortunate accident by falling down a mining pit. Louisa finds him with the help of Rachel but fails to save him. However, she does figure out who the culprit is: Tom. She and her father try to help Tom escape out of the country and are successful, except for a minor barrier in the form of Bitzer, Mr. Gradgrind’s pupil, who now refuses to empathize, having been taught to only rationalize.
Tom escapes only to never return. Mr. Gradgrind gives up on his factual ways and tries his hand in charity. Louis leaves Mr. Bounderby for good whose deceit has been caught; his mother had never left him, rather she had been deserted by his son. Sissy marries and has a huge family, a home filled with love and merriment.