“Are you in pain, dear mother?”
“I think there’s a pain somewhere in the room,” said Mrs. Gradgrind, “but I couldn’t positively say that I have got it.”
Mrs. Gradgrind is one of Dickens’s least impressive characters. A “little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily,” for most of the novel she hovers on the verge of extinction, “always taking physic without any effect,” and being “stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her” whenever “she showed a symptom of coming to life” (Hard Times, chapter 4). During her lifetime, Mrs Gradgrind repeatedly demonstrates her inability to sympathize with the feelings of other people. At death’s door, she is finally unable even to identify her own. There’s a “pain somewhere in the room,” she admits to her daughter, but it may or may not belong to her. As a result, she fails the most basic test of personhood in the nineteenth-century novel: the ability to feel and to identify that feeling as one’s own. As James Mill explains in his Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind (1829), “In the very word feeling all that is implied in the word Consciousness is involved.” To feel is to know that one exists. In the absence of the power to claim such feeling, therefore, there is nothing left for Mrs. Gradgrind to do but to die.
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