The Father Buried His Face in His Hands,

"The Father Buried His Face in His Hands, And the Son Stood in His Disgraceful Grotesqueness Biting Straw." by Charles S. Reinhart. 1844-1896. 13.2 cm wide by 10.4 cm high (full-page, horizontally mounted, with text above and below on a page 24 cm high by16.2 cm wide). This plate illustrates Charles Dickens's Hard Times, which appeared in American Household Edition, 1870. Page 224.

Throughout Reinhart's pictorial programme, Thomas Gradgrind (depicted in detail five times) is something of a "joke" figure until almost the end. In Plate 2, he is a wooden, black column (shades of Charlotte Brontë's description of the Reverend Mr. Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre, perhaps) who cannot see what is immediately before him (his children peeping through a hole in the circus tent) without the aid of his monocle. Complementing this depiction of monocular vision, Reinhart implies that Gradgrind's physical stiffness is a metaphor for his Utilitarian dogmatism and mental inflexibility. Gradgrind's misshapen, bald skull (reminiscent of the skulls of the precursors of homo erectus), bristling eyebrows, and hooked nose impart a bird-like quality in plate 3. In the sixth plate, illustrating his marriage proposal to Louisa on Bounderby's behalf, Gradgrind's skull is noticeably indented on the top, as if he had an extra brain, as he discounts the importance of mutual affection in a marriage. In the thirteenth plate, however, Gradgrind is, as Dickens observes he should be, "much softened" by recent experiences and much more human in aspect, as he puts his hand to his brow to signify his despondency at the failure of rational knowledge (suggested by the map behind his head) to produce happy, well-adjusted children in his own house. This is the chastened figure of a father who candidly admits to his personal and political ally (and unnaturally old son-in-law whom Louisa has just left for good) that "we are all liable to mistakes" (Book III, Ch. 3).

We come, then, to a "forlorn" Gradgrind, bent over, humiliated but ultimately humanised by despair in the fifteenth and final plate, appalled by his failure to inculcate any sense of morality in his eldest son. The "whelp" himself is characteristically biting a straw as he stands apart from the concerned group of Louisa (right), Sissy (hand extended, comforting Gradgrind), and the grieving father. In the centre of the sawdust ring, as in Dickens's text, Gradgrind sits in the performing clown's chair, for fortune has exposed the utter folly of his "system" of education and child-rearing, and he is Fortune's fool indeed. In contrast to his respectably dressed sister and father, Tom is still clad in his disguise, the "comic livery" (Book III, Ch. 7) of one of Jack's black-faced servants in "Jack the Giant Killer." While the figures of Sissy and Louisa are primarily white, Tom is thoroughly black. The ill-fitting, outlandish outfit specified by the text -- including exaggerated waistcoat, the mad cocked hat, and beadle's coat with immense cuffs and pock-flaps -- is not as repulsive in its total effect visually as Dickens insists it should be "grimly, detestably, ridiculously shameful." What Reinhart is successful in suggesting, through Tom's posture, is his lack of concern for those who care about him; he is withdrawn, and does not even glance in their direction. Already, however, he has in fact come down from the benches into the ring, and confessed to the robbery, so that Reinhart has conflated the moment of description (when Tom is still on the back benches) with the moment indicated by the caption, immediately after Tom, like a good (i. e., amoral, logical) Utilitarian, has archly pleaded statistical necessity for his violating the trust of his employer. To this shuffling off of personal responsibility for the crime (which, in implicating an innocent man, has caused that man's death), "Gradgrind buried his face in his hands," while, descending the Darwinian scale of evolution (Origin of Species having been published in 1859 but The Descent of Man in 1871, after the Household edition of Hard Times, one could make too much of the simian imagery in Dickens's text, but Reinhart's illustration at least post-dates the dawn of Darwinism), his monkey-pawed son bites his straw. But in Reinhart's characterisation of Tom there is no redeeming white in either his hands or face; the artist's depicting Tom with utterly seamless, black pigmentation implies no likelihood of redemption for Gradgrind's prodigal son.

Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Houfe, Simon. The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors' Club, 1978.

Pennell, Joseph. The Adventures of An Illustrator Mostly in Following His Authors in America and Europe. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1925.

Last modified 22 September 2002