Hard times is set in an industrial city called Coketown. Thomas Gradgrind is a wealthy man who runs a school and devotes his life to FACTS. He raises his oldest children, Louisa and Tom according to his philosophy. Gradgrind founds a school and charitably takes in one of the students, Cecilia (Sissy) Jupe, a kind and imaginative girl after the disappearance of her father, a circus entertainer.
As Gradgrind’s children grow older, Tom is troubled and Louis struggles with her emotions and inner confusion. Later Louisa marries Josiah Bounderby, her father’s friend who is a wealthy factory owner and banker more than twice her age. Bounderby claims he had a difficult childhood as his mother abandoned him in the gutter. Tom is apprenticed at the Bounderby bank and Sissy remains at the Gradgrind home to care for the younger children and Mrs Gradgrind.
Meanwhile Stephen Blackpool, one of the lower classed people of Coketown struggles with his love for Rachael, another poor factory worker. He is unable to marry her because he is already married to a nasty, drunken woman who disappears for long periods of times. Stephen visits Bounderby to ask about the divorce but finds out only the wealthy can obtain them.
On his way out he meets Mrs. Pegler. A strange, old woman who has an odd interest towards Bounderby.
James Harthouse, a young and wealthy man arrives in Coketown to begin a political career. He takes an interest towards Louisa and is immediately love struck by her.
Before Mrs Gradgrind's death, she calls Louisa to her to explain that she feels like she has missed something and that she wants to write a letter to Mr Gradgrind asking him to find out what it is. Soon after Mrs Gradgrind sadly passes away.