Hard Times is set in the imaginary industrial town of Coketown, the soulless domain of the strict Gradgind and the heartless factory owner Bounderby. The eminently practical Mr. Gradgrind, teaches nothing but facts, eradicating any imaginative or aesthetic subjects from the curriculum, while analysis, deduction and mathematics are emphasised. Mr. Bounderby himself superintends through calculating tabular statements and statistics, and is always secretly rebuking the people of Coketown for indulging in conceitful activities. Human joy is seen as the open-hearted and affectionate people act as an antidote to the ruthless behaviour Dickens presents.
Hard Times appraises English society and highlights the social and economic pressures of the times. Dickens wished to confront the assumption that prosperity runs parallel to morality, a notion which is systematically deconstructed in this novel through his portrayal of the moral monsters, Mr. Bounderby and James Harthouse. Dickens was also campaigning for the importance of imagination in life, and for people's lives to not be reduced to a collection of material facts and statistical analyses.