Hard Times is perhaps the most famous of the “industrial novels” of the mid-Victorian period. It was inspired both by Dickens’ own factory-work experience as a child laborer and by a visit through the “miles of cinder-paths and blazing furnaces and roaring steam engines” of the Victorian-era Midlands.
Carlyle regularly bemoaned the Industrial Revolution. One particularly evocative letter decried the same Midlands as “A frightful scene ... a dense cloud of pestilential smoke hangs over it forever ... and at night the whole region becomes like a volcano spitting fire from a thousand tubes of brick.”
Hard Times’ Thomas Gradgrind is a caricature of James Mill—John Stuart’s father—the early proponent of utilitarianism, who famously educated his son in an All Facts, All the Time system of education not unlike the Gradgrind school. Like Gradgrind’s daughter Louisa, John Stuart suffered a nervous breakdown in early adulthood, finding his way to recovery through the poetry denied him in his youth. John Stuart's version of utilitarianism would be significantly more nuanced than his father's, incorporating something like the Aristotelian Principle into a conception of qualitative hedonism.
And Nice Work—set in the same Midlands, at the nadir of British industrialization—is a spoof of/homage to the Victorian industrial novel generally and Hard Times specifically.
It was a couple of years later, when I’d reread Dickens’ Hard Times as part of a course on the Victorian novel that I really started to understand.
As you might expect from such a grouping of professors, we read an eclectic mix: Dickens, Carlyle, Macauley, Mill, Engels, Tennyson, Meredith, Bentham, Ricardo, the Brontës, Malthus ... and a bunch of others that I'm forgetting at the moment. That's where I first learned that Gradgrand and Bounderby were Dickens' take on Mill and Bentham. It's also where I gained a real appreciation for the fact that none of these writers worked in a vacuum.