It doesn't take long into this book to really feel the grime, grit, and bleakness of a small English manufacturing town, covered with coal dust and soot, where most people's lives belong to the factories and owners.
This is really the backdrop, though, for what is going on with the main protagonists, Thomas Gradgrind, and his friend, Josiah Bounderby, both wealthy, both in control of their lives and those around them. Mr. Gradgrind raises his children at home, filling them with facts, so much so that there is no allowance for dreaming, wishing, reading novels, anything not based on facts.
Mr. Bounderby is a self-made man, and reminds those around him incessantly of that fact -- abandoned by his mother, scraping out an existence, to finally make himself what he is today, a wealthy manufacturer and banker.
By the end of the book, each man receives his comeuppance in his own way, and at least Mr. Gradgrind is the better for it. Meanwhile, the story details the inequities of the rich and poor, part of which rests in the way the rich think of and treat the poor, yet at least some of the poor have qualities the rich will never attain.
Dickens is quite the creator of interesting characters, one of whom, Mr. Sleary, provides the challenge of reading through the depiction of his lisp, "Well, Thquire", he returned... "Ith it your intenthion to do anything for the poor girl, Thquire?" Some of Mr. Sleary's long-winded moments are a bit mind-numbing to read, seeming like a poor trick Dickens plays on his readers.
It may be a bit syrupy and sappy in the end, but overall very satisfying.