Two close friends live in the city of Kokstown - if you can talk about friendship between people who are equally deprived of warm human feelings. Both of them are located at the top of the social ladder: and Josiah Bounderby, “a famous rich man, banker, merchant, manufacturer”; and Thomas Gradgrand, “a man of sober mind, obvious facts and accurate calculations,” who becomes a member of parliament from Coxstown.

Mr. Gradgreen, who worshiped only facts, and his children (there were five) raised in the same spirit. They never had toys - just textbooks; they were forbidden to read fairy tales, poems and novels and generally to touch what is not connected with immediate benefit, but can wake the imagination and is related to the sphere of feelings. Desiring to spread his method as widely as possible, he organized a school on these principles.

Perhaps the worst student in this school was Sessie Joop, daughter of a circus juggler, magician and clown. She believed that flowers, not just geometric figures, could be depicted on carpets, and openly said that she was from the circus, which word was considered indecent in this school. They even wanted to expel her, but when Mr. Gradgrynd came to the circus to announce this, the flight of Sessy's father and his dog was heatedly discussed there. Sessi's father was old and worked in the arena is not as good as in his youth; he heard applause less and less, more and more often he made mistakes. His colleagues had not yet bitterly reproached him, but in order not to live to see this, he fled. Sessy was left alone. And, instead of driving Sessie out of school, Thomas Gradgrand took her to his house.

Session was very friendly with Louise, the eldest daughter of Gradgrand, until she agreed to marry Josiah Bounderby. He is only thirty years older than her (he is fifty, she is twenty), “fat, loud; his eyes are heavy, his laughter is metallic. ” Louise was persuaded by brother Tom to this marriage, for whom his sister's marriage promised many benefits - a very tireless job at the Bounderby Bank, which would allow him to leave the hated native home, bearing the expressive name "Stone Shelter", a good salary, freedom. Tom perfectly learned the lessons of his father's school: benefit, gain, lack of feelings. Louise, on the other hand, apparently lost interest in life from these lessons. She agreed to the marriage with the words: "Is it all the same?"

In the same city, weaver Steven Blackpool lives, a simple worker, an honest man. He is unhappy in marriage - his wife is a drunkard, a completely fallen woman; but in England, divorce does not exist for the poor, as his master Bounderby, to whom he came for advice, explains to him. So Stephen is destined to carry his cross on, and he can never marry Rachel, whom she loves for a long time. Stephen curses such a world order - but Rachel begs not to say such words and not to participate in any unrest leading to his change. He promises. Therefore, when all the workers join the United Tribunal, Stephen alone does not do this, for which the leader of the Tribunal, Slackbridge, calls him a traitor, a coward and an apostate and suggests ostracizing him. Upon learning of this, Stephen calls the owner, judging that it would be nice to make a rejected and offended worker a scammer. Stephen's categorical refusal leads to the fact that Bounderby dismisses him with a wolf ticket. Stephen announces that he is forced to leave the city. The conversation with the owner takes place in the presence of his household: the wife of Louise and her brother Tom. Louise, imbued with sympathy for the unjustly offended worker, secretly goes to his house to give him money, and asks her brother to accompany her. At Stephen, they find Rachel and an unfamiliar old woman who introduces herself as Mrs. Pegler. Stephen meets her for the second time in her life at the same place: at Bounderby’s house; a year ago, she asked him about whether he was healthy, whether his master looked good, now she is interested in his wife. The old woman is very tired, kind Rachel wants to give her tea; so she is with Stephen. Stephen refuses to take money from Louise, but thanks her for the good impulse. Before leaving, Tom takes Stephen to the stairs and in private promises him a job, which is why he needs to wait at the bank in the evenings: the messenger will give him a note. For three days, Stephen regularly waits, and, without waiting for anything, leaves the city.

Meanwhile, Tom, having escaped from the Stone Shelter, leads a reckless lifestyle and gets entangled in debt. At first, Louise paid his debts, selling her jewelry, but everything comes to an end: she has no more money.

Tom and especially Louise are closely watched by Mrs. Sparsit, the former housekeeper of Bounderby, who, after her master’s marriage, takes up the position of bank supervisor. Mr. Bounderby, who likes to repeat that he was born in a ditch, that his mother left him, and brought up the street and he achieved everything with his mind, is terribly flattered by the allegedly aristocratic origin of Mrs. Sparsit, who lives exclusively by his graces. Mrs. Sparsit hates Louise, apparently because she is aiming for her place - or at least very afraid to lose hers. With the advent of James Harthouse in the city, a bored gentleman from London who intends to run for parliament from Cockstown County to strengthen his "party of exact numbers", she increases vigilance. Indeed, a London dandy by all rules of art besieges Louise, groping her Achilles heel - love for his brother. She is ready to talk about Tom for hours, and behind these conversations, young people are gradually getting closer. After a meeting with Harthouse in private, Louise is scared of herself and returns to her father's house, announcing that she will not return to her husband. Sessi, whose warmth of soul warms the whole Stone Shelter now, is caring for her. Moreover, Sessi on her own initiative goes to Harthouse to convince him to leave the city and not persecute Louise anymore, and she succeeds.

When the news of the bank robbery spread, Louise fainted: she was sure that Tom had done it. But suspicion falls on Stephen Blackpool: after all, it was he who was on duty at the bank for three days in the evenings, after which he disappeared from the city. Enraged by Louise’s flight and the fact that Stephen was never found, Bounderby spreads an announcement throughout the city with Stephen’s signs and a promise of reward to the one who would betray the thief. Rachel, unable to bear slander against Stephen, goes first to Bounderby, and then, together with him and Tom, to Louise and talks about Stephen's last evening in Coctown, about the arrival of Louise and Tom, and about the mysterious old woman. Louise confirms this. In addition, Rachel reports that she sent Steven a letter and he is about to return to the city to justify himself.

But days go by days, and Stephen does not come. Rachel is very worried, Sessie, with whom she became friends, as much as possible, supports her. On Sunday, they drive from the smoky, stinky industrial Coxtown out of town for a walk and accidentally find Stephen's hat in a huge scary pit - at Devil's Mine. They raise the alarm, organize rescue operations - and dying Stephen is dragged out of the mine. Upon receiving Rachel's letter, he hurried to Cockstown; saving time, went straight ahead. Workers in the crowd curse the mines, which claimed their lives and health while acting, and continue to carry away when abandoned. Stephen explains that he was on duty at the bank at the request of Tom, and dies without releasing Rachel's hand. Tom manages to escape.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Sparsit, wanting to show her zeal, finds a mysterious old woman. It turns out that this is the mother of Josiah Bounderby, who by no means abandoned him in infancy; she kept a hardware store, educated her son, and was very proud of his successes, meekly accepting his command not to appear next to him. She also proudly announced that her son takes care of her and sends thirty pounds annually. The myth of Josiah Bounderby from Cockstown, who made himself, rising from the mud, collapsed. The immorality of the manufacturer became apparent. The perpetrator of this Mrs. Sparsit has lost a warm and satisfying place for which she fought so hard.

At the Stone Shelter, the families are embarrassed and wonder where Tom could hide. When Mr. Gradgrand decides to send his son away abroad, Sessie tells where he is: she invited Tom to hide in the circus in which her father had once worked. Indeed, Tom is hidden securely: it is impossible to recognize him in the makeup and costume of the arap, although he is constantly in the arena. Mr. Sliri, the owner of the circus, helps Tom get rid of the chase. In response to the gratitude of Mr. Gradgrind, Mr. Sliri replies that he once did him a favor by taking Sessi, and now it is his turn.

Tom safely reaches South America and sends letters of remorse from there.

Immediately after the departure of Tom, Mr. Gradgraynd puts up posters calling the true culprit of the theft and washing away the stain of libel from the name of the late Stephen Blackpool. Having become an old man in a week, he becomes convinced of the failure of his education system based on accurate facts and turns to humanistic values, trying to force figures and facts to serve faith, hope and love.