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Representation of Industrialisation in Dickens’ “Hard times”

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Charles Dickens uses his fictitious town in Hard Times to represent the industrialization of England at that time or close to it. Most of this representation, however, isn’t accurately described compared the way things really were during industrialization. It is important to remember throughout this paper that not only is Hard Times a work of fiction, it was meant to be a satire, a parody of ideas and ways of thinking at the time. In most respects, it wasn’t meant to accurately describe the way things were.

Dickens covers up his parody with a realistic and extremely accurate depiction of the typical industrial town. Coketown is described to be the very picture of conformity, with all the buildings looking like one another. “It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.” It also isn’t just the factories that look this way; the bank and even Bounderby’s house look just like the rest of them. “The Bank offered no violence to the wholesome monotony of the town. It was another red brick house, with black outside shutters, green inside blinds, a black street-door up two white steps, a brazen door-plate, and a brazen door-handle full stop.”

There is also the recurring image of the massive amount of smoke from all the factories. “It as a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled.” “The Fairy Palaces burst into illumination before pale morning showed the monstrous serpents of smoke trailing themselves over Coketown.”

According to Marcus, Dickens may have used the existing town of Manchester as a model for the future Coketown. “On November 6, 1838, Charles Dickens made his first visit to Manchester…. His first surviving remarks on the experience occur in a letter written to E. M. Fitzgerald at the end of December. ‘So far as seeing goes,’ he stoutly affirmed, ‘I have seen enough for my purpose, and what I have seen has disgusted and astonished me beyond all measure. I mean to strike the heaviest blow in my power for these unfortunate creatures….’ The blow was a long time in getting delivered…; it came finally in the publication of Hard Times” In a way, Dickens took it upon himself to do much as Sinclair did with The Jungle; he wrote the book to expose the evils that existed and were going on in order to force people to realize them and get something done about it.

For the factories themselves, Dickens doesn’t give much of a description of the inside. In fact, the only time the reader is taken inside of one to see the character Stephen Blackpool at work just as he’s leaving. “A clattering of clogs upon the pavement, a rapid ringing of bells, and al the melancholy mad elephants, polished and oiled up for the day’s monotony, were at their heavy exercise again…. A special contrast, as every man was in the forest of looms where Stephen worked, to the crashing, smashing, tearing piece of mechanism at which he laboured…. The work went on, until the noon-bell rang…. The looms, and wheels, and Hands all out of gear for an hour.” Aside from that, all the description is either of the outside (in great detail) or what the factories do in the greater perspective. It’s as if during Dickens’ visit to Manchester he never bothered inside a factory, only watching them from the outside

One subject that Dickens’ abandons almost entirely is that of child labour. One can miss the one place Dickens’ even gives it existence if they’re not paying attention: ” The bells had rung for knocking off for the night, and had ceased again; and the Hands, men and women, boy and girl, were clattering home.” Other than that single sentence, children go to school and adults go to work according to Dickens’ world. Considering he is the author of the classic Oliver Twist, this is surprising. One could argue that he didn’t want to acknowledge the subject, but he had in past works. Child labour was also not an uncommon thing.” The employment of masses of children was the foundation of modern industry and had become the most important feature of English life.” This is definitely an aspect of industrialization that was greatly ignored.

While the factories of Coketown polluted the environment greatly, this pollution had no effect on the people. In reality, the soot from the smoke alone had an enormous effect on the population. While it was in the air, people would breath it in, causing respiratory problems. Once it hit the ground, it polluted the water and the dirt, affecting the water supply and growing of produce. “Such evils were largely confined to the poorer parts of a town but nobody, unless they took refuge in an outlying suburb, could avoid the heavy canopy of smoke that the factory chimneys poured out.” The residents of Coketown, however, seem to be in regular health. The only two main characters that were ailing were Mrs. Gradgrind and Mrs. Pegler. Mrs. Gradgrind’s health was connected with her state of mind rather than her physical environment, while Mrs. Pegler’s was connected to her old age.

There was also the factor of the conditions of working in the factories. “Environment, diet and indulgences such as drink also contributed to the destruction of workers. Hours of labour were a material factor. Sedentary occupations limited to a modern short working day and offset by good diet and healthy recreation may not seem especially dangerous to physical well-being, but in trades such as shoemaking or tailoring in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries such offsetting conditions did not exist. The overworked journeyman tailor could become the ‘wretched emblem of death and hunger’.” Something could be affecting the workers of Coketown, but Dickens only gives his readers Stephen Blackpool and Rachael. Both appear to be in excellent health, with the exception of Stephen being referred to as a “stooping man,” which is given the impression that it only comes from his age

There is also the question of the living conditions of the workers. “The market economy seems most evidently to have failed to meet the basic needs of the labouring people. Wherever housing is not heavily supplemented from public building, then the homeless and the inadequately housed, even in the most active of private economies, have formed embarrassingly large groups.” While Stephen and Rachael, on the other hand, lived alone. In this same respect, it would be impossible to keep up an overcrowded apartment in any aspect of cleanliness, while Stephen’s apartment was the picture of clean: “Everything was in its place and order as he had always kept it, the little fire was newly trimmed, and the hearth was freshly swept.”

Finally, there is the aspect of the work unions. In Hard Times, the character of Slackbridge can be found with every mention of the union in the book. He emerges out of nowhere on page 141, almost halfway through the book. He takes over an entire chapter, and then completely disappears. The reader only knows there is an ongoing union movement because Bounderby suspects that Stephen is involved and questions him in the chapter immediately after Slackbridge’s. The subject of the union then disappears until page 244 after Stephen’s demise. If the actual workers’ unions managed their upheaval in this fashion, nothing would ever have gotten done. It is quite likely that Dickens’ only used the union for something to use against Stephen and to increase the drama for that part of the plot, especially when considering Slackbridge’s weak and dull speech during his first appearance.

Despite all these misconceptions of reality, Dickens’ Hard Times conveys the correct images needed to be a successful parody, especially considering that the parody isn’t of industrialisation but of utilitarianism. While industrialisation isn’t accurately described in the book, the fact that it is a work of fiction makes this acceptable.

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