Literature Study GuidesHard TimesBook 1 Chapter 10 Summary

Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 1, Chapter 10 : Sowing (Stephen Blackpool) | Summary

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Summary

Stephen Blackpool, a worker in Mr. Bounderby's factory, is 40 years old, but his years of labor have given him an appearance that has earned him the nickname Old Stephen, from his stooping posture and grey, thinning hair. He has no special knowledge, but he is "a good power-loom weaver," known for his honor and integrity.

Stephen meets his friend Rachael after a day's work, and they chat about aging and his belief that life in the factory is "a muddle." When he gets home, he sees his wife has returned after a long absence. She is violently drunk, barely able to sit up in her chair. She mocks him for being surprised by her presence. She passes out on the bed, saying, "'Tis mine and I've a right to 't!'" Stephen spends the night in a chair, moving only once to cover her with a blanket and cover his own face with his hands.

Analysis

Stephen Blackpool's experience illustrates the full scale of the hardships faced by the factory "Hands" in Coketown. This is not a man who has the best of everything and complains about it. This is a man who has had the worst of most things but complains little. At 40 he looks enough like an old man to have a nickname that reflects this appearance. His posture is stooped from years of bowing his body over his power loom. It is entirely possible he began this work when he was a child. In this context, the loom becomes a symbol of Stephen's commitment to his work, a kind of imprisonment partly self-imposed and partly created by his lack of skill at any other trade.

Although Stephen cannot bear to look at his wife, her condition arouses deep emotions in him, including revulsion, anger, and pity. The hardships of life in the factories have driven her to immerse herself in drinking. She has become a shadow of her former self, hateful and terrifying to a man who presumably loved her once. His honor prevents him from doing anything about her hostile presence other than cowering from her.

Rachael sits in sharp contrast to Stephen's wife, which may explain his affection for her. Rachael has spent her life working in the factories as well, but somehow her experiences have not touched her basic goodness. She is able to show compassion even Stephen cannot feel, caring for a woman who is repellent to her own husband and who blocks Rachael's own hopes of marrying. Rachael does not treat Stephen's wife with the bitterness that might be expected in such circumstances.

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