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Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 1, Chapter 11 : Sowing (No Way Out) | Summary

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Summary

Stephen Blackpool goes to see Mr. Bounderby for advice about his marriage. Mr. Bounderby greets Stephen warmly, saying Stephen has never been a troublesome worker, never indicated a desire to "be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon," unlike many of his colleagues in the factory. But Mr. Bounderby quickly sours on Stephen as Stephen makes the purpose of his visit known. Stephen knows of wealthy men who have been able to end their marriages when they become a misery. Stephen explains his situation. His wife is a constant drunk who leaves him for long stretches, disgraces herself, and then returns. For the last five years he has given her money to keep her away, but now she is back. He wants to know how to rid himself of her for good.

Appalled by the suggestion that Stephen might end his marriage, Mr. Bounderby informs him, "You took her for better or for worse." After Stephen presses the matter, Mr. Bounderby tells him he would have to spend at least 1,500 pounds to take his case to court and dissolve the marriage. Such funds are infinitely out of Stephen's reach, and Stephen calls the situation "a muddle," a response that angers Mr. Bounderby. He scolds Stephen for questioning the country's laws and institutions and tells him he does seem the type of worker who wants "turtle soup, and venison, and gold spoon." After he repeats that Stephen took his wife for better or worse, he adds, "She might have turned out better." Stephen only shakes his head, sighs, and bids Mr. Bounderby a good day.

Analysis

Mr. Bounderby's conversation with Stephen illustrates how two sets of laws exist in England: one for the rich, and one for the poor. It underscores, too, the deep divide between the classes and the hopelessness of those without money. Stephen recognizes this disparity right away. He knows wealthy men whose marriages are far less miserable than his own can go to court and dissolve those marriages. At the time Dickens was writing, divorce would have been permissible if a man could prove his wife had been unfaithful to him. Neither the narrator nor Stephen mentions direct evidence of his wife's infidelity, but it is a reasonable inference given her long absences from Stephen's home. So it's clear that the primary obstacle to Stephen's divorce is money. When Mr. Bounderby reveals the cost of these proceedings, the prohibitive cost underscores how divorce is a luxury afforded only to the very rich. The sum of 1,500 pounds, around 1,800 U.S. dollars in 2017, might be a prohibitive amount of money for some people even in modern terms; in 1854, 1,500 pounds would have been equivalent to about 150,000 pounds or 184,000 US dollars in 2017, an enormous fortune then.

Furthermore, Mr. Bounderby haughtily hands down severe moral judgment against Stephen for wanting to divorce his wife. By repeating that Stephen married her "for better or worse," he implies Stephen has a moral and religious obligation to stay with his wife. When Mr. Bounderby says Stephen's wife might have turned out better, he even insinuates Stephen is responsible for her downfall. Perhaps he is, but that this responsibility doesn't apply to wealthy men, who can afford to pay for a divorce, robs the idea of its power. Indeed Mr. Bounderby will have no compunction about leaving his own wife because she has an emotional breakdown. Stephen's wife, by contrast, is abusive and addicted to alcohol, but Mr. Bounderby compels him to stay with her, affirming that laws exist to punish but not to help him.

In this chapter Mr. Bounderby first invokes an image he uses on a number of occasions to illustrate the inflated sense of entitlement he attributes to his workers. When Mr. Bounderby believes workers—or others—are asking for more than they deserve, he says they want to be fed turtle soup and venison on a gold spoon. Turtle soup and venison are expensive specialty foods, and Mr. Bounderby portrays the gold spoon as the height of luxurious utensils. But Stephen is not asking for luxury; as a worker in a typical factory he is subjected to long hours and low pay. He lives in a cramped space under the constant cloud of polluted air pouring from the factory smokestacks. Stephen expresses no complaint about his surroundings, only about the terrible state of his marriage. However, Mr. Bounderby believes an expression of dissatisfaction with any aspect of working life reveals a hidden desire for a worker to have such luxuries without earning them properly. The phrase is a mark of Mr. Bounderby's contempt for those who have less than he does and who might aspire to something marginally better than what they have.

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