Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 1, Chapter 5 : Sowing (The Keynote) | Summary

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Summary

Coketown is built of red brick covered and streaked with black ash from the factory smokestacks. The city's canal runs black, and the river runs purple from textile dyes. The other city buildings are interchangeable: "The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town hall might have been either, or both ..." There are 18 churches, none well attended by the workers. Various societies and authorities criticize the workers for vices ranging from drunkenness to opium use, and everything else. The wealthy assume "these same people [are] a bad lot altogether" and that they live upon the best ... and yet were eternally dissatisfied and unmanageable."

Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby set out through the city and meet Sissy Jupe running through the street. They scold her for impropriety, and she says she is running from Bitzer who is chasing her. He mocks her for being "a horse-rider." The men send Bitzer home and escort Sissy—who is taking medicine to her father—back to the circus.

Analysis

The grim environment of Coketown and the anonymous nature of its buildings reflect the oppression experienced by Coketown's working residents. The description of the extreme pollution highlights the dangers of this environment. The wealthier classes and middle classes look down on the poor and presume the worst of the factory workers, known as the Hands. They also make inaccurate assumptions about the living conditions these Hands experience. The prevailing opinion is that workers have access to the best food and resources; however, the opposite is true, for the workers have access to very little. Therefore, the upper classes do not understand why the workers feel dissatisfied. Their misunderstanding is based on an initially faulty premise, or prejudiced assumption.

Yet for themselves, the upper classes, and those who aspire to join them, are concerned with appearances. Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby admonish Sissy Jupe for running in the street, for behaving as children behave, because such behavior is inappropriate and looks bad. She is running from a young boy whose own economic status is not high, but he can elevate it by putting her down as a mere horse-rider. Bitzer has no regard for the skill and training horsemanship requires because the profession carries little status in this society. Readers may recall Bitzer knows the exact factual definition of a horse; here once again his limited perspective shows itself very negatively.

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