Literature Study GuidesHard TimesBook 2 Chapter 1 Summary

Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 2, Chapter 1 : Reaping (Effects in the Bank) | Summary

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Summary

Coketown lies "shrouded in a haze of its own." The pollution from factory smokestacks has created a murk of smog around the city that never dissipates and makes the city appear as a "dense formless jumble." The outlines of individual buildings can't be seen from a distance. On a hot day such as the one that opens this chapter, the city air is pungent with the smell of oil even as some boys attempt to amuse themselves by rowing a boat through the tar-like water of the river.

Past threats to Coketown's way of life include requirements to send working children to school and to submit to factory inspections. The owners resist any overtures toward even the slightest change in conditions. For example, they object "when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery" and when the inspectors wonder whether "they need not always make quite so much smoke." However, the objections also range to anything they see as even small infringements on their authority to run their businesses as they wish. Coketown residents respond to these proposed changes by threatening to "pitch [their] property into the Atlantic." This threat has alarmed government officials, but Coketowners have yet to follow through.

By the summer following Mr. Bounderby's wedding, Mrs. Sparsit has settled into her new place at the bank. Her habit of sitting in the bank offices and looking out of the window after hours makes her think of herself as the "Bank Fairy," whereas others think of her as the "Bank Dragon" guarding the riches within. Bitzer, now the light porter at the bank, chats with her about the bank workers, telling her how Tom Gradgrind is "a dissipated, extravagant idler." She chastises Bitzer for using names in his stories. They also discuss the misfortunes of the poor, wondering why the Hands don't make more of themselves. Bitzer comes from humble beginnings and has managed to save money, so he believes other workers can and should do the same because "what one person can do, another can do."

Their conversation ends when a stranger arrives with an introductory letter from Mr. Gradgrind, now a member of Parliament in London. The stranger has confused the bank with Mr. Bounderby's residence. They chat briefly about Mr. Bounderby and Louisa, and the man leaves his letter for Mr. Bounderby. Mrs. Sparsit and Bitzer comment on the stranger's wardrobe and speculate about whether the man gambles.

Analysis

The description of Coketown that opens Book 2, Chapter 1 underscores the oppressive nature of the pollution that engulfs the town. The air smells of oil and is sufficiently thick with soot to obscure the town itself from afar. The buildings are hidden by pollution, just as the individual humanity of the workers is obscured by the expectations of the factory owners who compel them to work long hours. Poor young boys, acknowledged in the narrative as "a rare sight," attempt to find some respite from heat by rowing a boat on a river so polluted it no longer resembles water. The implication is that these boys have few breaks from labor and even in their leisure time are unable to escape from the factories entirely, since the pollution the factories emit intrudes on their leisure space.

The narration takes on a deeply critical and sarcastic tone when describing the Coketowners' reactions to changes in conditions in their factories. The descriptions of these changes allude to stricter laws regulating child labor and safety conditions in the factories. The understated sarcasm of the inspectors questioning whether factory owners are justified in chopping people up in the machines provides a bitterly accurate image of the consequences of poor factory safety and skews the Coketowners' values of profits above human lives. The Coketowners' exaggerated threats in response to the government regulations illustrate the extreme nature of their resistance to the reasonable requests to provide safer conditions and to reduce the poisons they pump into the air, but Coketowners do not like being told what to do and will resist if only on principle.

Mrs. Sparsit's conversation with Bitzer exposes some of the attitude toward the working classes that drive resistance to improving conditions in the factory and the town. Both characters share a belief that the poor have created their own misery because they don't work hard enough and spend their earnings frivolously. In theory perhaps all people should be able to do what one person can do, but Bitzer's education, along with his ambition, has taken away any sense of empathy he may have had for his fellow man. He cannot conceive of other people having different needs or desires from his own, nor does he consider that his own lifestyle is not an optimal experience. His greed and ambition have led him to an office job that pays him more than factories pay workers. Furthermore, his education at Mr. Gradgrind's school has taken from him any desire to spend money on entertainment, to find love, or to have a family. These are the activities most people would agree make life worthwhile. Perhaps Bitzer has been able to put money aside for himself, but it is unclear what purpose those savings will serve. In the meantime he lives in the bank and spends his time talking to Mrs. Sparsit, a situation most people would not find appealing or desirable as a way of life.

The stranger is presented as too handsome, too well dressed, and too casual. Although Mrs. Sparsit appears taken with his superficially good manners and easy gentility, his appearance causes Bitzer to think him a gambler, gambling being an activity Bitzer disapproves of because of its unfavorable odds. These perceptions imply something questionable, if not necessarily dishonest, about the man. Readers may note the stranger's interest in Louisa Gradgrind Bounderby and his surprise to discover she is attractive and far younger than her husband. The elements seem to be gathering for the perfect storm that Mrs. Sparsit perceives coming.

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