Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 2, Chapter 4 : Reaping (Men and Brothers) | Summary

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Summary

Under the fiery leadership of unionizer Slackbridge, the workers at Mr. Bounderby's factory have agreed to unionize. Slackbridge makes a strong case for the benefits of the United Aggregate Tribunal before attacking the one "Hand" in their midst who has not joined. Stephen Blackpool, Slackbridge says, is a loathsome traitor on a par with Judas Iscariot. Stephen makes a speech to his co-workers, telling them he means them no ill but doesn't want to join the union for personal reasons. The workers shun Stephen after this incident, but they allow him to keep his job. A few days after the meeting Bitzer summons Stephen to Mr. Bounderby's office.

Analysis

Historically, factory workers began forming labor unions in the middle of the 19th century as a response to difficult and dangerous working conditions and low wages. Slackbridge's characterization, however, implies the workers may be trading Mr. Bounderby's bullying for bullying of a different kind. Because labor unions succeed or fail on the basis of the unity of their membership and everyone's willingness to join, Slackbridge attacks Stephen Blackpool as a traitor, although his comparison is, like much of everything else in the novel and in Dickens's work, deliberately exaggerated. In the Christian New Testament, Judas Iscariot is the disciple who betrays Jesus Christ by turning him over to the Romans, who put him to death. The comparison implies Stephen might betray union members to Mr. Bounderby, and even though Stephen assures the union members he will not betray them—he just wants to be left alone to work—they ostracize him nonetheless.

Stephen's strength of character is further developed in this chapter in his refusal to be persuaded to do something he believes is useless, at best. Always a loner, he is ostracized, and this will make his isolation worse, as his contact with Rachael is now in question, and their association may cause trouble for her.

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