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Literature Study GuidesHard TimesBook 2 Chapter 5 Summary

Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Book 2, Chapter 5: Reaping (Men and Masters)

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Book 2, Chapter 5: Reaping (Men and Masters) from Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times.

Hard Times | Book 2, Chapter 5 : Reaping (Men and Masters) | Summary



When Stephen arrives at Mr. Bounderby's house, Louisa, Tom, and James Harthouse are present. Mr. Bounderby asks Stephen questions about the union meeting and why he hasn't joined. Stephen tells Mr. Bounderby he has made a promise to someone not to join the union, but he will not elaborate. Stephen does not believe Slackbridge has the answers to the workers' problems, but he does tell Mr. Bounderby the workers' complaints: they work long hours for little pay; they have no incentives, nothing to work toward; and when decisions are made, the owners are always right and the workers wrong. Nothing changes, and the system only grows larger.

Stephen doesn't know the solution for this situation, but he tells Mr. Bounderby "a strong hand will never do't," nor will treating workers like machines without souls, hopes, or feelings. Mr. Bounderby grows progressively angrier and fires Stephen on the spot, saying he is such a troublemaker even the union won't have him. Stephen says his work prospects elsewhere are nil, having been fired, but Mr. Bounderby shows him no mercy and sends him away.


When Stephen Blackpool calls life a "muddle," one of his favorite words, he has good reason. The man, in his honesty and sense of principle, can't win. He chooses not to join the union, so his friends and co-workers shun him for disloyalty. In Mr. Bounderby's office he refuses to give up details of the union meeting and, when asked, speaks honestly of the workers' plights, so Mr. Bounderby fires him. He is perpetually stuck in the messy grey area between two sides, the muddle imprisoning him in the middle.

Mr. Bounderby is angered most by Stephen's frank talk about the unfairness of the working conditions and the way society and the government treat the working class. Mr. Bounderby does not appreciate Stephen's questioning of the status quo because such questions threaten his own position. If Stephen is correct, Mr. Bounderby might be obligated to change the way he does things, and Mr. Bounderby is not a man readily open to change. It is easier for him to fire Stephen and rid himself of the knowledge of these realities. He acts almost on a whim, giving the choice little thought. In doing so he proves Stephen's point; he, like all the other workers, is easily disposable to Mr. Bounderby.

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