Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 2, Chapter 6 : Reaping (Fading Away) | Summary

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Summary

Stephen finds Rachael and the old woman he encountered on his last visit to Bounderby's outside the house. The old woman, Mrs. Pegler, has scheduled her visit earlier this year for easier travel in her old age. She returns with them to Stephen's home for a cup of tea. In conversation Mrs. Pegler says she has lost her son, a comment Rachael and Stephen take to mean her son has died. Stephen tells Rachael he has been fired.

When visitors arrive, Mrs. Pegler is terrified it is Mr. Bounderby and wants to hide from him. However, the visitors are Tom and Louisa, who is impressed with Stephen's courage. Louisa delivers her sympathies to Stephen about his job. Louisa surmises Stephen gave Rachael his promise not to join the union, and Rachael says she only wanted Stephen to avoid trouble. Louisa offers Stephen some money to tide him over, but Stephen accepts only two pounds to cover his traveling expenses to seek a job in another city. He promises to repay her.

Before they leave, Tom speaks to Stephen alone on the stairs outside, saying he may be able to help Stephen find work. He tells Stephen to wait outside the bank after closing this week, and Tom will send word out with the porter if he is able to help.

After Louisa and Tom leave, Stephen and Rachael walk Mrs. Pegler to her lodging, and then they say their own goodbyes. As instructed Stephen waits outside the bank for an hour or so each night the rest of the week, but nothing comes of it. At the end of the week, he packs his few belongings, rises early, and sets out from Coketown on foot.

Analysis

Throughout this chapter the narrative drops hints about characters and the plot's direction, revealing bits of information that allow the reader to understand truths the characters do not yet see, without yet providing all the answers. Considering Hard Times was published initially as a weekly serial, this technique makes sense as a method for ensuring magazine sales. For example, Mrs. Pegler's noncommittal responses to questions about her son increase the possibility, already foreshadowed, that she is Mr. Bounderby's long-lost mother, as does her panic at the possibility of meeting Mr. Bounderby. It stands to reason she would not want to meet face-to-face the son she allegedly abandoned.

In a similar vein, Tom's suggestion for Stephen to wait outside the bank for news of a potential job lead is immediately suspicious. Tom has done little in his life that wasn't motivated by self-interest, so it seems unlikely he would try to help a stranger. At the same time the true purpose of his suggestion is unclear. There are few reasons a man might invite another man to loiter outside a bank after closing, but none bodes well for Stephen's future.

Stephen's unfortunate firing is a poignant example of situational irony in that it is based on his resistance to joining the union, which is based on his desire to keep a promise to Rachael to avoid trouble. The troubled outcome of his actions are the direct opposite of his intent; he has gotten into the worst trouble possible at work and has to leave Coketown and Rachael to find a new job and survive. Had he simply joined the union, he might have avoided this trouble. This is the point of unionizing—workers are safer from retaliation from owners and managers when they stick together as a group. A factory owner can't fire all his workers at once.

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