Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Hard Times | Book 3, Chapter 6 : Garnering (The Starlight) | Summary

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Summary

On Sunday Sissy and Rachael go to the countryside to look for any sign of Stephen. Near the edge of a disused coal pit known as the Old Hell Shaft, they find a hat with his name written in the brim. Stephen has fallen into the pit, so the two women disperse to find help. Sissy finds two men who help gather more assistance and send a message to Louisa. The rescuers set up a rope and pulley into the shaft; after many hours, and with the help of a surgeon, they determine how to bring Stephen's battered body safely to the surface.

Stephen is happy to see Rachael but calls his fall into the pit more of "a muddle." Active pits are a hazard to miners who work them; disused pits are a hazard to travelers who encounter them. "See how we die an no need, one way an another—in a muddle—everyday!" He tells her he believes Tom set him up for the robbery. He also talks about watching the stars while he lay in the pit and about his belief that he saw the same star that guided pilgrims to Jesus' birthplace. In the end he is content to walk—even though he is carried—one last time with Rachael.

Analysis

Stephen's run of bad luck ends with the worst luck of all. He has fallen into a mining pit by accident and fatally injured himself. The events of his life, including its end, confirm his belief that everything is a "muddle." He falls into the pit because he is too poor to afford transportation back to Coketown to face false charges of bank robbery, concocted by an upper-class, entitled young man trying to cover his gambling debts. The abuse the rich have heaped on Stephen Blackpool knows no bounds, nor does the abuse from his poor associates either.

Stephen's association of the stars he sees from the pit with the stars that appear in the Bible and guide the Wise Men to Jesus Christ's birth in contrast with the name of the pit itself, the Old Hell Pit. Symbolically Stephen has spent much of his life in a kind of hell, including this pit where he almost dies. The connection to the Biblical stars implies Stephen is being led out of the hell his life has been toward his "Savior" and a peaceful afterlife.

The rescue effort that brings Stephen out of the pit also indicates, perhaps, that not all of life is such a muddle. The equivalent of an entire village joins forces to help Stephen out of the pit, even though it seems almost certain he is dead down there. The men who go down to assist him risk their own lives to help him, and even though Stephen dies of his injuries, he is able to die holding the hand of the woman he loves, and he is able to declare his innocence of the crime of which he has been accused. His suffering and the circumstances of his fall provide good evidence of his innocence to the crowd who has assumed his guilt because he had disappeared.

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