What is the significance of Coketown in the novel Hard Times?

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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We are introduced properly to Coketown, the major setting of this excellent Dickensian novel, in Chapter 5 of Book the First. It is described in a way that forces us to see the link between Mr. Gradgrind's educational and utilitarian philosophy and Bounderby's approach to work, as it is a "triumph of fact":

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but, as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of buildings full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.

Note how the simile, "like the painted face of a savage," introduces Coketown as a brutal, uncompromising and fearful place. It is a town defined by its work and industrialisation, emphasises by the "interminable serpents" that endlessly coil upwards and also the monotonous nature of that work that is necessary to keep the fortunes of characters like Mr. Bounderby increasing.

Coketown is therefore essential as a setting epitomising the negative aspects of industrialisation and the mechanisation of the human soul. The description of Coketown makes it clear that it is not a place of enjoyment or pleasure or nature - rather, the only thing it encourages is dull, repetitive and endless labour. Dickens wrote this novel as a protest against industrialisation and how it was in danger of turning humans into machines and denying their creativity and imagination. Coketown, then, is his creation showing this transformation in process. Note how the reference to the workers as "Hands" reinforces this - they are named only for the work they are able to do, and have no individuality.

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