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

The significance of Coketown in the novel Hard Times is that it provides an appropriate backdrop to Dickens's withering critique of industrial society. It's notable that the town is named after what it produces, coke, a hard grey fuel. This indicates that there is nothing more to the town than ceaseless industrial activity, with all the misery that it generates.

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In Hard Times, Coketown is both a primary setting and a symbol of the novel’s themes. Charles Dickens makes the town come to life by describing multiple aspects of its inhabitants’ work and their social lives, which are mostly unhappy. More than elaborating the details of a specific place, however, the author establishes a generic location that connections to his concerns about social reform.

As a physical location, Coketown is appealing only to the factory owners who focus on its functional value. For the people who live there, the town represents a paradox: it lacks comfort and charm but nevertheless is their home. Dickens goes out of his way to describe its grim visual appearance and invoke other sensory elements, such as the foul smell. He thus conveys a negative impression of its “unnatural” quality; the sun can rarely penetrate the enveloping pollution.

Although Dickens evokes qualities of actual factory towns of the time, such as Manchester, by giving the town a generic name he emphasizes its unnatural aspect, as it is incompatible with its environment. He also establishes it a kind of “any town,” representing the ills of industrial society that Dickens worried would continue unchecked and change England for the worse.

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Coketown is significant as the face of the utilitarian philosophy taught by Gradgrind and despised by Dickens. If society decides it will most value "facts, facts, facts," "the greatest good for the greatest number," and calculation of profit and loss, it will end up looking like Coketown, a dismal, ugly, polluted town of factory chimneys with "a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye."

Coketown is the dystopian reality Dickens hopes England can avoid spreading any farther than it already has. Through it, he critiques the abuses of industrialism, from the long hours of the workers who are dehumanized into little more than machines to the dehumanizing effects on Gradgrind's children of their utilitarian education. His children end up miserable as adults for putting money ahead of all else.

In contrast to Coketown is Sissy Jupe's world of the circus, which symbolizes imagination, creativity, whimsy, and pleasure. In this world, which Gradgrind excoriates as a waste of time and resources, the human soul can expand and experience the pleasure of imagining colorful and rich alternative worlds. Though Gradgrind believes Sissy is ruined and worries about her influence on his own children, she ends up the salvation of his family with her firm moral compass, vivid imagination, loving heart, and compassionate nature.

Coketown is a cautionary setting: don't let this way of life spread any farther, Dickens is warning.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 14, 2021
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Coketown in Dickens's Hard Times is appropriately named. This is a town which produces coke—a hard, grey fuel used in industry—and lots of it. The production of coke generates considerable air pollution, and in the absence of any clean-air legislation at that time in Victorian Britain, one can only imagine just how polluted the air must have been for the people of Coketown.

The fact that the town is named after its main industry suggests that this is all the town has going for it. Everyone and everything in this part of the world is geared towards industrial production, and there is no room for anything that doesn't serve the ultimate economic ends for which the town was built.

As such, there is no place for imagination, the kind of imagination exercised by Sissy Jupe. Mr. Gradgrind, the stern, utilitarian school board Superintendent, doesn't want Sissy, or any of the other of the pupils at the school, to use their imagination. He simply wants them to concentrate on facts and nothing more. And the most important fact is that Coketown, as its name would suggest, is built on industry; and it is the needs of industry that education, in Mr. Gradgrind's narrow-minded view, exists to serve.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on January 14, 2021
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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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