Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 986
Chapter 10: Stephen Blackpool
Chapter 11: No Way Out
Chapter 12: The Old Woman
Stephen Blackpool: one of Bounderby’s “hands”
Rachael: a fellow worker
Stephen’s wife: an unnamed, drunken, sub-human woman
Stephen Blackpool, a weaver in Mr. Bounderby’s cotton mill, stands searching for someone in the crowd of women leaving the factory at the end of the day. He’s a gray-haired man of 40, who speaks in the broad accents of his native Lancashire. His hard life has made him look much older. Just as he’s about to turn away disappointed, he sees a familiar shape ahead of him. It is Rachael, his friend and companion for many years. The two greet each other affectionately, but there is a sadness and a certain constraint in their greeting too. Almost her first words are that they ought not to walk together so often, and he agrees—it might cause people to talk. Stephen sees her home and then walks home himself.
He lives in one of the poorest quarters of Coketown, in a single room above a small shop. He keeps it neat with a few simple pieces of furniture. The room is dark. Entering it with a candle, he stumbles over a body. It is his wife, apparently returned from a drunken binge, who has been sitting in a motionless stupor on the floor of his room. She rises, talks angrily and incoherently and then collapses on the bed. Stephen covers her with a blanket and falls asleep on a chair.
The following morning finds Stephen at his power loom. The noon-bell rings. He rises from his work, exits the mill, and makes his way to Mr. Bounderby’s residence, which stands on a hill at some distance from Stephen’s usual neighborhood. He gives his name to Bounderby’s servant.
Bounderby is at lunch, attended by Mrs. Sparsit. He knows Blackpool to be a reliable employee, with nothing “troublesome against him,” and so invites him in. Stephen says he has come for advice. He tells Bounderby about his unhappy 19-year marriage to the woman in his room and of her increasing addiction to drink. He says for the past five years he has taken to paying her to stay away, but that now she has returned. He adds that if it were not for the pity and comfort of “th’ best lass living or dead” (he means Rachael), he would have gone mad or killed himself. Blackpool asks what he must do to be “rid of her,” remarking that he has read in the papers of people set free to marry again from marriages less unfortunate than his.
Mr. Bounderby assures Blackpool that what he wants is out of the question. Only a tiny minority of extremely wealthy people can take advantage of the laws for divorce. For such as Stephen, his duty is plain: he married for better or for worse, and he must stay married. Blackpool takes his leave, with the observation that affairs in England seem to be all in “a muddle,” an expression that, however mild, Bounderby reacts to as if he had been preaching subversion.
On his way back to the factory Blackpool is stopped by an old woman, who questions him closely about the occupant of the house from which he has just emerged. In appearance, she is a simple country woman, who, it turns out, travels to Coketown every year just to catch a glimpse of Mr. Bounderby. Learning from Blackpool that he has worked for 12 years in Bounderby’s mill, the old woman seizes his hand and kisses it, saying, “I must kiss the hand…that has worked in this fine factory for 12 years!” Back at work, Blackpool sees the old woman still outside the factory, gazing up at the building, apparently “lost in admiration.”
When the evening bell sounds, Blackpool joins the throng leaving the factory and once again looks for Rachael, even though he knows she has warned him against being seen too much together. She is not there. Before returning to the home he now dreads, he stays out late, brooding.
Dickens wrote extensively and knowingly about England’s poor, including some of the very poorest, and even more about the “shabby genteel” class from which he himself came. But never before Hard Times had he written about factory workers. Now and then, in these chapters and others where Stephen Blackpool and Rachael figure, we sense that he is straining to imagine much that is unfamiliar, trying hard to fairly represent a way of life and settings that were fundamentally alien to him.
Blackpool, as will become even more apparent later on in the novel, serves as a mouthpiece for Dickens’ own views (as Mr. Sleary and Sissy Jupe do as well). His “tis a’ a muddle” is a sentiment, or an observation, on the increasingly problem-ridden character of the civilization that he and Dickens inhabited. Perhaps, then, Bounderby is not so far off the mark to suspect Stephen of disrespect for “the institutions of your country,” ¬however preposterous his claim to see in Stephen’s “unhallowed opinions” “traces of the turtle soup, and venison, and gold spoon.” (In Chapter 11 Dickens writes that Bounderby “always represented…[as] the sole, immediate and direct object of any Hand,” to be “set up in a coach and six, and to be fed on turtle soup and venison, with a gold spoon.”)
At first glance it might seem surprising that Blackpool would plausibly expose so much of his private anguish and ask his employer for advice about his terrible domestic situation. It makes one wonder if that was the only way Dickens could think to manage Blackpool and Bounderby standing on the same piece of parlor carpet. It is certainly true that, in this novel, only the most melodramatic circumstances seem to bring the working class and middle or upper class characters together.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support