Book I, Chapters 5-6: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 610

Chapter 5: The Key-Note
Chapter 6: Sleary’s Horsemanship

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New Characters:
Mr. E.W.B. Childers: a horse-rider

Master Kidderminster: his son

Emma Gordon: a pregnant member of Sleary’s Circus

Gradgrind and Bounderby walk to Coketown in search of Sissy Jupe’s father. He lives in Pod’s End, a part of town unfamiliar to them both. They stop and look about themselves. Just then Sissy Jupe herself comes into view, running. She is being pursued by Bitzer, the pale boy in her class. Mr. Gradgrind sends Bitzer on his way with a warning and asks Sissy to conduct them to her father’s house.

She leads the way to the Pegasus’ Arms, a combination inn and pub (drinking house) where Sleary’s troupe are staying. While Sissy looks in vain for her father, who is nowhere to be found at the inn, Gradgrind and Bounderby encounter Mr. E.W.B. Childers and his son, Master Kidderminster, both performers in Sleary’s Circus. Childers tells them that Sissy’s father, depressed by his failures in the ring, has probably left the circus and abandoned his daughter.

Mr. Sleary, preceded by other members of his troupe, arrives on the scene. He asks Mr. Gradgrind if he intends to do anything for the girl whose father has “morrised” (run away). Against Bounderby’s advice, Gradgrind offers to take Sissy into his household, to take charge of her, and educate her according to his system, with the understanding that she cease to communicate with any of her old friends. Sleary tells Sissy (who has just returned, frantic, from searching for her father) that she is free to choose whether to stay with the circus, where she will be apprenticed and treated as a daughter by Emma Gordon, or accept Gradgrind’s offer. Weeping, Sissy decides to go with Gradgrind, saying farewell to Sleary and to all her old companions.

Roughly half of Chapter 5 is a description of Coketown. Dickens uses unusual metaphors and expressive language to convey the strange, nightmarish realities of the industrial city: the factories with their “interminable serpents of smoke,” the steam engines whose pistons drive up and down like “the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.” He writes of the monotonous routine of the place, how its people do the same work day after day, how even its buildings have a quality of sameness and appear interchangeable with one another, so that “the jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction.”

In a variety of ways the circus people present a contrast to what Dickens writes about Coketown. In the first place, as transient entertainers, they are outsiders to the city. They move, dress, and talk distinctively—they use circus jargon, and Sleary speaks with a pronounced lisp. Indeed their whole purpose in life, which is to entertain, is opposed to the spirit of Coketown. Perhaps most striking is that, unlike Coketown, their society appears to function as a loving, cooperative community—they have, as Dickens puts it, “an untiring readiness to help and pity one another.”

Despite the apparent agreement in their outlooks, Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind respond differently to the circus people. Mr. Gradgrind changes his plan of action when he learns about Sissy’s circumstances, generously deciding to take Sissy into his household. Bounderby, on the other hand, carries on in his usual tactless way—he is particularly insensitive to Sissy—and tries to argue Gradgrind out of his decision.

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