Book II, Chapters 4-5: Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 656

Chapter 4: Men and Brothers
Chapter 5: Men and Masters

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New Character:
Slackbridge: trade union leader

The union leader Slackbridge holds forth to a large, attentive audience of working men. He has learned of a working man among them who has declined to support certain measures proposed by Coketown’s union of factory operatives. Slackbridge, addressing a meeting of The United Aggregate Tribunal, denounces this man as a “traitor and a craven and a recreant.” The crowd, which had been with him, is divided—there are calls from the hall to see the man himself and hear what he has to say.

The holdout is Stephen Blackpool, who in refusing to join in with the others is acting out of his own conviction that the union is wrong in its demand for “regulations” in the mills. He is also, as he explains in a short but eloquent speech that contrasts favorably with Slackbridge’s overheated verbiage, remaining true to a promise he has made to stay out of trouble (the promise, to Rachael, is alluded to in Chapter 10). The chairman of the meeting pleads with Stephen to reconsider, to “come in” with the others so as to avoid being “sent to Coventry” (ostracized or shunned). Stephen, his mind made up, slowly walks out of the hall.

For the next four days Stephen lives and works in complete isolation. He avoids meeting with Rachael for fear that were she to be seen in his company she too would be punished. One evening, on the fourth day of his ostracism, Blackpool is approached by Bitzer, Bounderby’s porter and general spy, to say that Bounderby wishes to have a word with him.

At Bounderby’s, in the presence of Louisa, Tom and Harthouse, Stephen is called upon to explain his refusal to join the Coketown “Combination” (union). Bounderby becomes indignant when Stephen persists in defending his fellow workers and speaks again of everything being “all a muddle.” The workers, Stephen maintains, keeping his eyes on Louisa’s face, don’t need the “strong hand,” or being told they are always in the wrong, or treated as so many machines. As Stephen turns to go, Bounderby, thoroughly exasperated, fires him on the spot.

Blackpool has now been rejected both by his fellow workers and his employer. His isolation is therefore complete, and his future in Coketown looks hopeless. His speeches in these two chapters, particularly at Bounderby’s, come as close as any in the novel to representing Dickens’ own views, down to Dickens’ insistence that industrialism neglects the imaginative side of human existence: it will never do, Stephen says, to “regulate” workers as if they were machines, “wi’out memories and inclinations, wi’out souls to weary and souls to hope.”

Dickens places in Blackpool’s mouth his own belief that workers were wrong to organize themselves into trade unions. It is difficult to see how else the conditions that Dickens elsewhere deplores could be changed other than by collective action. But Dickens, who was first and last an individualist, clearly had little or no faith in such action. Finding a way out of the “muddle,” he has Stephen say, should not be up to him but to those who have been placed over him. The belief that England’s social ills were the responsibility of its rulers was one Dickens held to all his life.

In his depiction of Slackbridge, Dickens shows his contempt for rabble-rousing orators. He contrasts Slackbridge with his audience, very much to the audience’s favor: he was “not so honest, he was not so manly, he was not so good-humoured; he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe, solid sense.” Slackbridge’s oratorical style, with its biblical allusions and references to “glorious rights of Humanity,” “holy and eternal privileges of Brotherhood” resembles that of overly pious preachers, a type Dickens particularly disliked and made fun of in many novels.

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