Book III, Chapter 6: Summary and Analysis
Chapter 6: The Starlight
Rachael and Sissy Jupe spend a Sunday in the country just outside Coketown. Walking alone they come across a man’s hat lying on the grass. Inside, written in his own hand, is the name Stephen Blackpool. Directly in front of the two women yawns the gaping mouth of an abandoned coal works, one of many that dot the landscape outside the city.
Sissy convinces Rachael not to give way entirely to lamentation, that there is a chance Stephen may still be alive at the bottom of the shaft. Marking the spot with a shawl, the two set off in different directions; Rachael back toward where they came, Sissy in another direction entirely, each hoping to raise the alarm about Stephen as they go.
Sissy comes across two men lying asleep by an engine house, wakes them, and manages to convey the nature of the emergency. One of the men has been lying in a drunken slumber, but when he grasps that a man has fallen down what his comrade shouts is the Old Hell Shaft, he dunks his head in a bucket of water and sobers quickly. Later he is at the head of those most useful at the site, as equipment and men and women from surrounding villages gather and a vigil begins.
Rachael returns with a surgeon. Few in the crowd think there is a chance that the fallen man might still be alive. Hours pass, the day turns to afternoon, then evening. Torches are brought out. Mr. Gradgrind and Louisa, Tom Gradgrind and Bounderby arrive, alerted by Sissy’s message earlier in the day.
More equipment arrives, a windlass and bucket are improvised, and the crowd holds its collective breath as a volunteer—the sobered man Sissy found—descends into the depths of the shaft. He returns, the crowd cries out “dead or alive?” and a cheer goes up when he answers “alive.” But he is hurt badly, the man adds over the noise, so badly he doesn’t know how to bring him up without hurting him. The surgeon is called, there are consultations among the men, the windlass is lowered again, and finally there is raised up a “poor, crushed human figure.”
It is Stephen. The surgeon does what he can—which is, chiefly, to have him covered. Stephen speaks at length to Rachael, briefly to Louisa, and finally to Mr. Gradgrind. He asks for his name to be cleared. How, asks Mr. Gradgrind. Ask your son, Stephen replies. He dies soon after, with Rachael holding his hand, as he is being carried across the open landscape.
Stephen’s dying speeches are a resumption of his old theme of the “muddle”; now the muddle includes the needless death that places like the Old Hell Shaft represent, in use or out of use alike. Dickens is not shy of using Stephen’s last words to stir the conscience of his readers with what is almost a political speech, the sort of speech Dickens declines to give Slackbridge: “I ha’ fell into a pit that ha’ been wi’ th’ Fire-damp crueller than battle. I ha’ read on ‘t in the public petition, as onny one may read, fro’ the men that works in pits, in which they ha’ pray’n the lawmakers for Christ’s sake not to let their work be murder to ‘em, but to spare ‘em for th’ wives and children that they loves as well as gentlefolk loves theirs. When it were in work, it killed...
(The entire section is 882 words.)