Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 882
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 wi’out need; when ’tis let alone, it kills wi’out need. See how we die an’ no need, one way an’ another—in a muddle—every day!” There is also the muddle of relations among the living, which has caused his fellow workers to mistake him and Bounderby to falsely accuse him.
Stephen speaks next of the star that he has been staring at from the bottom of the pit. It is associated in the chapter with the star that guided the magi to the cradle of the infant Jesus. “The God of the poor,” Dickens pointedly adds. Dickens detested false religiosity as he detested almost nothing else, but especially on occasions such as Stephen’s death, his own Christian feeling is plain.
The whole process of the rescue, starting from Rachael and Sissy’s run for help, is made exciting and very real. Anyone who has ever been present at the scene of a disaster is likely to find Dickens’ description rings true. It is interesting to note that the work the men do and the machinery they use to do the work are described in a way that celebrates both, which is certainly not true of descriptions of work and machinery elsewhere in the novel.
What Dickens seems to particularly admire is the spontaneous organization exhibited by the rescue party: making a ring around the shaft’s edge, appointing people to keep it, choosing up volunteers, and so on. Notice, however, that although the effort is a collective one by the common people of the neighboring villages, social distinctions and deferences persist: the party from Coketown is permitted within the ring, and a surgeon (the one brought by Rachael) is given a supervisory function and is addressed with a “Sir.”
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