Places Discussed

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Coketown. Fictional factory town in northern England that offers nothing that is not “severely workful.” Coketown is center of Dickens’s social criticism. As “a triumph of fact,” it is grim, unnatural, and mechanical, from the polluted purple river to the identical laborers who all “do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow.” Forested with the smokestacks of its textile mills, it is a “sulky blotch upon the prospect,” abandoned by the sun even in sunny midsummer. Its tenements, such as Stephen Blackpool’s home, tainted by poverty and by the drunken wife to whom he is irrevocably tied, reflect the miserable sameness and grinding labor of the workers’ lives, empty of leisure and of fancy, which the utilitarian mill owners and politicians see as mere idleness. While Coketown is often associated with the real industrial towns of Leeds, Preston, and Manchester in the north, Dickens saw his commentary as touching on English workers everywhere.


Factory. Textile mill in Coketown, owned by Josiah Bounderby. Bounderby’s factory is typical, for Dickens, of the factory system. Lit up by night, the factories look from a distance like “Fairy palaces.” Yet they are not the dream palaces of fairies; instead they are nightmarishly inhabited by the “melancholy mad elephants,” the pistons of steam engines working up and down. In its bitter monotony, its dreary labor, and in the polluted air that kills child workers and adults alike, the factory is a harsh metaphor for the tyrannical facts that govern all the stunted lives of the novel.

Sleary’s horse-riding

Sleary’s horse-riding. Traveling circus, featuring clowns, equestrian exhibitions, tumbling, and tightropes. Typically found in that “neutral ground” which is “neither town nor country,” the circus brings the old paternalist values of sentiment and charity into the new, alienated economy in which, as in the factory, the master knows nothing of the enslaved. Sissy Jupe, who brings to the Gradgrind house that “wisdom of the Heart” learned in the circus but absent from utilitarianism, is the abandoned daughter of a clown in this circus. Tom Gradgrind hides here from a vengeful Bounderby and the law after his robbery is discovered. Despised as trivial idleness by Gradgrind and Bounderby, the circus stands for that scorned leisure that proves a necessary antidote to the inescapable facts of Coketown: factory life, rampant capitalism, and domestic misery.

Gradgrind’s school

Gradgrind’s school. Privately funded elementary school, financed by Gradgrind, and taught by Mr. M’Choakumchild on the monitorial system, in which student “monitors” repeat lessons they have learned from the schoolmaster to a row of children. The method emphasizes repetition and the rote learning of facts; Dickens here satirizes both the new model of teacher training and the absurdity of such fact-based rote learning.

Stone Lodge

Stone Lodge. Home of the Gradgrind family. Like Bounderby’s town house, “cheerless and comfortless, boastfully and doggedly rich,” Stone Lodge reflects the character of its owner, Thomas Gradgrind. From the outside, it is perfectly symmetrical; from the inside, perfectly mechanical, its time measured off by the “deadly statistical clock” in Gradgrind’s study. For young Tom, it is the “Jaundiced Jail” he longs to escape, for Louisa the “great wilderness,” without graces, without sentiments, without heart. Both Stone Lodge and the Gradgrinds are ultimately redeemed by the admission of Sissy Jupe into this monument of fact.

Bounderby country house

Bounderby country house. “Snug little estate” outside Coketown, on which Bounderby’s bank has foreclosed. Here Bounderby, “the Bully of humility,” grows cabbages in the flower garden and allows the estate’s former elegance to fall into disrepair. The country house highlights Bounderby’s secret allegiance to aristocratic rank and status, even as his lies about his own origins pretend to humility. It is also the site of Mrs. Sparsit’s imaginary staircase, down which she imagines Louisa approaching “a dark pit of shame and ruin” with every day and hour of knowing James Harthouse. The image of the staircase was emblematic, for the Victorians, of a woman’s progress into sexual sin and social ruin.

Historical Background

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The period in which Dickens wrote is called the Victorian Age, after the popular, long-lived Queen Victoria, who occupied the throne of England from 1837—the very year Dickens made his debut in fiction—until 1901.

Victorian England was the scene of enormous, far-reaching changes: changes in the nature and organization of work, in population growth, and changes in the very landscape itself, brought about by the railway and the growth of wholly new industrial cities and towns like the Coketown described in Hard Times.

In 1812, when Dickens was born, England had a largely agricultural economy and a population of around nine million. The great majority passed their lives in the country, working the fields and farms as their ancestors had done before them. A small class of landowners held much of the political power, presiding over a small electorate of propertied men. Although the American and French Revolutions had occurred recently enough to be a living memory, England in 1812 felt itself to be, and to some extent was, continuous with the England of past ages, a hierarchical society based on hereditary privilege with unquestioned traditions, beliefs, and a settled order.

By 1854, however, the year Dickens published Hard Times, conditions were quite different. Half the people lived in towns or cities, and there were vastly more of them: in 1851, when a census was taken, the population had passed the 17 million mark. Marvelous new machines, like the power loom operated by the character Stephen Blackpool, replaced many tasks formerly performed by hand, increasing the country’s productivity but also causing unrest and unemployment. For the toilers in the factories—a shocking number of whom were children—traditional rural ways were being left behind for repetitive, monotonous, and often health-destroying new routines of work.

Whenever humanitarian objections were raised to conditions in their factories, the new class of industrialists—caricatured in Hard Times in the person of Josiah Bounderby—often turned to the doctrines of political economy, especially the idea of “laissez faire,” and the “hardheaded” outlook of Utilitarianism. In Hard Times, Bounderby’s friend and ally Thomas Gradgrind is shown upholding some of the views, heavily satirized by Dickens, of political economy and Utilitarianism.

By 1854, portions of England’s working class had formed into “combinations” (unions), which used strikes or the threat of strikes as a way to force employers to improve wages and conditions. Working-class militancy in England had its nineteenth-century origin in a movement called Chartism, which in the 1830s and 1840s called for an electoral bill of rights, including universal manhood suffrage (the right to vote for all adult males, with no qualification of property). Dickens’ response to Chartism, like that of many in the middle classes, was ambivalent; he sympathized with the sufferings and the hunger that motivated workers but feared the potential for violence and social disorder accompanying Chartist agitation. The rhetoric of working-class protest, freely borrowed from radical Republican and Christian (Protestant) sources, is mocked in Hard Times in the speeches of Slackbridge, the union leader.

In the intellectual and cultural spheres, the England of 1854 was a very different place from the one Dickens was born into. New and disturbing challenges to old certainties were in the air; Darwin’s evolutionary ideas were soon to undermine religious faith, and new ideologies like socialism questioned the entire basis of the social order. In the arts, the movement called Romanticism had entered into the feelings, and changed the outlook, of many who believed—Dickens was one—in the importance of cultivating the imagi¬nation and in the central place childhood holds in human develop¬ment. For them, the Romantic poet William Blake’s image of the “dark Satanic Mills” appeared frighteningly apt for places like Coketown.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Altick, D. Richard. Victorian People and Ideas: A Companion for the Modern Reader of Victorian Literature. New York: W.W. Norton, 1973.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times: A Norton Critical Edition. Edited by George Ford and Sylvere Monod. New York: W.W. Norton, 1966.


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Leavis, F. R. The Great Tradition. London: Chatto and Windus, 1948. Provides an excellent introduction to the idea of class in Dickens’ writing. Compares Dickens as a social critic to twentieth century writers such as D. H. Lawrence.

Miller, J. Hillis. Charles Dickens: The World of His Novels. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. Explores Dickens’ art in creating such rich worlds of characters and well-realized places. Very useful in its discussion of the themes and setting of Hard Times.

Morris, Pam. Dickens’s Class Consciousness: A Marginal View. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991. Helpful study of Dickens’ attacks on the British class system. Applies contemporary critical theories to Dickens’ polemical style of social criticism.

Newcomb, Mildred. The Imagined World of Charles Dickens. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989. Informative discussion of the loss of childhood. Very interesting consideration of the role of children in Dickens’ fiction as well as of the British educational system.

Watkins, Gwen. Dickens in Search of Himself: Recurrent Themes and Characters in the Work of Charles Dickens. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1987. Good treatment of Dickens’ interest in children, parenting, and love. Also helpful in its study of Dickens’ attitudes toward imagination.

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