Can you explain the first paragraph of Part 2, Chapter 1, in Hard Times by Charles Dickens?

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In this opening paragraph of Part 2 of Hard Times, Dickens uses some difficult language in his description of Coketown and it is much easier to understand if we break it down.

To begin, then, Dickens says:

"Seen from a distance in such weather, Coketown lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun's rays. You only knew the town was there, because you knew there could have been no such sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town."

Here, Dickens is describing Coketown as if we were standing and observing it from a great distance. He likens the town to a blotch on the horizon because it is not a very big place and because it is an industrial town, so lots of smoke bellows from its many chimneys. This gives the town an impression of being very hazy and dark, so it appears dark even on a sunny day. 

Next, Dickens says:

"A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now that way, now aspiring to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter: a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed nothing but masses of darkness:- Coketown in the distance was suggestive of itself, though not a brick of it could be seen."

Here, Dickens likens the town and its buildings to black smoke. They are dotted across the landscape, moving this way and that way, just like smoke in the wind. Furthermore, there are so many buildings, so tightly packed together, that they cannot be distinguished from one another, even if you are standing far away from the town.

Dickens uses lots of words and phrases in this paragraph to emphasise Coketown's gloomy feeling, like "murkily," "masses of darkness" and "black smoke." By doing this, Dickens not only creates a strong sense of atmosphere, but also makes clear his feelings about industrial towns: that they are dark and repressive places which have destroyed the picturesque landscape of England.  

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