. . . not all the calculators of the National debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice. . . .
Sissy Jupe does very poorly at the school because she is simply unable to adopt the cold, hard devotion to fact that is demanded of her. Instead, she continues to cling to what Mr. Gradgrind thinks of as ridiculous, fanciful notions, such as the idea that her father will come back for her. One day, Louisa convinces Sissy secretly to talk about life with her father. Louisa, raised to never feel strong emotion, finds herself very moved by Sissy’s deep feelings. During the conversation with Sissy, Tom frequently reminds Louisa to watch out for Bounderby, in case he should catch her “wondering” about Sissy’s past.
One night, in the most hardworking, grimy district of Coketown, a simple and brutally poor man named Stephen Blackpool goes home from his job as a power loom operator in Mr. Bounderby’s factory. Stephen is a Hand, one of the lowest menial laborers in Coketown. He talks briefly in the street to Rachael, the pure, honest woman he loves, then goes home, where he is stunned to find his wayward, immoral, and generally absent wife lying in his bed. In order to soothe the misery of poverty, his wife has become an alcoholic, and although Stephen wishes to divorce her, he nevertheless pities her.
Disturbed by his wife’s sudden reappearance, Stephen visits Mr. Bounderby the next day to ask humbly if he has any legal recourse and any possibility of obtaining a divorce. Arrogantly, and with many references to his own impoverished childhood, Bounderby explains that only the wealthy can obtain divorces and that Stephen would be better off accepting his miserable situation.
Outside Bounderby’s house, Stephen meets a strange old woman who has traveled into the city from the country. She tells Stephen that every year she saves enough money to make the long journey into Coketown for a single day, just long enough to catch a glimpse of Mr. Bounderby. She fears that Bounderby will not come out of his house that day and says that seeing Stephen just after he saw Bounderby must satisfy her for this year. The old woman follows him to Bounderby’s grim factory and inexplicably praises its beauty. After work is over for the day, Stephen wanders the streets, trying to avoid going home to his drunken wife. As he wanders, Stephen imagines the pleasant, happy home he could share with Rachael if only he were free to remarry.
With the introduction of Stephen Blackpool, the novel delves into the world of the Hands, the working-class, horribly impoverished denizens of Coketown whom Dickens uses to represent the plight of the poor. Stephen, with his simple honesty and love for the angelic Rachael, is shown to be a good character despite his horrible marriage. He immediately contrasts with the blustery, self-obsessed Bounderby, a difference hammered home when Stephen visits his employer to ask about the possibility of divorcing his wife. Having heard that there is a law permitting divorce under certain circumstances, Stephen inquires into the details of this law. However, Bounderby makes it clear that there are no laws to help Stephen—all laws are made by the rich, for the rich. Bounderby callously tells Stephen that, as a poor man, he has no recourse but to accept his lot. Furthermore, Bounderby reminds Stephen that “[t]here’s a sanctity in the relation” of marriage that “must be kept up.” Although he shows no pity for Stephen’s misery, these words later come back to haunt Bounderby when his own marriage becomes troubled.
On top of his utter lack of pity, Bounderby then accuses Stephen of wanting to eat turtle soup with a gold spoon. This accusation results from Bounderby’s belief that all Hands are improvident, -dishonest cretins who simply want to get ahead, when in reality Bounderby, who very well could eat turtle soup with a gold spoon, is the only character guilty of fitting that description. His belief that Hands are lazy good-for-nothings is part of his rhetoric of the self-made man. As he constantly reminds us, he managed to rise from his humble beginnings to become the wealthy owner of factories and a bank. If the Hands were not so lazy, he implies, surely they could do the same.
While Stephen and Rachael are the only Hands who become fully developed characters in the course of the novel, Dickens provides many generalized views of the Hands and their working conditions. Like the novel itself, these impressions are structured through the contrast between fact and fancy. For instance, at the beginning of Chapter 11, the narrator describes the awakening of the Coketown factories: “The Fairy palaces burst into illumination before pale morning showed the monstrous serpents of smoke trailing themselves over Coketown.” The fairy palaces are, in fact, simply the factories bursting with light as the fires are lit inside them. While Dickens suggests that fancy can make even Coketown beautiful and magical, the image is ironic because these palaces house the poorest segment of society and are filled with noise, grime, and smoke. While the description of Coketown does not specify the horrors of the Hands’ working conditions, it does create a general impression of filth and noise.
Dickens has been criticized for not developing his working-class characters fully, or not depicting them in as much detail as his -middle-class characters. For instance, when the narrator describes the Hands at work, he merely states: “So many hundred Hands in the Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power.” The term “Hands” itself depersonalizes the workers by referring to them by the part of their body that performs their tasks in the factories. Much of Hard Times is devoted to pointing out how the middle classes ignore the poor. Perhaps, then, Dickens is calling for a more sympathetic and insightful examination of the working and living conditions of poor people in Victorian England. The narrator implies as much when he declares that “not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good or evil . . . in one of these its quiet servants.” The narrator thus points out how little is known about the poor and how little interest society shows in their thoughts, feelings, and problems. Hard Times does not fully answer the question of how the poor live, but instead tries to impel us to start asking this question for ourselves.