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.