The Mistaken Machinery of Coketown
Charles Dickens’s Hard Times presents a bleak comparison of nineteenth century factory workers with the machinery of the factories in which they work. Just as the machines are expected to function as a whole of their parts in the manufacture of goods, the factory workers of Coketown are expected to be part of that machinery. The workers have lives without individuality or personality, or at least that is what Dickens presents the reader with, giving insights from the higher citizenry of Coketown. Aptly named characters such as the school headmaster Mr. M’Choakumchild feeding his young charges with Facts. Mr. Gradgrind, grinding everyone, including the headmaster, with the necessity of Facts and the uselessness of daydreams, faeries and flights of fancy, and Mr. Bounderby, blustering and bullying over everyone with his stories of raising himself on the streets after being abandon. There is no nonsense or soft feelings, just Facts to be memorized and business to be dealt with.
From the beginning of Hard Times people are stripped of their individuality, none more than the students of the “monotonous vault of a school room” (Dickens 42) where students are identified by their student number, much like being referenced by a machine part number. Thus Sissy Jupe, to be called Cecilia when not being denoted by her appropriate number ‘twenty’, is further removed from any personality and to wanting of only “Facts…nothing but Facts” (Dickens 41). Tamara Ketabgian suggests that Dicken’s narrative “leaves us with images of obedient and long suffering engines, animals, and workers” (Ketabgian 2) and in the case of the blustering and flustering Cecelia-not Sissy-Jupe, students included. In the industrialized setting of Coketown, named for its coal fired factories whose chimneys spewed “interminable serpents of smoke” and whose streets were “are all very alike one another…inhabited by people …like one another” (Dickens 60). Ketabgian further compares the citizens of Coketown as identical, un-unique parts of the machinery, smaller parts of the whole, interchangeable, a “symptomatic figure for modernity… everything that the Victorian industrial masses threatened to become” (5).
Stephen Blackpool, one of the “Hands” of the Coketown is similarly broken down into his insignificant part in the machinery. His ‘hands’ considered by cold Facts of Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby, capable of performing such and such a task at so many hours producing a certain amount at his loom. Ketabgian argues that Dicken’s presents Blackpool as another part of the machine “devoted to and modeled upon the steady rhythms of factory work” (21). Despite the hardships in Blackpool’s personal life, married to the ‘wretch’ who periodically collapses into her husband’s life, not to enlighten or bring a spark of joy, but rather to “[sell] the furniture… [and] pawn the clothes” as if to temporarily bring the machine to a stop. Even with the personal obstacles that he must overcome, Blackpool displays that he is a sturdy piece of equipment maintaining his position as “a good power-loom weaver” (Dickens 100), a dependable part of the whole machine.
The citizens of Coketown have desolate lives with routine suffocating them just as the coal smoke from the factories suffocates them. The closer the circle of citizens to Mr. Gradgrind the more desolate the outlook. The workers of Coketown are seen as pieces of machinery capable performing at the factory but it is the children of Gradgrind who are dehumanized and presented Facts. The Gradgrind children will not be parts of the machinery in the factories but will be part of the machinery of business. Raised with “the circle of sciences…trained to mathematical exactness” (Dickens 50). The precise education and social status insists that these children will not be dabbling in the arts of fancy but will, if their father has his way, be running the machinery of business rather than simply running machinery. Either way, Dickens presents the lives of those in Coketown as automatic rather that imaginative, each fulfilling the required place in the machine of society that has been allotted them despite the advantages of station and education.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Ed. Graham Law. Toronto: Broadview Press, 2013. Print.
Ketabgian, Tamara. “‘Melancholy Mad Elephants’: Affect and the Animal Machine in Hard
Times.” Victorian Studies 45.4 (2003): 649-676.