Black Pools of Tragedy

Charles Dicken’s Hard Times is a novel depicting the destructive forces of utilitarianism on the modern world following the Industrial Revolution. Through the vivid characters interwoven throughout the text, Dickens exemplifies the devastation caused by the mechanization and dehumanization of human beings as factory workers. This central theme is most readily seen in the tragic character of Stephen Blackpool and the unbefitting repetition of struggles he is forced to endure for the sake of morality and personal integrity. Even Stephen’s last name alludes to the somber, black pools of tragedy that immerse his life as a humble factory worker. Dickens uses the setting in which Stephen Blackpool lives, as well as his appearance, speech, social interactions, and death, to unashamedly attack the destructive nature of utilitarianism.In the tenth chapter of Dicken’s Book the First, Stephen Blackpool is first introduced as a character in the drab Coketown factory setting. “In the hardest working part of Coketown…where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in…the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death…among the multitude of Coketown…lived a certain Stephen Blackpool, forty years of age” (68). Stephen comes from the inner most heart of the laboring town. Whereas personified “Nature” would be expected to live amongst a healthy community of people, artificial bricks have been erected in Coketown to create an “unnatural” town with images of deadly gas, fumes, and smog. Even the family unit, which is often viewed as the core element of most communities, has been cannibalized and set against itself with competition, “shouldering, and trampling.” Within the harsh and oftentimes dangerous world of factory labor, a man of forty years of age would be considered an elder worker. For Steven to have survived to the age of forty attests to his diligence and endurance as a loom weaver. The setting in which Stephen is described emphasizes the contrast between the external, noxious environment and his true identity that is revealed as a man of heart, integrity, and goodness in the following chapters.Decades of work as a weaver in Coketown have shaped the physical appearance of Stephen’s body: “a rather stooping man, with a knitted brow, a pondering expression of face, and a hard-looking head sufficiently capacious” (68). Stern, weathered, and “stooping” images depict Stephen’s physical condition, but beyond the deep brow and hunching shoulders lie glimpses into his true character: a “pondering,” searching, “hard-looking” man with an ample capacity for goodness. Following this brief description of Stephen’s appearance, the reader is immediately told, “whereby somebody else had become possessed of his roses, he had been possessed of somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own” (68). Undoubtedly Stephen Blackpool is an afflicted character with ragged scars from life in Coketown. The roses of life, whether rooted in a happy marriage, a faithful family, a satisfying job, or a life of fruitful works, have all been denied to Stephen. As a man with thorns and pain, Stephen cannot survive in his present position. Coketown and other factory towns driven solely by industry and production do not value individuals like Stephen. “He was a good power-loom weaver, and a man of perfect integrity” (69). The primary value of Stephen’s life is placed in his identity as a “good power-loom weaver.” Only secondarily can he be described as having impeccable integrity because workers in this utilitarian system were solely valued in the quantitative measures of production. Through the character of Stephen Blackpool, Dickens asserts integrity and individuality have no place to root and grow in these bleak conditions.Allegorically, Stephen can be seen as a character that represents what happens to industrial workers when they are dehumanized and valued only for the sake of factory output. While this allegorical characterization holds true throughout Dicken’s novel, Stephen can also be examined on a distinct and unique level when compared to the other factory workers. When seen in relation to the other laborers, referred to as “Hands” in Hard Times, Stephen “held no station among the other Hands who could make speeches and carry on debates” (68). His simple speech and inability to deny personal integrity leads Stephen into further tragedy once Slackbridge and other union agitators rise up against him. After being cast out of his workers’ group, Stephen must report to the factory owner Mr. Bounderby. When prompted by Bounderby to relay information on the individuals instigating the United Aggregate Tribunal, Steven responds, “They’ve not doon me a kindness…but what believes as he has doon his duty by the rest and by himself. God forbid as I, that ha’ ett’n an drooken wi’ em, an seet’n wi’ em, and toil’n wi’ em, and lov’n ’em, should fail fur to stan by ’em ‘wi the truth, let ’em ha doon to me what they may” (151). Even though Stephen has been rejected and abandoned by his fellow workers, he refuses to give Bounderby any information to use against the laborers. Not only does Stephen’s character reflect the contrast between the agitators’ corruption and his own standard of virtue, but his character also emphasizes the contrasts between the laborers’ poverty and brotherhood as compared to Bounderby’s affluence and self-interest. To greater exemplify the disparity between Stephen and Bounderby’s characters, Dickens writes, “‘Now, a’ God’s name,’ said Stephen Blackpool, ‘show me the law to help me!’ ‘Hem! There’s a sanctity in this relation of life,’ said Mr Bounderby, ‘and-and-it must be kept up'” (79). In communities like Coketown, equality between the factory laborers and owners cannot exist because prominent figures like Bounderby are sure to maintain “sanctity” and inequality no matter what the moral cost. When looking at the character of Stephen Blackpool, Dickens stresses the stark contrast and incompatibility between the ideals of utilitarian communities as opposed to the ideals of a man like Stephen Blackpool with “perfect integrity.”Once Stephen is exiled from Coketown for his alleged and unfounded blasphemy, he finds himself in search of a new home. Upon Stephen’s departure from Coketown, Dickens remarks, “so strange to turn from the chimneys to the birds. So strange to have the road-dust on his feet instead of the coal-grit. So strange to have lived to his time of life, and yet to be beginning like a boy this summer morning!” (167). So strange to fathom the persecution thrown on a man like Stephen Blackpool with faultless character. When Stephen’s name is eventually slandered for the robbery of Bounderby’s bank, he decidedly returns to Coketown to defend his honor and integrity. However, after falling down the Old Hell Shaft, Stephen expresses his dying wish to Mr. Gradgrind, “Sir, yo will clear me an mak my name good wi’ aw men. This I leave to you” (274). Without a name of honor to live on, Coketown’s agitators would eternally defeat Stephen’s integrity; therefore a cleared name for Stephen is of utmost importance. Once Stephen succumbs to his fatal wounds from the fall, Dickens writes, “the star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness, he had gone to his Redeemer’s rest” (275). Only in death can a good man like Stephen find peace and rest from the black pools of tragedy that plagued his life in the utilitarian setting of Coketown.Dicken’s theme of depicting the destructive forces of utilitarianism, mechanization, and dehumanization is found throughout the context of Hard Times, and specifically in the character of Stephen Blackpool. By shaping the honor displayed in this character’s physical appearance, speech, social interactions and death to blatantly contrast the lack of morality in utilitarian industrialization, Dickens voices his condemnation on the destructive dehumanization present during this modern era. Unless changes are made, in the words of Stephen Blackpool­a man of impeccable integrity­the world will flood with black pools of tragedy and inevitably become “a muddle! Aw a muddle!” (273).

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