Summary and Analysis
Book One: Chapters 10-13
These chapters present a picture of the struggles, the desperation, and the momentary joys of the working class. Entitled "Stephen Blackpool," "No Way Out," "The Old Woman," and "Rachael," they are chapters of character representation, of Dickens' philosophy, and of symbolism.
The tenth chapter injects some of Dickens' philosophy into the character sketch of Stephen Blackpool, a power-loom weaver in the Bounderby mill. Representative of Dickens' picture of the Hands, Stephen, a man of integrity, is forty years of age. Even though he has been married for many years, his wife had left him long ago. In this chapter, the seeds of Stephen's discontent are revealed when he returns to his lonely apartment after walking his beloved Rachael home and finds that his drunken wife has returned. Through the words of Blackpool, the reader learns that Dickens believes the laws of England to be unfair to the poor workingman. On the other hand, Dickens lets Rachael, the woman whom Stephen loves, tell him that he should not be bitter toward the laws. When he realizes that the object of his misery has re-entered his life, he sinks into despair; tied to this disreputable creature, he can never marry Rachael.
The title of the eleventh chapter, "No Way Out," is significant in that it characterizes Stephen's hopeless marriage and the seemingly futile struggles of the working class. This chapter also contains imagery that adds to the tone of the story. Dickens satirizes the Industrial Revolution as he likens the roaring furnace to Fairy Palaces and the factories to elephants from which belch forth the serpents of death-giving smoke. The people must breathe this poison daily as they struggle with the monstrous machines in order to earn a pittance. Dickens also satirizes Malthus' system of determining the economy through arithmetic.
Further, one sees Stephen going to his employer to seek help with his marriage. Bounderby's title could well be "Bully of Humanity" for the manner in which he deals with this worker. Stephen learns only one thing: the laws are truly for the benefit of the rich. If he leaves his drunken wife or if he harms her or if he marries Rachael or if he just lives with Rachael without the sanction of marriage, Stephen will be punished, for the laws are thus arranged; on the other hand, if he seeks a divorce, he cannot obtain one, for money is the only key that opens the doors of the courts of justice in England. As he leaves Bounderby's house, Stephen concludes that the laws of the land are a muddle. During the entire discussion, Mrs. Sparsit listens and seems to agree with her boasting employer. Bounderby terminates the interview with his favorite comment: "I see traces of turtle soup, and venison, and gold spoon in this." In other words, he regards the Hands as people desiring the best of life without working for it.
The twelfth chapter, entitled "The Old Woman," introduces mystery into the novel. As Stephen departs from Bounderby's house, he encounters an old woman who asks eagerly about Bounderby. She seems to be entranced as she looks at Bounderby's house and the factory. Stephen, too dejected concerning his own affairs, answers her many questions but does not wonder as to her interest in his employer.
Again, through satire, Dickens censures the machine age by referring to the towering smoke pipes as Towers of Babel, speaking without being understood. At the end of his long day, Stephen turns his feet homeward, walking slowly, dreading to re-enter the small apartment where his wife lies in a drunken stupor.
In Chapter 13, Dickens enters the story again as he draws a portrait of Rachael, the thirty-five-year-old Hand, as a ministering angel. Through Stephen, Dickens expresses the thought that during the nineteenth century there was no equality among people except at birth and death. Stephen, on entering the apartment, finds his beloved Rachael seated by the bedside of his wife. She tells him that his landlady had summoned her to care for the sick woman. His love for Rachael fills him momentarily as he hears her refer to his wife as one of the sick and the lost, a sister who does not realize what she is doing. He and Rachael sit by the woman's bedside, watching over her while Rachael treats her injuries. As the night lengthens, Stephen falls into a troubled sleep and is wakened just in time to see his wife reach for one of the bottles of antiseptic. The seeds of his misery begin to grow as he watches stupor-like, knowing that if she drinks the poisonous preparation she will die. He seems to be dreaming of his own death, knowing that it would come before he had lived happily. As he watches the woman reach for the instrument of her own death, he sits unmoving. Perhaps the object of his miserable existence will be taken; although frightened at his thoughts, he cannot act as the distraught woman pours from the bottle. But Rachael awakens and seizes the deadly cup. Stephen bows in shame for what he almost let happen, blesses Rachael as an angel, and tells her that her act has saved him from complete destruction. She consoles him and leaves the apartment, knowing that he will not weaken again. To him she is the shining star that illuminates the night as compared to the heavy candle that dispels only a little of the darkness that shrouds the world.