F.R. Leavis on Trade Union Scenes in Hard Times

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      F.R Leavis has objected that “when Dickens comes to the Trade Unions his understanding of the world he offers to deal with betrays a marked limitation. There were undoubtedly professional agitators; and Trade Union solidarity was undoubtedly often asserted at the expense of the individual rights, but it is a score against a work so insistently typical in intention that it should give the representative role to the agitator, Slackbridge, and make Trade Unionism nothing better than the pardonable error of the misguided and oppressed, and, as such, an agent in the martyrdom of the good working man.” Therefore, the Trade Union scenes in Hard Times are not convincing; though Dickens became successful in probing when in Bounderby’s conversation with Blackpool, he expresses the subconscious sympathy between owners and trade union joined against individualistic workers. The independent worker Stephen is criticized by his fellow workers for not joining the trade union and dismissed by Bounderby for favoring the worker’s demands.

      But if we see the letter of Dickens written to Mrs. Gaskell, we reach the conclusion that it was not under his task to describe strike scenes or elaborately discuss the trade union activities.

      Edgar Johnson observes, “The only weakness in Dickens’’ handling of the industrial scene are his caricature of the union organizer Slackbridge and his portrayal of that noble but dismal representative of the laboring classes, Stephen Blackpool. Slackbridge, with his windy and whining rhetoric....is a figment of imagination...Such a description is a piece of sheer ignorance, not because union leaders cannot be windbags and humbugs as other politicians can, but because labor organizers are not like Slackbridge and do not talk like him, and did not do so in Dickens’ day anymore than in ours. Dickens know human nature too well to know that fundamentally laboring men were like all men, and he knew domestic servants and artisans working for small tradesmen, but of the class manners and behavior of industrial laborers he had made no more than a superficial observation in some half-dozen trips through the Midlands. He had attended only one union meeting in his life, during the Preston strike in January, 1854.

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