Symbolic Significance of Coketown in Hard Times

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The Picture of Coketown in Hard Times

      Dickens has described Coketown in Book one Sowing Chapter 5. in the following manner: “Coketown, to which Messrs Bounderby and Gradgrind now walked, was a triumph of fact; it has no greater taint of fancy in it than Mrs. Gradgrind herself. Let us strike the key-note, Coketown, before pursuing our tune.” “It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but, as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black, like the pointed face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom everyday was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.”

      “The streets were hot and dusty on the summer day, and the sun was so bright that it even shone through the heavy vapor drooping over Coketown, and could not be looked at steadily. Stokers emerged from low underground doorways into factory yards, and sat on steps, and posts, and palings, wiping their swarthy visages, and contemplating coals. The whole town seemed to be frying in oil. There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere. The steam-engine shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills throughout their many stories oozed and trickled with it....Blit no temperature made the melancholy mad elephants more mad or more sane. Their wearisome heads went up and down at the same rate, in hot weather and cold, wet weather and dry, fair weather and foul. The measured motion of their shadows on the walls, was the substitute Coketown had to show for the shadows of rustling woods; while, for the summer hum of insects, it could offer, all the year round, from the dawn of Monday to the night of Saturday, the whir of shafts and wheels.”

      “Seen from a distance, in such weather, Coketwon lay shrouded in a haze of its own, which appeared impervious to the sun’s rays. You could only know the town was there, because you knew there could have been so much sulky blotch upon the prospect without a town. A blur of soot and smoke, now confusedly tending this way, now aspiring to the vault of Heaven, now murkily creeping along the earth, as the wind rose and fell, or changed its quarter: a dense formless jumble, with sheets of cross light in it, that showed nothing but madness of darkness:—Coketown in the distance was suggestive of itself, though not a brick of it could be seen.”

Coketown: The Background

      Hard Times gives the picture of Coketown as a sprawling, blackened, red-brick monster. Its clattering mills lit up ‘like fairy palaces” at night, while the smoke trails in never-ending serpents from their chimneys, enveloping the whole district in a dingy pall. Dickens has been criticized for obscurity in these descriptions. Indeed, there is a detailed picture of a mill or machine or the work being done there. We are not even informed whether wool, or cotton is being woven, but it was definitely cotton because Harthouse regards the laborers as “members of the fluffy class. Dickens was not interested in engineering. Despite a special visit to Lancashire for the documentation of the novel Hard Times, machines did not fascinate, him at all. But whatever he says about the steam-powered looms makes a picture more vast than could record of precise interpretation. He depicts the piston as working “monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.” This kind of impressionistic image, though not photographic is superbly significant. Beyond the field of factual reporting, in a flash of imagination, it informs us a good about the frenzied urgency of production for gain, while keeping aside Gradgrind’s system of teaching through defining. Every passage written about the town and mills show Dickens’ consistency. When Dickens interprets a hot summer day, the reader is almost offended by the smell of the oil in which Coketown is frying. Throughout the novel he is taking favor of imagination as against naked facts and prosaic analysis. The imagery of imagination is used to ridicule the statistician’s condemnation of human spirit.

Coketown Laying Unity to the Novel

      Coketown gives unity to the Hard Times. Its smoke and stench, the dye-blackened river and the thundering mills are symbols that very forcefully created the atmosphere of such a town. It is said that Coketown represents Manchester but there were several small centers of industry that resemble the general outline equally well. The common effect is a forceful impression of the stifling effect of the pattern of industrial life on the life-values of humanity Blanketing the whole book, the town of mills, monotony and suffering in the industrial north of England unifies all different strands of the story because it brings together all the individuals and groups existing in the novel. The wealthy dispose of the facts of industrial life in Coketown; the workmen suffer them; the circus horse-riders do what they can to relieve them by the introduction of sanity in the form of imagination.

Coke town: Its Symbolic Significance

      In the view of Edgar Johnson, Hard Times is a morality drama, stark, formalized, suggestive, ruled by the mood of penetrating through the hidden meaning of the industrial scene rather than interpreting it in minute details. Giving his opinion on the setting of the novel, he says, “Every packed detail of this entire setting is surcharged with significant emotional and intellectual comment, and every character among the small unified group, symbolic and stylized, who act out their drama in the gritty industrial world, serves to deepen and intensify the meaning. Josiah Bounderby, banker and manufacturer, is its blatant greed and callous in humanity in action. Thomas Gradgrind, a retired wholesale hardware dealer, man of facts and figures, is the embodiment of utilitarian economic theory and its endeavor to dry up life into statistical averages. Young Thomas Gradgrind, devoted first and only to his own advantage, is the mean product of the paternal theories ... The daughter Louisa in their predestined tragic victim going to her doom ..... The consummate achievement of Mr. Gradgrind’s system is represented by Bitzer, one of the pupils graduated from the day school founded by Gradgrind (in Coketown): for Bitzer everything is a matter of bargain and sale, accessible to no appeal except that of self-interest.”

      This kind of description of Coketown creates an obvious contempt in the reader towards the unnatural terror of Coketown that is nauseating and crippling its inhabitants, Dickens also lays stress on cramping and stifling consequences of industrial haste and anarchy. Ultimately Dickens also includes to the horror of a crippling environment by calling attention to “an immense variety” of ill-formed shapes. The handicapped people of Coketown are symbolically presented through their cramped and mishappen houses. The unnatural instrument of industry is described through images drawn from the natural world of animals and savages. There is an ironical contrast between the Coketown’s shaked and unpleasant character and the comforts and beauty it produces through its manufactured goods. In fact, Dickens’ portraiture of Coketown focuses an ugly picture of the ravages made by industrial society.

      Further, in a remarkable passage the fire of the furnaces is compared to the human passions. When Louisa is contemplating over Bounderby’s marriage proposal, she is questioned by her father, “Are you consulting the chimneys if the Coketown works?” Louisa replies: “There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, fire bursts out.”


      Dickens gives a light picture of the serious realities of the northern industrial town that did little beyond providing sleeping and working houses for their workers. The ugly picture of the life - in Coketown comes when Dickens explains the steam-engine as “like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness”. Dickens suggests that Coketown is an essential product of the wrong attitude. The "severely wakeful” town shows the consequence of confining outlook to fact. “The relation between master and man were all fact.” It projects the contemporary commercial gospel: “What you couldn’t state in figures or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.” Only by sacrificing something needful could you get house so discouraging and labor so moderate.

University Questions

How far Coketown gives unity to Hard Times. Elaborate.
Write an essay on the symbolic significance of Coketown in Hard Times.

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