Slackbridge: Character Analysis in Hard Times

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A Professional Leader: His Grandiloquent Rhetoric

      Slackbridge is the elected leader of factory workers. He is a man who has organized all the workmen into a union to claim their rights from employers. Like a professional leader he is an orator of extraordinary powers. His manner of addressing the workers is very effective. When he delivers his speech on the dismissal of Stephen his manner of addressing audience reminds us of Antony’s oration to the crowd in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. “Oh, my friends, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! Oh, my friends and fellow-countrymen, the slaves of iron-handed and grinding despotism! Oh, my friends and fellow-sufferers, fellow workmen and fellow-men”. This is how he starts his oration. Indeed, he succeeds in creating great impression upon the audience in spite of few who protest against him. He makes his oratory absurd and ridiculous through his inflated and exaggerated manner.

His Speech to Reproach Stephen

      Exaggeration is the central point of false oratory and Slackbridge employes it to the utmost degree. His speech to impeach Stephen Blackpool is the climax of his fantastic grandiloquent. He compares Stephen’s ‘no’ to join the worker’s union with the betrayal of “Christ by Judas Iscariot!” He regards Stephen as “a traitor and craven and a recreant”. He says that Stephen’s act of refusing to join the worker’s union is very humiliating and despicable. He uses several terms of insolence and contempt that comes into his mind. His speech is most abusive.

      On another occasion also when Bounderby has announced the reward to man who will assist in catching hold of Stephen, Slackbridge again presents his skill of rhetoric. Now he talks of Stephen in the following manner: “A thief! A plunderer! A prescribed fugitive, with a price upon his head; a fester and a wound upon the noble character of the Coketown operative.” This time he suggests that worker’s union should announce that it has already discarded Stephen Blackpool and that Stephen’s crime cannot be considered as a reflection upon the community of workers. Here also, Slackbridge’s grand oratory achieves its target.

Role of Slackbridge in the Plot

      Though Slackbridge’s role in the plot is very small but vital. It is he who makes Stephen an outcast, he persuades workers to expel Stephen from their community. Stephen finds himself utterly isolated. The reason behind Stephen’s decision to quit Coketown is the hostility of Slackbridge to him.

Trade Unionism is Ironically Commented

      Dickens has certain purpose behind the delineation of Slackbridge’s character. Slackbridge’s character does not claim our respect or regard for anything. In fact, he seems a detestable personality. We look upon him as a despicable fellow though he is a leader. In the depiction of Slackbridge as not a good man, Dickens is condemning trade Unionism when it crosses its limit. Dickens was certainly a man of socialistic views, with the utmost deep humanitarian feelings in his heart. But he had no soft corner for the agitators or demagogues like Slackbridge. Thus the portraiture of Slackbridge is an important feature of Hard Times, as a whole. This character of Slackbridge projects the intolerance of trade Unionism that becomes fanatical in its nature. Only because a workman who is honest, loyal and efficient refuses to join the worker’s union, he should be expelled according to Slackbridge’s philosophy. Slackbridge’s speech is no good oratory but an oratory full of fun and absurdity. In short Dickens has ironically commented on trade Unionism through the character of Slackbridge. For Dickens, this character is contemptuous. “In many great respects, he was essentially below them (that is his followers). He was not so honest, he was not so kindly, he was not so good-humoured; he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid sense, an ill-made, high-shouldered man he contrasted most unfavorably, even in this mongrel dress, with the great body of his hearers in their plain working clothes.”

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