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How does Dickens vividly convey what a miserable place Coketown is?


Hard Times offers a scathing commentary of nineteenth century concepts of industry and education. It is a caricature and a microcosm of industrial England, and is an open critique of the utilitarian philosophy penned by men of ‘fact and calculation’ such as Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham, and Thomas Malthus, satirised by the characters Thomas Gradgrind and Josiah Bounderby, wealthy industrialists. Dickens portrays a dystopian city, one that crushes the fancy and imagination of rich and poor alike, under a philosophy of logic, fact and reason.


One way in which Dickens conveys how miserable Coketown is his description of the town in the opening pages of Chapter 5, ‘The Key-note’. He describes Coketown as ‘a town of red brick, or brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it.’ The harsh repression of red, the color of passion, shows what a dismal and oppressive environment Coketown is. Much like Gradgrind’s philosophy of suppressing the innocent childhood imaginations of his students, Coketown seems to suppress its inhabitants with the dull monotony and dreariness of the town’s industrial atmosphere.


Furthermore, Dickens also describes the town as one of ‘unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.’ This likeness to a stereotypical tribal figure, although full of the prejudices of its time, is a subversive symbol in that the industrial revolution, which was the considered the embodiment of progress at the time, was actually regressive and moving society back towards uncivilsied vicious savagery. The harsh repression of fancy and entertainment at the hands of the factory owners and those who share Gradgrind’s philosophy causes playful, fanciful imagery to surface in distorted, corrupted imagery such as when he describes the billowing smoke of the factory chimneys: ‘interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled.’


This can also be seen in Dickens’ portrayal of inanimate objects when he describes industrial machines as ‘elephants in a state of melancholy madness’. The fusion of the elephant, a majestic and exotic (to the readers of Hard Times) animal, and the machine, represents the distorted image and chaining of man’s innate fancy to the industrial culture of nineteenth century England, and is a common motif in Hard Times. The elephants wandering in the industrial ‘jungle’ is an allegorical reflection both to the feelings of melancholy and madness in the many toiling ‘hands’ that work under Josiah Bounderby. Again, this subverted fusion of the exotic and fanciful with the grim philosophies of industry and utilitarianism is also presented with the description of the Coketown factories as ‘fairy palaces’. The fact that the factories are squalid, architecturally spartan, and the centrepiece of coldly calculating utilitarian philosophies which repress fanciful ideas such as fairies is hugely ironic, to say cuttingly satirical, and adds to the theme of unhealthy repression.


Nor are the ‘hands’ the only ones crushed under the Gradgrind philosophy. While the hands are ground down by laborious industrial work, treated as cogs in the gluttonous machine of industrialism, even the wealthy suffer from Gradgrind’s combination of utilitarianism, industrialism, and fact-based education. Dickens scathingly exposes how Gradgrind’s treatment of his children chokes and stunts their growth, and backfires on him. Tom Gradgrind Jr., harshly dissuaded from going to the circus (representing healthy imagination being repressed and kept from his mind), eventually rebels by stealing Bounderby’s petty wealth from his bank, and flees to the circus.  For all of his education, he becomes a liar, thief and throughly selfish individual.


Dickens leaves the most scathing satire to the end of the novel, when Thomas Gradgrind Senior  confronts his namesake at the circus, and the unrepentant Tom Junior, dressed as a blackamoor responds by telling him to ‘comfort yourself’ with the principle that crime is an inevitable statistical fact in a populace. His daughter Louisa has had her empathy and emotion smothered by Gradgrind’s teachings; she knows very little of love, and can only express her desire for love by staring achingly into a fire. After her loveless marriage to Mr Bounderby, who is thirty years her senior, she also comes close to eloping with James Harthouse, an aristocrat visiting on parliamentary business, and bringing shame to her family. Dickens foreshadows this when she says that ‘when night comes, fire bursts out’. With fire representing her repressed love and empathy, this statement can be seen as another example of the theme of unhealthy repression, which is prevalent throughout Hard Times.


The misery in Coketown is further emphasized by the fact that through Gradgrind’s education and Coketown’s society, both of which are built upon self-interest succesffully prevail over virtue. There is no concept of charity or generosity, illustrated through Bitzer, whose only motive for the capture of Young Tom, heartless in his intent, is to assume Young Tom’s position at the Bounderby’s bank. Rather than allow Young Tom to escape and spare Gradgrind of his shame, when asked ‘Have you a heart?’ by Gradgrind, Bitzer responds coldly and factually about his motive and the product of Gradgrind’s education backfires on him and illustrates Dickens’ agricultural motif that ‘you reap what you sow’.


Furthermore, the structure of Coketown contradicts the order of nature, a common theme in Hard Times. In the novel, the town is described as ‘That ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in.’  This constant battle between the ideals and philosophy of the people of Coketown, murderous in itself; and nature - the bringer of life and imagination is seen in the novel with Gradgrind’s arid and barren education against the fruitful garden that childhood should be.


Dickens emphasises ‘fact’ at the start of the novel, using repetition, for example, ‘‘Fact, fact, fact!’ repeated Thomas Gradgrind’ in the chapter aptly entitled ‘Murdering the Innocents’. The repetition at the start almost reflects the dullness of the lower class’ working lives in the new, industrialised city. Gradgrind infamously says, ‘Now, what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.’ In this line, the harsh, man-made, industrial-scale facts are contrasted with the natural imagery of farming, sowing and cultivating.


In conclusion, the misery of Coketown is strikingly conveyed by using subversive circus imagery that conveys a strong message of the ‘state of the nation’, painting it as regressing back to a less civilized age. The education is also described as suppressing the natural workings of childish imagination and human satisfaction, where agricultural metaphors are deployed to illustrate the dearth that comes from blighting innocence. Lastly, the treatment of the Coketown workers further conveys how the self-interested, profit-focused Bounderby goes against ethical and moral codes, treating the workers like industrial machines that can be easily replaced and forgotten.


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