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THE STORY

BOOK THE SECOND

CHAPTER IV

In a public hall in Coketown, a man named Slackbridge gives a passionate speech to a group of mill workers. He tells them that the time has come for them to join together and throw off the oppression that has suffocated them for so long- the oppression of the mill owners. Only when the workers are united in brotherhood, says Slackbridge, will they share the "glorious rights of Humanity."

There is a visible contrast between the speaker and the audience. He is "ill-made," with a continual sour expression; they are honest, sensible, good-humored. They hang on his every word because they sincerely feel that their lives can be made better and that Slackbridge might have the solution.

Slackbridge singles out one man for ridicule. This is a man who refuses to join the union, despite its benefits to the workers. Many boo at the reference to this man, but others insist that he be allowed to speak. The chairman of the meeting interrupts Slackbridge's tirade and introduces the outcast- Stephen Blackpool.

Stephen tells the audience that he's convinced the union will do more harm than good. But he also has a personal reason for not joining, one he can't share with them. The chairman urges him to think again before making a final decision, but Stephen has made up his mind. He knows that the rules demand he be shunned by the rest of the workers. He's willing to accept their avoidance of him, but he hopes he'll be allowed to keep his job. With that, he leaves the hall. Slackbridge takes to the podium again, to fire up the audience. The workers are soon cheering. Only a few feel guilty about their treatment of Stephen.

The next few days are solitary and painful for Stephen. The workers follow their pledge and won't speak to him or acknowledge his presence on the street. He begins to avoid Rachael, afraid that she would be shunned by the factory women.


NOTE: Although women worked in the factory, they had no say in the forming of the union. Only men were allowed to vote in these matters or in any election.

A few days after the union meeting, Stephen is stopped on the street by Bitzer, who tells him that Bounderby wants to see him right away.

NOTE: DICKENS'S VIEW OF UNIONS
The union meeting pictured in this chapter is crude and melodramatic. You might wonder from this portrayal if Dickens hated unions as much as he hated the mill owners. Some readers feel that the scene was added in response to those who felt that management was treated too harshly in the earlier chapters. Since Hard Times was a serial, Dickens could easily have added a scene to placate those critics. Others feel that Dickens was trying to show that there is evil on both sides. While management was filled with greedy taskmasters, unions were often run by demagogues (men who seize power by arousing people's emotions and prejudices). Dickens's sympathies were clearly for the working man and woman, unavoidably caught between two strong forces. In short, Dickens believed in the worth of the human being, not the worth of institutions easily corrupted.
 

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