The action of Hard Times takes place in the city of Coketown and the surrounding countryside. Coketown represents a number of industrial towns in northern England- such as Manchester and Preston. It was Dickens's visit to Manchester almost fifteen years before he wrote Hard Times that gave him the impetus to write the novel. For further research as he was beginning to write his novel, Dickens traveled to the mill town of Preston, scene of a famous labor strike in 1853. Although Dickens did not choose to dramatize a strike in Hard Times, he probably found the model for the union organizer Slackbridge in Preston.
The atmosphere of Coketown is essential to the novel's mood. Dickens's images suggest an urban jungle. "Serpents" of smoke rise from factory chimneys to clog the skies with soot. The steam engine has an "elephant's head" that monotonously lifts up and down and fills the air with horrible sounds. All the red brick buildings are blackened with soot, and each building looks tediously like the next. Even on a sunny day, the sun can't penetrate the grime in the air. From a distance the town looks like a blur of smoke and dirt.
The depressing surroundings take their toll on the citizens, who are consistently woeful. The dreariness of the town is symbolically liked to the philosophies that govern the citizens' lives. No sunlight can penetrate the clouds, and no sense of imagination or fun is allowed to alleviate the tedium of the workaday world.
The main characters are no less affected by their surroundings. Louisa and Tom are so deprived of color and fun in their lives that the arrival of a traveling circus is a source of guilty pleasure for them. Stephen Blackpool and Rachael are first seen together in the midst of a grimy rain. Coketown offers them no other pleasure but their friendship. Gradgrind, Bounderby, Mrs. Sparsit, and Bitzer are all humorless, unhappy people. Their grim personalities are as much products of their environment as they themselves are victims of the philosophies that rule their lives.
Some readers have pointed to minor inaccuracies in Dickens's portrayal of Coketown. Not all such towns had these unsanitary conditions or unspeakable working situations. But Dickens was working for a poetic reality, not the literal truth. His occasional exaggerations or inventions are done to prove a point, and few can deny that he achieves a remarkable portrait of an industrial city whose suffocating influence is never far from your mind as you read. In fact, "Coketown" has come to represent a term for such grimy towns throughout the world, some of which still exist, although laws for pollution control have done a great deal to lessen their hazardous effects.
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© Copyright 1985 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.