BOOK THE FIRST
In the deepest, darkest corner of Coketown lives Stephen Blackpool, a weaver in one of the factories. Only forty, Stephen looks much older, a consequence of a life filled with tedious work and deprived of pleasure. Neither particularly intelligent nor learned, Stephen is nonetheless honest and hardworking.
NOTE: Stephen is the first of the poor citizens of Coketown we have met. His dreary surname, Blackpool, suggests that his life is as polluted and darkened by the situation in Coketown as are the skies and streams. Allegorically, Stephen represents the working class that Dickens wished to champion, and his is one of the major stories of the novel.
The work day is over, and an ugly rain falls. Stephen waits outside the factory, searching for someone among the crowds. Suddenly he spots her- Rachael, a gentle, attractive woman of thirty-five. They are old friends, and they speak of their deep affection for each other as they walk. Stephen is upset about certain laws, but Rachael urges him not to worry. Yet both agree that life is "a muddle."
NOTE: THE USE OF DIALECT
Stephen walks Rachael to her home and continues to his little room above a shop.
NOTE: The reference to the undertaker's ladder that appears in Rachael's street is a grim foreshadowing of events to come. It's a characteristic device of Dickens.
When Stephen enters his room, he is surprised and shocked by a woman there. She's dirty, drunk, ugly, dressed in rags. He knows her, and her return causes him great pain. But she merely screeches at him that she'll keep returning again and again. Then she claims his bed as her own and falls into a deep stupor. Stephen is forced to sleep in a chair.
It may seem that the story of Stephen, Rachael, and the mysterious woman has nothing to do with Bounderby and the Gradgrinds. But Dickens is a master at weaving two seemingly separate stories and having them intertwine as the novel unfolds.
This story also brings suspense to the plot, the kind that kept Dickens's weekly readers intrigued. What is Stephen and Rachael's relationship? Who is the witchlike woman? Dickens begins to whet our appetites for the next chapter.
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