BOOK THE SECOND
It's a sunny day in Coketown, which, seen from afar, seems only a "blur of soot and smoke."
NOTE: Dickens is something of a prophet for his belief that industrial smoke and waste were unhealthy to the environment and to people. It was not until well into the twentieth century that the full effects of pollution were recognized and laws passed to prevent industrial abuse of the air and water.
On this stifling day, Mrs. Sparsit sits at the window of her apartment at the bank. She now has a deaf maid to attend to her and the assistance of the bank's light porter (messenger), who is none other than Sissy's old headache, Bitzer. Mrs. Sparsit is indulging in one of her favorite pastimes- pitying Bounderby for his marriage, now a year old.
When Bitzer brings her tea, the two gossip. Bitzer has little to report, only that the mill workers are planning a trade union, which Mrs. Sparsit finds disgraceful. She suggests firing anyone who attempts to join such a union, but Bitzer says that tactic has failed.
Mrs. Sparsit represents those of the upper classes who felt threatened by workers joining together to act as one. It is a prejudice that some employers still hold, no doubt.
Bitzer acts as a spy for Mrs. Sparsit. We learn that his own mother is in a workhouse, allowed only half a pound of tea a year from her generous son.
Bitzer's other bit of gossip concerns young Tom Gradgrind, whom he hates. Bitzer finds him lazy, untrustworthy, useless. He also has unkind words for the millworkers, whom he considers spendthrifts and pleasure seekers.
Don't forget that Bitzer is one of Gradgrind's prize pupils, who represents for Dickens another result of such an education. Bitzer is smug, sneaky, selfish.
A young, handsome man has arrived to see Mrs. Sparsit. He has with him a letter of introduction to Bounderby from Gradgrind, whom he met in London. The well-bred stranger knows just how to flatter Mrs. Sparsit, and she is soon putty in his hands. After making inquiries about Mrs. Bounderby's age, he asks directions to the Bounderby house.
After he leaves, Mrs. Sparsit comments favorably on the gentleman. Bitzer suggests that he looks like he "games" (gambles), and both voice their disapproval of the habit. When Bitzer leaves, she sits alone at the window until Bitzer announces dinner. At her solitary meal, the only words that escape her lips are, "O, you fool."
Mrs. Sparsit's "fool" is undoubtedly addressed to Bounderby, since she spends most of her time thinking about him. Why does she care so much? Her behavior is not easy to explain, as you shall see.
The gentleman is yet another stranger added to the story. Why is he in London? Why does he inquire about Mrs. Bounderby? Dickens continues to build his suspenseful plot.
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