BOOK THE SECOND
Arriving at Bounderby's house, Stephen is ushered into the drawing room, where Bounderby, Louisa, and Harthouse are gathered. Bounderby demands to hear about the Combination (union), and he is outraged at Stephen's silence.
Bounderby wants Stephen to denounce Slackbridge as a troublemaker. Stephen is sorry that Slackbridge has power over the workers, but poor leadership is all these people are ever offered.
Stephen then offers a moving defense of the mill workers as honest, hardworking, and faithful. Bounderby is merely frustrated, not moved. He urges Stephen to fist for Harthouse the workers' complaints, and he does: poor conditions, long hours, management that treats them as numbers, not people. Getting rid of Slackbridge- or one hundred Slackbridges- won't help. Things will still be "a muddle."
Bounderby concludes that Stephen is one of those workers who always have a complaint, and fires him. Stephen reminds Bounderby that if he can't get work in Coketown, no one else will hire him either. His pleas seem to affect only Louisa, but she says nothing. Stephen leaves the house, praying for heaven to help the world.
NOTE: This scene between Bounderby and Stephen may seem forced and long-winded to you. If so, you're not alone. Rather than a conversation between two people, it seems more a debate between figures representing management and labor. Readers have pointed out that Stephen does not speak like a mill worker and is too obviously Dickens's mouthpiece. Dickens the reformer seems to have overwhelmed Dickens the novelist.
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