BOOK THE THIRD
On a lovely Sunday morning, Sissy and Rachael take a walk in the woods. The pollution of Coketown is so intense that they must take a train several miles out of town to find clean air.
Along the path, Sissy spots a rotten piece of fence that looks recently broken. Investigating it further, they find footprints, and near the footprints, a hat with Stephen Blackpool's name on it.
Venturing cautiously, afraid of what they might find, they come upon the open pit of an abandoned mine. Certain that Stephen is there, Rachael becomes hysterical. First Sissy and then Rachael call into the mine several times, but there is no answer. In desperation the two women separate and look for help.
Soon they have roused nearby villagers, who spread the word that someone has fallen down the Old Hell Shaft. A message is sent to Louisa, and the villagers gather equipment to pull Stephen out of the pit, if he is down there.
The common thought is that there is little hope that whoever is in the pit has survived. By the time a device for hoisting the body is erected, Gradgrind, Tom, Louisa, and Bounderby have arrived from town.
One man descends into the pit and comes out minutes later with the news that Stephen is alive, but badly hurt. Stephen has told his rescuer that he fell on the way to Bounderby's after dark. He's been lying there for several days, kept alive by scraps of food in his pocket.
After a painful wait, Stephen is finally pulled from the shaft, weak and near death. Barely able to speak, he tells Rachael that the pit that has caused his death had killed thousands when it was in use, and now it kills again. It's all "a muddle," he says. If it weren't, none of this would have happened. Stephen calls Rachael's attention to a star above them, one that gave him hope as he was lying in the pit. It made him think of Rachael, and it has helped him to clear away some of the muddle.
The presence of the star suggests that there may be peace in heaven for Stephen, far more than he ever had on earth.
Stephen then asks Gradgrind to clear his name, suggesting that he question Tom how that might be done. Some of the villagers carry Stephen out of the field, and he asks to hold Rachael's hand. As they move slowly along, the rescue party becomes a funeral procession. Stephen is dead.
NOTE: With his death, Stephen's martyrdom is complete. It is not accidental that he dies in an abandoned mine, one used to provide the coal for the steam engines that are so much a part of Coketown. Some would say that the symbolism is too obvious, that it is another example of Dickens's use of allegory overwhelming the credibility of the story. If you agree, you might find Stephen's death less than moving. If you don't, you might feel as saddened as many of Dickens's contemporaries were.
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