Book the First: SOWING
Chapter One: The One Thing Needful
The novel begins with a short introduction. Inside a classroom, "the speaker" repeats the exclamation "Now, what I want is, Facts." He presents the argument that the formation of a child's mind must be rooted in the study of fact. The schoolroom is as hard and plain as the teacher's teaching style. All of the children are focused on him. Besides "the speaker" there is also "the schoolmaster and the third grown person" who stand before the pupils.
This chapter has little narrative content (only three paragraphs), but its imagery is intense. From the very beginning, Dickens establishes himself within a contemporary debate on the nature of learning, knowledge and education. The description of the classroom is definitely satire, a critique of utilitarianism, and similar philosophies that suggested the absolute reliance upon calculations and facts in opposition to emotion, artistic inspiration and leisure.
The novel is divided into three "books" entitled Sowing, Reaping and Garnering. This agricultural motif is introduced by the "sowing" of facts as "seeds" into the fertile minds of the young boys and girls. "The one thing needful" is the seed of "fact" and even though the insistence upon "hard facts" seems infertile and unyielding, the motif of sowing makes the classroom a literal kindergarten. To be more precise, the imagery of "sowing" and horticulture varies from the children as the planted field and the children as plants themselves. At one point, "the Speaker" charges the instructor to "plantand root out" in order to form the children's minds. Later, the children are described as "little vessels then and there arranged in order," not unlike the wisps of hair on the side of the Speaker's head, humorously described as "a plantation of firs."
The sum of Dickens' imagery contrasts the words of gardening and horticulture with the actual scene depicted: "plain, bare, monotonousinflexible, dry and dictatorial." Dickens means to say that there is no true sowing taking place in the "vault of a schoolroom." Against the archetype of youth (spring, sowing, fertility), the older men are "square;" eyes are described as having "found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall." Dickens' hyperbole makes architecture out of the physical description of The Speaker (who seems rather villain-like). Dickens wants to demonstrate that the idea of the child's mind as a "vessel" that is "ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured"this creates adults whose brains are described as mere "cellarage"space for facts.
While Dickens de-personifies the Speaker (he is more of an object and a symbol than an actual person), various objects in the schoolroom, in particular the Speaker's clothing, take on personality and activity of their own. The Speaker's tie is "trained to take him by the throat with an unaccommodating grasp." The Speaker has trained the tie to be as unaccommodating as this school system. The sum of Dickens' images, from sowing to strangulation, should clearly foreshadow the "hard times" that are ahead.
The two important allusions to note are both Biblical ones: the use of the word "sowing" does not only correspond to the old proverb "you reap what you sow" but it has a particular resonance with Dickens' largely Protestant English audience. While the Bible makes arguments for diligent "sowing" in practical and spiritual matters, Dickens' inevitable argument is a defense for leisureagainst the constant diligence, the dependence upon hard facts and the unaccommodating grasp that are later re-cast as the "Protestant Work Ethic" by Max Weber, a philosopher. The second Biblical allusion is along the same lines: one of the New Testament parables makes mention of good Christians as "vessels" who are to be "filled" by God, much as the "dictatorial" Speaker has an "inclined plane of little vessels" that he will fill with his "imperial gallons." Here, the Speaker's imagery and intentions seem so superhuman and yet, misanthropic (anti-human) that he becomes not a parallel but a foil of the Christian messiah (another educator) to whom Dickens alludes. The speaker demands power without the benevolence, patience or sacrifice that is expected of the role.
The speaker is instructing the schoolteacher on how to instruct and this adds to the irony and deliberate confusion of the short scene. The Speaker's anonymity, the power of his voice, and his pointed "square forefinger" all combine as a symbol of a man with God-like authority. No one teaches the children, but the Speaker plays schoolteacher to the schoolteacher; and he is the only one who speaks. There is no dialogue in the chapter, only the Speaker's reiterations and the bystanders' silent assent.
The role of power in education is a theme that is treated throughout the novel, and the balance between leisure and diligence is definitely dependent upon the methods of force and power demonstrated. Later chapters will expand upon another theme that is only foreshadowed here: the wrestle between Romanticism and Utilitarianism. While Utilitarianism focuses on hard facts and calculations, Romanticism is more spiritual, tends towards the artistic and the poetic and makes aesthetic valuations that Utilitarianism finds irrelevant. Dickens does not wholly endorse the Romantic point-of-view, but with his (artistic) livelihood potentially at stake, he does use a number of rhetorical devices to defeat the principles of Utilitarianism. After all, who could read novels, if they were only after "hard facts?"
As for rhetoric, Dickens' use of absolutes and hyperbole must be remembered; the arguments he puts into the mouths of the Utilitarian philosophers are characteristic but they are exaggerated. The brilliance of Dickens' caricaturesas seen in his other novels, especially Our Mutual Friendis in itself an argument against "hard facts" for his skewed depictions of skewed power-relationships offer the truth at the heart of the matter, if not the "hard fact." This first chapter is prefatory, and in the second, Dickens introduces the names of the characters and their town as a further element of caricature.
A final point to be noted concerns the nature of Dickens' narrative structure. One interesting dynamic the reader must bear in mind comes from the fact that Dickens' work was originally serializedeach of these short chapters came as an installment in a magazine. Dickens stays close to the classical trilogy/tripartite structures by dividing the work into three books that have an inherent narrative: after sowing comes reaping, after reaping comes garnering (though one can often reap and sow and leave it at that). The reader can compare the larger three-part structure with the smaller chapter-to-chapter structure. While we know that Reaping follows Sowing, Chapter One ("The One Thing Needful") is not so continuous with Chapter Two ("Murdering the Innocents").
As the novel progresses, Dickens will not need to bring in new characters as often as he will in the first chapters; additionally, the chapters become more coherent and continuous as the novel gets closer to its end. The number of installments Dickens was to write had already predetermined the length of the novel! As we see in Chapter One, Dickens uses tactics of suspense: withheld information (what is the geographical setting?); foreshadowed doom ("unaccommodating grasp"); unnamed anonymous figures ("the speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person") and a cliffhanger at the conclusion (literally: "the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready"). Dickens must use suspense so that his reader will buy the next serial.
Chapter Two: Murdering the Innocents
Chapter Two begins with the introduction of Thomas Gradgrind, "a man of realitiesfacts and calculations." He always introduces himself as Mr. Gradgrind and spends his time in constant cogitation. He is the Speaker, previously unnamed and he now takes it as his duty to educate the children ("little pitchers before him"). He identifies a student, called Girl number twenty, who replies that her name is Sissy Jupe. Gradgrind corrects her that her name is Cecilia regardless of what her father calls her. Jupe's father is involved in a horse-riding circus and this is not respectablein Gradgrind's opinion. He advises Cecilia to refer to her father as a "farrier" (the person who shoes a horse) or perhaps, a "veterinary surgeon."
The lesson continues with Gradgrind's command: "Give me your definition of a horse." While Girl number twenty knows what a horse is, she is unable to define one. Another child in the class, a boy called Bitzer, easily defines the animal by means of biological classifications (quadruped, graminivorous, etc.). After this, the third gentleman steps forward. He is a government officer as well as a famous boxer and he is known for his alert belligerence. His job is to remove "fancy" and "imagination" from the minds of the children. They learn that it is nonsense to decorate a room with representations of horses because horses do not walk up and down the sides of rooms in reality. Sissy Jupe is a slow learner, among the group of stragglers who admit that they would dare to carpet a room with representations of flowers because she is "fond" of them. Sissy is taught that she must not "fancy" and that she is "to be in all things regulated and governed by fact."
After the gentleman finishes his speech, the schoolteacher, Mr. M'Choakumchild, begins his instruction. He has been trained in a schoolteacher-factory and has been conditioned to be dry, inflexible and uninspiringbut full of hard facts. His primary job in these preparatory lessons is to find "Fancy" in the minds of the children and eradicate it.
"Murdering the Innocents" replaces the suspense of the previous chapter by establishing names and identities for the previously anonymous social roles that were presented earlier. As is to be expected from Dickens, the names of the characters are emblematic of their personality; usually, Dickens' characters can be described as innocent, villainous or unaware of the moral dilemmas of the story that surrounds them. The characters' names are almost always an immediate indication of where the character fits on Dickens' moral spectrum. Thomas Gradgrind, "a man of realities" is a hard educator who grinds his students through a factory-like process, hoping to produce graduates (grads). Additionally, Gradgrind is a "doubting Thomas"much like the Biblical apostle who resisted belief in the resurrection, this Thomas urges that students depend exclusively upon the evidence in sight. He dismisses faith, fancy, belief, emotion and trust at once. Mr. M'Choakumchild is plainly villainous and he resembles the sort of fantastic ogres he'd prefer students took no stock in.
Cecilia (Sissy) Jupe is unlike the other characters in almost every possible way. While there are other female students, she is the only female identified thus far in the novel. Unlike the boy "Bitzer" (who has the name of a horse), Sissy has a nickname and at least in this chapter, she is the lone embodiment of "fancy" at the same time that she is the single female presented as a contrast to the row of hardened mathematical men. Her character is, of course, a romanticized figure. Despite the political critique of Dickens' simplification and over-idealization of females and children (and girls, especially), Cecilia's character does have some depth that allows her development later in the novel. Her last name, "Jupe," comes from the French word for "skirts" and her first name, Cecilia, represents the sainted patroness of music. Especially as she is a member of a traveling circus, we can expect Cecilia to represent "Art" and "Fancy" in contrast to M'Choakumchild, one of 141 schoolmasters who "had been lately turned at the same time, in the same factory, on the same principles, like so many pianoforte legs."
Besides the allusion to St. Cecilia, Dickens alludes to Morgiana, a character in the classic story "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves"one of the Arabian Nights tales. The reader should always note the irony in Dickens' allusions: while Dickens' characters argue against fanciful literature, Dickens' is relying upon it to compose his story. In this case, Dickens' simile presents M'Choakumchild's search for "the robber Fancy" in terms of Morgiana's searching for (and hiding of) the thieves in "Ali Baba." The metaphor of the children as eager "vessels" is made explicit when the "vessels" before M'Choakumchild become the "jars" before Morgiana. And the motif of robbers and villains is finalized when we remember that Ali Baba and the forty thieves were more hero than criminal. M'Choakumchild is labeled "gentleman" but his intention to seek and destroy "the robber Fancy lurking within" makes "the robber Fancy" (childish imagination) a more noble personification. Instead, the teachers are the ones who seem criminal.
The most important allusion of the chapter is the title: "Murdering the Innocents." The reader should expect Dickens work to be full of Biblical and Christian allusions as he is writing to a largely sentimental popular audience. While the reference may be more inaccessible, erudite or unrecognizable for modern young readers, Dickens' 1854 British audience immediately saw the reference to King Herod. Soon after the birth of Christ, Herod fears for his throne and has all of the male babies in Bethlehem executed (in the hopes of murdering the Christ child). In literary circles, the phrase "murder of the innocents" is exclusively used to describe this Biblical story. While the students are not literally danger (M'Choakumchild), their childish imagination has been targeted for annihilation. This completes the archetype of youth vs. age, and foreshadows that whoever is being targeted and singled out (Cecilia Jupe and her imagination) will ultimately escape this tyrant, but other innocents will be less fortunate (Bitzer). But we might expect as much from the same author who had written A Christmas Carol a decade before.
The major theme of the chapter can be easily inferred from Dickens' description of Cecilia in the classroom. The "horses" and carpeted "flowers" are all double symbols of her femininity and youth, but most important, Cecilia represents Art in opposition to mechanization. Dickens is not arguing against education, science or progress. He is arguing against a mode of factory-style, mind-numbing, grad-grinding production that takes the fun out of life. But even worse than the loss of "fun" or "leisure," Dickens is arguing that art requires an inquisitive and desiring mind. Especially as Dickens is known to have read and enjoyed Arabian Nights in his youth, we can see a bit of autobiography in his tender treatment of Ceciliaperhaps if he had come under a Mr. M'Choakumchild, he would have proved incapable of becoming an artist.
Chapter Three: A Loophole
Mr. Gradgrind is walking home from school and he is thinking about his students and his childrenwho are also under his tutelage. He considers them to be models, for he has trained them since birth, and they have attended many lectures. He is quite confident in them, for they study all of the most important subjects and their academic knowledge is well-rounded. Their earliest memories are of the chalkboard and they have learned plenty of statistics, though they know nothing of children's literature, of art or poetry or "silly" songs. Mr. Gradgrind forbids "wonder" and encourages classification and dissection, the exposition of fact.
Gradgrind's home is called Stone Lodge and he moved here after working in "the wholesale hardware trade." The house is short distance outside of "a great town" called Coketown and Mr. Gradgrind's current occupation is his intention of running for a seat in Parliament. The house is perfectly balanced, proportioned and calculated. The lawn and the gardens are all perfectly even. Gradgrind is thinking about all of these things as he walks home and he is close to his conclusion that everything is right in his world and everyone is behaving as they ought. But in this moment his "ears were invaded by the sound of music." A group flying the flag of "Sleary's Horse-riding" has attracted a small crowd with such acts and exhibitions as the "graceful equestrian Tyrolean Flower-Act," the "highly trained performing dog Merrylegs" and other fanciful amusements.
Gradgrind disregards the rabble and continues home, only when he looks to the rear of the circus booth, he sees a number of children peeping to see what is inside. Of course, Gradgrind heads over, intending to remove whichever students are in affiliation with his school. Much to his surprise, he finds his two children"his own metallurgical Louisa" and "his own mathematical Thomas" struggling to catch a glimpse of what is happening inside. Gradgrind startles them both and orders them home. Louisa is more bold in her anger; she is older than her brother but her extra years of schooling have made her more resentful than docile. In fact, Louisa has asked her brother to come along with her to the amusement. Gradgrind is embarrassed, arguing that the two children are debasing themselves but Louisa merely replies that she is "tired" and has been "tired for a long time." Dickens ends the chapter with Mr. Gradgrind's final exclamation and his own commentary: "What would Mr. Bounderby say!"as if Mr. Bounderby had been Mrs. Grundy.
We neither know Mr. Bounderby nor Mrs. Grundy (yet another of Dickens' cliffhangers), but from Mr. Gradgrind's statement we can infer that they are similarly boring and uninspiring adults with a heavy-handed disciplinary air about them. As the novel progresses, the narrative structure will rely more and more upon cliffhangers and the sometimes-abrupt introduction and disappearance of characters. The second chapter, "Murdering the Innocents," foreshadows this chapter, "A Loophole." Just as the theological commentary on Herod's Bethlehem massacre (allusion from Chapter 2) focuses on the escape of the Christ child in the midst of the mass murder, the "Loophole" now offers escape from the "Murdering." And just as this chapter ends with the cliffhanger (Who is Mr. Bounderby?), the next chapter, entitled "Mr. Bounderby" answers that very question. The question of location is answered however: Coketown, is the setting of the novel and it is an explicit critique of the social politics, corruption and depression of Manchester, England, a heavily industrialized city.
The new characters include "metallurgical Louisa" and "mathematical Thomas" and by now, the reader should notice the combined force of rhyme, consonance and alliteration in the character's names and descriptions of places. This stylistic point is worth dwelling on because usually these three devicesespecially when used in concerttend towards more lyrical language and more beautiful images. This is not necessarily the case in Dickens because he simply strips these literary rules to their basic meaning. A rhyme does not have to be fanciful, it only has to hint at a common trait.
For example: Coke in Coketown rhymes with Choak in M'Choakumchild.
Consonance describes the agreement of sounds (not necessarily a rhyme, but more often alliteration, or a combination of both). These are sounds that sound nice together, they repeat without perfectly rhyming, and while they sound nice together they are not necessarily nice sounding words.
For example: Bounderby and Grundy share consonant endings by and dy, as well as the nd sound in the middle. They are consonant but they do not perfectly rhyme. M'Choakumchild is depicted as a "dry Ogre chalking ghastly white figures" on the black board (ch-).
Alliteration, the repetition of letters (and as a result, sounds), is a final device we can use to group characters together.
Ogre, Gradgrind, Grundy, Bounderby.
Sissy/Cecilia Jupe, Signor Jupe, Josephine Sleary, Merrylegs.
"Metallurgical Louisa," Mathematical Thomas"
In some words and descriptors, we find unpleasant images that receive the benefit of alliterated sounds: mathematical Thomas and metallurgical Louisa can be viewed as pupils who have received the same rhyming (ical) educational treatmentbut in truth, Louisa and Thomas will prove very different. Dickens takes these devices to the extreme in this chapter and while these rules prove true throughout the novel, the occasional exception or coincidental rhyme can pop up. All of the names mentioned above however, are sustained in the work. Bounderby later becomes metallic, Gradgrind establishes boundaries, etc. Dickens' caricatures are visual (he drew illustrations for the original editions) but they rely upon the repetition of repetition, over and over again, much like the factories.
Dickens takes another motif from children's literature and explicitly names the teacher as an "ogre" who is "taking childhood captive, and dragging it into gloomy statistical dens by the hair." The loophole is a symbol of escapeboth mentally and physically. The symbol of contrast to the loophole is Stone Lodge, the home of Gradgrind, and most definitely a "statistical den." Dickens simile presents the gardens "like a botanical account-book" and this sustains the underlying comparison between the statistical, grid-iron classifications (mathematical, metallurgical) and the freedom that one expects from nature. The children's "dissection" of the "Great Bear" constellation is a metaphor for the murder of fancy and mythology.
We recall the "horse" vs. "Quadruped. Graminivorous." debate and this is sustained in the images of animal "celebrities" from nursery rhymesfigures who are unfamiliar for young Louisa and Thomas. Thematically, there have been several "loopholes" in the Gradgrind training. There is the loophole as peephole, which is a symbol that foreshadows a continued defiance (at least on Louisa's part); there is also the loophole of contradiction where astronomy permits the "Great Bear" but the real dog "Merrylegs" and the painted representation of "horses dancing sideways" on a wall are forbidden. Mr. Gradgrind's blind face prevents him from enjoying fancy but it also prevents him from seeing the contradictions in his thought and the loopholes through which his model children might escape.
Chapter Four: Mr. Bounderby
Mr. Josiah Bounderby is Mr. Gradgrind's closest friend, and just like Gradgrind he is a man "perfectly devoid of sentiment." Bounderby is very wealthy from his trade as a banker, a merchant and a manufacturer among other things. He has an imposing figure and his entire body is oversized, swelled and overweight. He calls himself a "self-made man" and he always tells his friends (the Gradgrinds, primarily) stories of how he grew up in the most wretched conditions. Mrs. Gradgrind has a very emotional temperament and she usually faints whenever Mr. Bounderby tells his horror stories of being born in a ditch or having lived the first ten years of his life as a vagabond. Bounderby continues to tell his stories, pacing in the formal drawing-room of Stone Lodge.
Bounderby is proud of self-made status, having risen to the ranks of the Gradgrinds without the "advantages" of education. Instead of attending school, Bounderby inevitably ran away from his grandmother, who would steal his shoes and sell them for alcohol, his mother having abandoned him soon after birth. He describes the periods of his life as follows: "Vagabond, errand-boy, vagabond, labourer, porter, clerk, chief manager, small partner, Josiah Bounderby of Coketown." He taught himself to read by looking at the outsides and signs of buildings.
Mr. Gradgrind informs his friend Bounderby that Louisa and Thomas were caught spying at a circus and Mrs. Gradgrind replies "I should as soon have expected to find my children reading poetry." Louisa and Thomas are present and the three adults express their disappointment. Bounderby makes it clear that the circus is composed of the very vagabonds that Louisa and Thomas should be grateful for having avoided. For his part, Bounderby adds that the circus is a "cursed bad thing for a girl like Louisa," subsequently apologizing for his profanity, but to his credit, he did not have a "refined growing up." Mr. Gradgrind is intent upon understanding what might have motivated Louisa and Thomas to stray from their rules and standards. Bounderby brings Cecilia Jupe (one of the "strollers' children") to Gradgrind's attention and he convinces him that Cecilia must be the factor influencing the Gradgrind children. Mr. Gradgrind is at first hesitant but he soon agrees with Bounderby that Cecilia must be removed from the school so that she might not infect the other students with her ideas. The chapter ends with Gradgrind and Bounderby's immediate venture into Coketown to confront "Signor Jupe" and remove Sissy from school.
Josiah Bounderby dominates the chapter, much as his physical figure dominates those surrounding him. At least at this point in the novel, it is unclear how exactly he became a "self-made" man and arrived at his fortunes. Bounderby is a man of social mobility and ever expanding boundaries, but Dickens' social commentary suggests that Bounderby is hypocritical: even as he complains that he had to crawl out of poverty without aid, he is the firmest advocate of Sissy Jupe's dismissal from the school. Other characters that are introduced in this chapter are Mrs. Gradgrind, an unintelligent hypochondriac. Three younger children, Jane, Adam Smith and Malthus are briefly depicted. They are relevant as references to economists: Adam Smith is considered the father of laissez-faire (capitalist) economics and his theories encourage hard work and competition. Thomas Malthus is a less famous and more depressing thinker whose primary economic argument explained the inevitability and desirability of a certain level of povertyas a means of avoiding overpopulation. Smith and Malthus are both symbols of the economic mode of production that has overrun Coketown.
Bounderby's self-presentation is pure hyperbole. While he may have been very poor once and certainly is now very rich, his overbearing stories sound very much like the "art" and "fancy" to which he is nominally opposed. As in a classic fairy-tale, he has a wicked grandmother who mistreats him. And there is a Shakespearean allusion in Bounderby's explanation of his birth ("I was born in a ditch As wet as a sop. A foot of water in it.nobody would touch me with a pair of tongs.") Despite Bounderby's lack of a proper education, his lines are a paraphrase of very famous lines from Shakespeare's Macbeth (Act I) where witches boil a stew that includes a "finger of birth-strangled babe/Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,/Make the gruel thick and slab" Ditch-born babies generally have bad luck, but Bounderby has somehow overcome his.
And it is strongly suggested that the images of vagabonds and circuses are the avenues towards idleness, and after idleness comes poverty. The focus on money and industry produces a motif of metals and minerals. Just as Coketown is named for "coke"the coal-like fuel of the industrial furnaces, we have seen "metallurgical Louisa" and now Bounderby is described as having a "metallic laugh," Mrs. Bounderby is described as not being an "alloy" because she is unintelligent, and Jane had fallen asleep "after manufacturing a good deal of moist pipe-clay on her face with slate-pencil and tears."
Bounderby's "cavernous eyes" are a symbol of the deep, dark secrets hiding (cave-like) in his past; but his resemblance with Gradgrind reminds the reader that Bounderby and Gradgrind are constantly operating surveillancethere is a juxtaposition in the adults' spying on the children as they peep at the public circus, and this awkward relationship reveals how much power the adults have. When Bounderby greets Louisa with a goodbye kiss, she rubs this spot of her face incessantly and her proposal to cut that hole out of her face altogether hovers between metonymy and metaphorLouisa is increasingly desperate to remove herself from her present situation and Bounderby's advanced age only intensifies her anguish and foreshadows Bounderby's convoluted and confused desires for Louisa.
The theme of education and self-improvement is rather well-developed in this chapter. We find the hypocrisy of the self-made man who would bar Sissy Jupe from school; another irony is in Bounderby's repeated admission of being low-class. After he uses the phrase "cursed bad thing," Bounderby continues: "I should ask Mrs. Gradgrind's pardon for strong expressions, but that she knows very well I am not a refined character. Whoever expects refinement in me will be disappointed. I hadn't a refined bringing up." The understatement here is that Bounderby should ask for pardon but he does not because he is merely behaving as ought to be expected. It is interesting that Bounderby is not a target for education and that despite his lack of education he is somehow acceptable (this is because he is rich). On the other hand, how necessary is an educational system so heavily dependent on the "Protestant Work Ethic" when its model pupils are wayward and those who most need conversion (Cecilia Jupe) are mildly persecuted? Louisa's languished looks out of the window and the description of two other children "out at lecture in custody," complete our understanding of the educational environment as an ogre's prison-cave.
Chapter Five: The Key-Note
In this short chapter, Mr. Bounderby and Mr. Gradgrind proceed towards Coketown, a town which is a "triumph of fact." It is mostly made of red brick and it is heavily industrialized. Smoke hangs in the air, the water is polluted with "ill-smelling dye" and pistons and steam-engines cause the windows of the buildings to rattle all day long. The streets are monotonous and the people are hardly different from one another, each performing pretty much the same job in the same factory, and the work that they do is little different from one day to the next.
The only things to be seen in Coketown were "severely workful." There were eighteen chapels in the town, representing eighteen religious persuasions but the workers were not among these congregations. The churches are little different in appearance from the jail, the infirmary and the town-hall. Every building is a testament to "fact." There is an organization in Coketown composed to deal with the irreligious nature of the laboring classes and they often petition Parliament for acts that would "make these people religious by main force." Besides this truancy, alcoholism and opium were other vices rampant in Coketown. Plenty of specimen testified that had it not been for the drink they "would have been a tip-top moral specimen."
As they pass through Coketown, Messrs. Bounderby and Gradgrind consider the town residents to be a "bad lot" who are ungrateful, demanding, excessive in tastes and diet, languid in work ethic. The actual picture is not so simple as a town full of vice. Dickens suggests that the residents of Coketown were simply in need of good humor and some sort of diversion after the endless misery of their occupations. Bounderby and Gradgrind are looking for an address called Pod's End and as they continue along their path, they run into Girl number twenty, who is being chased by Bitzer. Bitzer accuses the girl of being a horse-rider and a liar as well. Bounderby sees this as evidence of her contagious spread.
Sissy Jupe leads the two gentleman to the decrepit place where she lives. They see here carrying a bottle and question if it is gin, but she replies that it is "the nine oils" that her father has requested as an ointment because he is sore from his performances. Sissy tries to be as polite as possible and just before entering the "public house" she warns the two gentlemen not to fear barking that they may hear as it is only the small dog, called Merrylegs.
This chapter is a narrative interlude that spaces out the dramatic action at hand. In striking the "key-note," Dickens takes note of the physical setting and spends time describing Coketown more than he had previously done. The overriding archetype is hell: Hell is seen in the darkened canal that is an allusion to the River Styx. The coiled serpents are another symbol of sin and immorality. The images of the savage painted faces parallel the image of the dyed water. And the elephant is an odd juxtaposition of mechanics and nature: little surprise that he represents a "melancholy madness."
One of Dickens' primary rhetorical devices here is his exhortation to the reader, that they might reject the hasty condemnations made by the likes of Messrs. Gradgrind and Bounderby. From Dickens' legal background we might suggest that he is presenting the case for the people of Coketown, left without adequate legal or popular counsel. Here, a Latin term "amicus curiae" ("friend of the court") would be the most precise way to describe Dickens' moralizing tone in this short chapter. Dickens was not alone in arguing that the conditions of workers in cities like Coketown (or rather, Manchester) were inhumane and ought to be regulated more closely. This opening chapter foreshadows many of the class-oriented issues that the characters will have to grapple with.