The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel

By Catherine Gallagher | Go to book overview

Chapter Three
Hard Times and the Somaeconomics
of the Early Victorians

There is no joy in the Coketown of Dickens's Hard Times. Its people are unhappy, like the city dwellers in other industrial novels, but the source of their misery is atypical. Their suffering does not seem to derive from uncommonly wretched living and working conditions. Our first walk through Coketown's deadening regularity contrasts tellingly with, for example, the constantly obstructed passage through Manchester's chaotic squalor in one of the early chapters of Elizabeth Gaskell's Mary Barton (chapter 6). Whereas Gaskell's narrator gives us a complete sanitarian's nightmare—a street soaked with urine, cluttered with rubbish heaps and ashes, and lined with fetid, oozing cellar dwellings—Dickens's narrator gives us a dry and schematic premise in the place of a human environment. Coketown is made of figures almost as abstract as those of the despised statisticians, and they are laid out for us in the keynote paragraph with a repetitiousness of sentence structure as monotonous as a ledger book's:

[I]t was a town of red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a
town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents
of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had
a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and
vast piles of buildings … where the pistons of the steam-engine worked
monotonously up and down like the head of an elephant in a state of melan-
choly madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another,
and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people
equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with
the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to
whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year
the counterpart of the last and the next.…
You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful.1

In this novel the most pervasive problem attending industrialism is not factory hours, low wages, child labor, dangerous machinery, unsanitary housing and

1Hard Times, eds. George Ford and Sylvere Monod (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966), 17. All
subsequent quotations from the novel are from this edition and page numbers are given in the text of
the essay.

-62-

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