In the hardest working part of Coketown; in the innermost fortifications of that ugly citadel, where Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man's purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death; in the last close nook of this great exhausted receiver, where the chimneys, for want of air to make a draught, were built in an immense variety of stunted and crooked shapes, as though every house put out a sign of the kind of people who might be expected to be born in it; among the multitude of Coketown, generically called 'the Hands,' — a race who would have found mere favour with some people, if Providence had seen fit to make them only hands, or, like the lower creatures of the seashore, only hands and stomachs. (1.10.2)
Dickens is very big on the way environment and upbringing shapes personality, character, and life. What kind of people would we expect to come out of this maze-like prison-like Coketown streets?
Time hustled him into a little noisy and rather dirty machinery, in a by-corner, and made him Member of Parliament for Coketown: one of the respected members for ounce weights and measures, one of the representatives of the multiplication table, one of the deaf honourable gentlemen, dumb honourable gentlemen, blind honourable gentlemen, lame honourable gentlemen, dead honourable gentlemen, to every other consideration. (1.14.24)
This is a pretty funny description of the men running the country and passing its laws.
'there are apartments at the Bank, where a born and bred lady, as keeper of the place, would be rather a catch than otherwise' […] 'Sir,' returned Mrs. Sparsit. 'The proposal is like yourself, and if the position I shall assume at the Bank is one that I could occupy without descending lower in the social scale — ' 'Why, of course it is,' said Bounderby. 'If it was not, ma'am, you don't suppose that I should offer it to a lady who has moved in the society you have moved in. […] You'll have your own private apartments, and you'll have your coals and your candles, and all the rest of it, and you'll have your maid to attend upon you, and you'll have your light porter to protect you, and you'll be what I take the liberty of considering precious comfortable,' said Bounderby. (1.16.20-27)
Mrs. Sparsit is almost as concerned with social status as Bounderby. Look at the way every detail of her new bank job is measured to make sure that she will not be any lower in rank.
Surely there never was such fragile china-ware as that of which the millers of Coketown were made. Handle them never so lightly, and they fell to pieces with such ease that you might suspect them of having been flawed before. They were ruined, when they were required to send labouring children to school; they were ruined, when inspectors were appointed to look into their works; they were ruined, when such inspectors considered it doubtful whether they were quite justified in chopping people up with their machinery; they were utterly undone, when it was hinted that perhaps they need not always make quite so much smoke. (2.1.3)
Here, the narrator tells us that the entrepreneurs and capitalists hold the real power in the country. Whenever something doesn't go their way, they complain to Parliament that their businesses will fall and threaten that these businesses are too big to fail. Then they hold out their hands for a government bail-out.
'Our people are a bad lot, ma'am; but that is no news, unfortunately.' 'What are the restless wretches doing now?' asked Mrs. Sparsit. 'Merely going on in the old way, ma'am. Uniting, and leaguing, and engaging to stand by one another.' 'It is much to be regretted,' said Mrs. Sparsit, making her nose more Roman and her eyebrows more Coriolanian in the strength of her severity, 'that the united masters allow of any such class-combinations […] I do not pretend to understand these things,' said Mrs. Sparsit, with dignity, 'my lot having been signally cast in a widely different sphere; and Mr. Sparsit, as a Powler, being also quite out of the pale of any such dissensions. I only know that these people must be conquered, and that it's high time it was done, once for all.' (2.1.18-25)
Mrs. Sparsit's Roman nose makes everything she says sound like she is an old Roman emperor. The people should be "conquered" and her "severity" is "Coriolanian" (Coriolanus was a famous Roman military commander).
Among the fine gentlemen not regularly belonging to the Gradgrind school, there was one of a good family and a better appearance, with a happy turn of humour which had told immensely with the House of Commons on the occasion of his entertaining it with his (and the Board of Directors') view of a railway accident, in which the most careful officers ever known, employed by the most liberal managers ever heard of, assisted by the finest mechanical contrivances ever devised, the whole in action on the best line ever constructed, had killed five people and wounded thirty-two, by a casualty without which the excellence of the whole system would have been positively incomplete. Among the slain was a cow, and among the scattered articles unowned, a widow's cap. And the honourable member had so tickled the House (which has a delicate sense of humour) by putting the cap on the cow, that it became impatient of any serious reference to the Coroner's Inquest, and brought the railway off with Cheers and Laughter. (2.2.3)
Instead of holding the Directors of the train company responsible for the accident caused by their train, the House of Commons (part of Parliament) dismisses the whole case because they are amused at the idea of a dead cow. That's a pretty searing accusation of government right there.
'But, oh my friends and brothers! Oh men and Englishmen, the down-trodden operatives of Coketown! What shall we say of that man — that working-man, that I should find it necessary so to libel the glorious name — who, being practically and well acquainted with the grievances and wrongs of you, the injured pith and marrow of this land, and having heard you, with a noble and majestic unanimity that will make Tyrants tremble, resolve for to subscribe to the funds of the United Aggregate Tribunal, and to abide by the injunctions issued by that body for your benefit, whatever they may be' (2.4.6)
Slackbridge really is a powerful speaker, and he builds his sentences to a crescendo. What he lacks in honesty and facts, he makes up for in emotion and bluster.
Thus easily did Stephen Blackpool fall into the loneliest of lives, the life of solitude among a familiar crowd […] By general consent, they even avoided that side of the street on which he habitually walked; and left it, of all the working- men, to him only. He had been for many years, a quiet silent man, associating but little with other men, and used to companionship with his own thoughts. He had never known before the strength of the want in his heart for the frequent recognition of a nod, a look, a word; or the immense amount of relief that had been poured into it by drops through such small means. It was even harder than he could have believed possible, to separate in his own conscience his abandonment by all his fellows from a baseless sense of shame and disgrace. (2.4.33-34)
This is an extraordinary punishment. It's hard to imagine what a life lived like this must be like. What are we to make of this kind of cruelty? And also, this is a nice demonstration of the collective power of the workers. Think of what else they could accomplish if they can stay as united as they are against to Stephen.
'Sir, I canna, wi' my little learning an my common way, tell the genelman what will better aw this — though some working-men o' this town could, above my powers — but I can tell him what I know will never do 't. The strong hand will never do 't. Vict'ry and triumph will never do 't. Agreeing fur to mak one side unnat'rally awlus and for ever right, and toother side unnat'rally awlus and for ever wrong, will never, never do 't. Nor yet lettin alone will never do 't. Let thousands upon thousands alone, aw leading the like lives and aw faw'en into the like muddle, and they will be as one, and yo will be as anoother, wi' a black unpassable world betwixt yo, just as long or short a time as sitch-like misery can last.' (2.5.45)
Stephen cannot picture that a united worker front would be able to overpower the "strong hand" of the factory owners and the laws that support their oppression of their workers. His solution seems to be to just wait until death and the Final Judgment.
In the drawing-room after dinner, Mr. Bounderby tried the case of the robbery, examined the witnesses, made notes of the evidence, found the suspected persons guilty, and sentenced them to the extreme punishment of the law. (2.8.60)
Watching Bounderby pretend to be judge, jury, and executioner here seems quite significant. In real life, just by accusing Stephen of the theft, he as good as condemns him in the eyes of many Coketown residents.