8 of Water - Stephen Blackpool

Character:

Stephen Blackpool

Book:

Hard Times

 

 

 One of the countless hands at Bounderby's factory, Stephen Blackpool's life is one of dire poverty and drudgery. In love with the good-hearted Rachel, Stephen is trapped in a marriage with a woman who is a hopeless, near-psychotic alcoholic. Despite his hardships, Stephen remains a man of honesty, integrity, and compassion.

 

 Stephen is also the only Hand at Bounderby's unwilling to join the union. He feels striking isn't the proper way to settle the divide between the interests of his fellow workers and the self-interest of their heartless boss, Bounderby. As a result, he is cast out of the workers' group. When Bounderby offers him a job spying on his co-workers, he refuses this too. As Rachel says, Stephen has the “masters against him on one hand, the men against him on the other, he only wantin' to work hard in peace, and do what he felt right.” Fatuous as it is, Dickens strains to present us with an honourable man caught between the self-interest of his mates and the self-interest of his masters, as if those interests were indistinguishable, and as if this honourable man's feelings on the matter – necessarily vague – did not partake of self-interest.

 

 Caught between two stools, Stephen leaves Coketown in search of work elsewhere. In his absence, Bounderby's brother-in-law Tom robs the Bounderby bank and frames the hapless Stephen for the crime. Rachel writes to Stephen, pleading with him to return and clear his name. Soon after setting out on his return trek to Coketown, Stephen falls into a huge open pit known as Old Hell shaft, left uncovered by the negligence of the factory masters couldn't bring himself to picket . At the bottom of this shaft, unable to move, Stephen's fate here is likely little different than it would've been had he returned to Coketown, given Bounderby's probable refusal to accept his innocence. Gazing up at the stars, Stephen comforts himself by choosing one particularly bright star of the many to focus on, as if this star were shining only on him, and as if - in his solitude and dogged determination to go it alone – this star were him.

 

 Before dying a kind of martyr star, Rachel finds Stephen and, enlists the aid of villagers, rescues him. Freed, he professes his innocence and, at the moment of his death, Dickens has Stephen speak his (Dickens') “dyin prayer that aw th'world may on'y coom toogether more, an' get a better unnerstan'in o' one another.”

 

 It can be said that at least Stephen Blackpool didn't die in vain, because, if nothing else, his death did prove one thing, namely: Dickens the writer is at his worst when writing in a specific direction, with a specific aim, and to a specific purpose. As authoritative author, Dickens becomes inauthentic. His writing becomes tendentious, religious, mawkish, and hypocritical, revealing his own biases and limitations. Conversely, he is at his best when digressing, getting lost in the adventure of character and the eccentricity of detail and leaving all the finest feelings and noblest intentions far behind.

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Shorthand : nowhere else to go - a change of heart - force majeure - burning bridges - caught between two stools - rejection of established relationships - going it alone - pursuing some impossible ideal - something deeper attained, if at great peril - a disillusion with community - impetuous - impetus - impotence - eschewal - unsure footing - hightailing it - a new and possibly imposed perspective.