Hard Times by Charles Dickens.
Character profile: Stephen Blackpool
Notes and key quotes for a character study on Stephen Blackpool, with references to chapter and book
Stephen is an honest worker with heart and ‘perfect integrity’ (1x). He does not make a ‘servile’ bow to Bounderby (1xi); he is a self-possessed man and, as the representation of the metonymic ‘Hands’, he demonstrates their self respect. When responding to Mrs Sparsit being described as a ‘born lady’, he comments, ‘I were born mysen.’ (1xi), meaning ‘I am as honourable as she’.
We are sympathetic to Stephen’s interminably hard life, although the thorn symbolism is rather heavy-handed when the omnisicent narrator says that ‘Somebody else had become possessed of his roses and he had become possessed of the same somebody else’s thorns in addition to his own’ (1x). Stephen is not only deprived of the pleasure of the roses, he also has a double quota suffering of thorns; this has distinct echoes of Jesus’ crown of thorns; We are aghast that such a saintly person should despair and feel, ‘the sooner I am dead, the better.’ (1xi). Yet, whilst we may rage against the social evils of the Victorian period, he, in his goodness, considers the ‘inequality of birth’ to be a minor issue when compared with ‘so unequal a hand as Death.’ (1xiii).
His reason for standing against the union, although perhaps unconvincing to the reader, demonstrates his high moral code that ‘a promess’ (2v), once made, is binding. When he refers to his fellow workers as ‘brothers’ (2iv), the word is used to show faith and communality – this is not necessarily political terminology because he is ‘faithful to his class’ (2v) and he is ‘faithful to the last to those that had repudiated him’ (2v). He is touchingly described by Rachael in this anaphoric triplet: ‘the honestest lad, the truest lad, the best!’ (3iv)
The character is a portrayal of a humble, faithful Christian. His love for Rachael is pure and deep: ‘not a tone of her voice but had its echo in his innermost heart’. He looks forward to the afterlife ‘when thou [Rachael] and me at last shall walk together far awa’, beyond the deep gulf, in th’ country where thy little sister is.’ (1xiii). He follows in the literary tradition of the pure-at-heart Christian, such as the medieval Piers Ploughman (‘Piers Ploughman’ by Langland) and the seventeenth century’s eponymously-named Christian (‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ by Bunyan). For Stephen, ‘the star had shown him where to find the God of the poor; and through humility, and sorrow, and forgiveness. he had gone to his Redeemer’s rest.’ (3vi) . He like, his namesake Saint Stephen, follows the path of righteousness.
He demonstrates the ‘utter want of calculation’ (2vi) and is Dickens’ contextual spokesperson, expressing the hardship and inequalities of an industrial, hierarchical society; he seeks ‘a law to help [him]’ on divorce, only to be told, the law is ‘not for you at all’ (1xi); it is not for the poor and he finds no earthly solutions:
‘’Tis a muddle.’ ‘awlus a muddle’ ‘I come to the muddle many times’ (about divorce laws and other issues) (1xi, 1x, 2v, et al)
He is finally and publically exonerated in a broadsheet produced by Gradgrind.
Slackbridge and Rachael.
Kimberly Shirley on The Victorian Web: for interesting character and contextual material, It is easy to read and digest with helpful hyperlinks.