Hard Times: Novel Summary: Book2Chapters 5-8
Book the Second: Reaping
Bounderby asks Stephen about what has happened between him and the other men. Stephen replies that he has nothing to say about it. Bounderby asks him directly why he refuses to join the union, but all Stephen will say is that he gave a promise (to Rachel, as will be revealed in the next chapter). Bounderby makes disparaging remarks about the union officials and the working men, but Stephen defends them, addressing Louisa rather than Bounderby. Then Bounderby asks him what the men in general complain about. Stephen replies in a matter-of-fact kind of way, explaining about the poor living and working conditions the people endure. He also points out that the bosses think they are always right and the workers always wrong. When Bounderby asks him how he would remedy the situation, Stephen says it will do no good to prosecute the union leaders, as Bounderby threatens. Stephen refuses to speak ill of the men who have rejected him. He does not pretend to know how relations between employers and employees can be improved. But he does explain what will not work, and that includes treating people as if they were soulless machines. Bounderby objects to Stephen's words, calls him a complainer, and then fires him. Stephen knows this means he will not be able to obtain work elsewhere.
When he leaves Bounderby's, Stephen meets Rachel in the street. She is accompanied by the mysterious old woman whom Stephen met earlier (Book 1, chapter 12). The old woman has been waiting outside Bounderby's house in order to catch a glimpse of his wife. Stephen tells Rachel he has been fired, and that he plans to leave Coketown, although he does not know where he will go. They all go to Stephen's lodgings for tea. His wife has been gone for months.
The old woman's name is Mrs. Pegler. She says she is a widow, and that she has a son, but she will say nothing about him. At that moment, Louisa arrives, accompanied by Tom. Louisa wants to help Stephen. Stephen says that he plans to leave Coketown on foot and seek employment elsewhere. Louisa offers him some money, and he accepts two pounds, a smaller sum than she offered. When Louisa is about to leave, Tom takes Stephen aside, saying he may be able to help him. He tells Stephen to hang around outside the bank for an hour in the evenings before he departs. Tom may be able to do him a good turn, and if he can, he will send Bitzer to him with a message. Stephen waits each evening for three days outside the bank. But he receives no message. He leaves town on foot on a summer morning.
For his own amusement, Harthouse pursues Louisa, trying to get her to fall in love with him. In the woods near Bounderby's country house, fifteen miles from town, Harthouse engages Louisa in conversation by pretending an interest in her brother Tom. He tells her that Tom probably has gambling debts, and he, Harthouse, wishes to help him. Louisa admits that she knows of the problem, and has lent Tom money. Harthouse then says that his aim is to get Tom to behave better towards his sister.
Harthouse sees Tom in the distance and they go to meet him. Tom is in a depressed mood. After Louisa goes into the house, Tom confesses to Harthouse that he is in a financial mess. He resents his sister for not giving him more money, which he believes she could easily obtain from her husband. Harthouse offers to advise Tom on how he can get out of debt, and asks in return that Tom be more loving towards his sister. Tom readily agrees.
Bounderby breaks the news to Harthouse that the bank has been robbed. The amount stolen amounts to no more than a hundred and fifty pounds. It was stolen from Tom's safe. Stephen Blackpool is suspected of the crime, since he was seen hanging around the bank at night. The old woman is also suspected of being involved.
Tom, who has been helping the police, returns late at night. Louisa, who suspects he may have had something to do with the robbery, asks him if he has anything to say to her. Tom says he does not know what she is talking about.
Critics of Hard Times often say that the characterization is not as strong as in Dickens's other novels. Chapter 5 presents some evidence for that view. Bounderby's behavior is so outrageously bad that it strains credulity. And conversely, Stephen, both in this chapter and throughout, is so unfailingly good that it is hard to believe in him as a real person. Readers must make up their own minds about whether these characters come across as believable, or whether Dickens's desire to present workers in the best possible light and employers in the worst possible light has blunted his instincts as a writer.
It is also sometimes pointed out that although Dickens is savage in his criticism of industrialism and industrial relations, he offers no solution to the problem. There may be some truth in this, but Stephen's long speech to Bounderby, in which he explains everything that will not work, contains within it the germ of a new approach. It is a call to end the divisive, confrontational attitude to employer-employee relations, in which there must always be a victor and a vanquished. It is also a rejection of the "laissez-faire" economic philosophy of the utilitarians, what Stephen calls "lettin alone." This was a philosophy of complete economic freedom that allowed market forces to govern industry, without any regulation by government. Laissez-faire economics resulted in dangerous working conditions, low pay, and the other ills suffered by the factory workers in Hard Times.