Hard Times and radical collectivity in the era of COVID-19 

One of the most memorable – and puzzling – moments in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) occurs when the beleaguered factory worker Stephen Blackpool falls into an abandoned mineshaft.  Ostracized by his fellow mill “Hands” for his refusal to join the union, prevented by intractable Victorian divorce laws from marrying his true love Rachael, and framed for a bank robbery he did not commit, Stephen flees the grim, industrial city of Coketown but changes course when Rachael implores him to return and clear his name.  On his way back, he stumbles into the Old Hell Shaft, one of the many unfenced and uncovered coal mining pits then littering the nineteenth-century British landscape (Raw 244). Though he is gravely injured, Stephen’s “mangled” body is recovered and he is able to utter a few final words to Rachael before he dies.

“Stephen Blackpool recovered from the Old Hell Shaft.” 1868. By Frederick Walker. The Victorian Web. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham.

The scene offers a damning indictment of Victorian industrialization, capitalism, and environmental devastation.  The “curse[d]” shaft (262), the likes of which were abandoned and unregulated until the Coal Mines Inspection Act of 1855, serves as a potent symbol of the traumas done to both bodies and landscapes in the service of industrial labor (Raw 248).  On his deathbed, Stephen – himself a victim of capitalist indifference to human lives as an employee of the Coketown mill – laments the deaths of “hundreds and hundreds” of other men in the mine pits, though they had “pray’n an pray’n the lawmakers for Christ’s sake not to let their work be murder to ’em” (263).

But Stephen’s final scene also represents a rather surprising incidence of communal care.  Stephen’s rescue is achieved when Rachael and Sissy Jupe gather a large search party, comprised of people from all walks of life who work together to recover him from the shaft:

“[A] whole village was up; and windlasses, ropes, poles, candles, lanterns, all things necessary, were fast collecting and being brought into one place, to be carried to the Old Hell Shaft…After they had waited some time, straggling people who had heard of the accident began to come up; then the real help of implements began to arrive.  In the midst of this, Rachael returned; and with her party there was a surgeon, who brought some wine and medicines.” (259-260)

After Sissy dispatches a message back to Coketown, even the utilitarianist school superintendent Thomas Gradgrind, his miscreant son Tom (who framed Stephen for the robbery), and the corrupt factory owner Josiah Bounderby arrive to help.  With “one or two hundred men and women looking on,” two men descend into the Hell Shaft with ropes and poles and return, “tenderly supporting between them, slung and tied within, the figure of a poor, crushed, human creature” (260, 262).

This moment can seem touching, but it is also rather bizarre, as it represents a complete affective reversal of what we have come to expect from the rest of the novel.  For the most part, Hard Times presents an array of despicable characters who serve as almost caricaturish symbols of cold self-interest, emotional vacuity, and the ruthless pursuit of profit.  Yet in the scene of Stephen’s rescue, these characters – perhaps most unbelievably, following the directives of two women – improbably rally together to rescue a man whom they have otherwise trampled at every turn.  The scene could perhaps be read as a vaguely heartwarming reflection of human tenderness in the wake of tragedy, but to me, it has always just seemed strange.


I most recently encountered this scene while teaching Hard Times in my Spring 2020 Victorian literature survey class, “Victorian Literature: Class, Gender, Race, and Sexuality.”  As we began Hard Times, we discussed more or less expected topics and contexts – Victorian class politics, ideologies of capitalism and liberalism, marriage and divorce laws, and industrialization and urbanization.  Students drew insightful connections between the events of the text and those of our own early-2020 moment, some comparing the Coketown union speeches to Bernie Sanders’s campaign rhetoric (especially as the Democratic primary heated up), others relating the Gradgrind system of education to the emphasis on hyper-professionalization that pervades many college campuses today.  We studied the novel’s publication history and serial release in Household Words, speculated about the motivations of the enigmatic Mrs. Sparsit, and disparaged Louisa’s arranged marriage to Mr. Bounderby.

And then came mid-March and the now-well-worn tale of the disrupted semester and the pivot to emergency remote instruction.  While I rearranged much of our syllabus, we continued with Hard Times because, thanks to the valuable digital resource Dickens Journals Online, students could easily access the book from any location.

My wonderful students carried on, dutifully completing the readings as best they could, posting on our Canvas discussion boards, and adding entries to their journals.  Good presentists, they even drew some connections between the novel and COVID-19, commenting on how hauntingly familiar they found Gradgrind’s corrupt leadership, the Hands’ economic anxieties, and the general sense of uncertainty that pervades much of the text.  However, despite our earnest attempts, as the weeks plodded on, our collective enthusiasm inevitably waned.  As global death counts mounted and COVID-19 ravaged our state (New York) especially severely, reading Hard Times was, understandably, far from all of our minds.

As we read the chapters detailing Stephen’s disappearance and recovery, however, something changed.  The by-then-dreaded Canvas discussion boards lit up with more posts than usual; the journal entries got a bit longer; and even my own interest in the text piqued again, as I found myself delving into the search-and-rescue episode without, for once, stopping to stress-scroll through CNN.  Though students and I usually discuss this scene by remarking upon Gradgrind’s belated and unconvincing character development or bemoaning the tragedy of Stephen’s death itself, this time, my students and I seemed more preoccupied with the scene of his retrieval from the shaft.  When I read my students’ journal entries and discussed the scene with them (on Zoom, of course), I realized that what made us cling to the Stephen scene at this time was that, even in a novel which, as my students often bemoaned, “everyone is just the WORST,” it offered a picture of people quite simply showing up for each other.  As one student reflected, “This [scene] reminds me of the saying that goes ‘no man is an island.’  This means that people need each other in order to live a better life…The role of community in times of need is very paramount in this scene.”  Another student wrote that here, “The questions that Dickens answers for us is that we can’t be against each other.  Humans need each other for the common good, and with love and compassion we can overcome the biggest travesties, together.”[1]

As my students made me realize, this scene struck us with an unexpected charge this semester because it depicts not just a vague “coming together” of people, but also a profound (albeit fleeting) vision of humans who, however momentarily, privilege the community over the individual, the other over the self, and intimacy over disinterest.  At the end of the first day of their search, for instance, Rachael confides to Sissy, “If it hadn’t been mercifully brought about, that I was to have you to speak to…times are, when I think my mind would not have kept right.  But I get hope and strength through you; and you believe that though appearances may rise against him, he will be proved clear?” (248).  In this moment, Rachael and Sissy feel not just with each other, but through each other.  Rachel’s subjectivity blurs with Sissy’s; she is able to inhabit Sissy’s mind and feel the way she feels.  Their thoughts and hopes merge – a process that strengthens and sustains both women.

Such affective ties proliferate as the chapter continues.  When Sissy stumbles upon an engine house and entreats the men inside to help her, “they no sooner underst[and] that their spirits were on fire like hers” (259).  Sissy’s fervor does not simply inspire the men, but seems to physically transmit to them, spreading like a flame.  Similarly, when the “hundreds” of people witness Stephen’s body emerge from the mine shaft, their individual exclamations merge into a collective utterance: “A low murmur of pity went round the throng” (262).

“She shuddered to approach the pit.” 1863. By Felix O.C. Darley. The Victorian Web. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham.

As the onlookers gasp in a collective “throng,” so too does Stephen in his dying moments turn his attention from the individual to the communal.  In his final words to Rachael, he laments not his particular tragedy, but rather the way in which his trauma is representative of that of “hundreds and hundreds” of other men and the “thousands an thousands” to whom they are dear – “wives and children that they loves as well as gentlefolk love theirs” (263).  Stephen hitches himself onto a collective, feeling his suffering not as his own, but as it resonates with that of thousands of others.

The scene retains its investments in collectivity after Stephen dies.  Those present “carr[y] him very gently along the fields, and down the lanes, and over the wide landscape…Very few whispers broke the mournful silence.  It was soon a funeral procession” (265).  The group focuses its shared attention on the tender treatment of Stephen’s body, the changing scenery reflecting the long distance traveled and the word “procession” suggesting communal homage.  The collective “murmur” of the “throng” gives way to a shared silence.

“And Through Humility, And Sorrow, And Forgiveness, He Had Gone to His Redeemer’s Rest.” By Charles S. Reinhart. The Victorian Web. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham.

Upon close reading, then, we see not just an instance of vague empathy between individuals, but rather a momentary relinquishing of the individual, a joining together of bodies and subjectivities, a dissolution of selves into shared thoughts and feelings.  Embedded though it is in a novel mostly preoccupied with the evils of industrial capitalism and the actions of contemptible people – and written by a man who, as evidence continues to show, was in his own life virulently misogynistic and whose attitudes about race, religion, and poverty were deeply problematic – this particular scene gives us an odd glimpse of human relationality based on interdependency, obligation, and care.  Theorists like Carol Gilligan, Audre Lorde, and bell hooks have long advocated for a world in which our obsession with the ideals of the autonomous self and the liberal individual (a fantasy that the Victorians particularly cherished) fades in favor of a veneration of communities and collectives.  Discussing the feminist concept of ethics of care, Talia Schaffer writes, “Enmeshed as we are in networks of obligation, gratitude, and assistance, we need to recognize our own profound social ties.  None of us is autonomous; our very selfhood is intermeshed with others” (Schaffer 522).  In Rachael’s statement about feeling through Sissy, in Stephen’s deathbed alliance with the unnamed “hundreds” and “thousands,” and in the mutual murmurs and shared silences of the crowd, we observe this kind of enmeshment, obligation, and assistance that is otherwise so absent from the novel.

As I pondered further, I wondered if this scene captivated me and my students not simply because it was moving, but also because, in March 2020, it actually read as quite radicalWhile frontline workers, healthcare professionals, and community activists are acutely aware of the power of collective action and model it for the rest of us daily, in other ways, Dickens’s vision of shared effort and cross-class collaboration – a ruthless factory owner traveling a long distance to rescue a world-weary laborer, for instance – seemed inconceivable to us as the COVID-19 pandemic surged in the US.  At a time when people were (and still are) refusing to wear masks, lamenting the “loss” of their individual rights to get haircuts and visit restaurants, and hoarding grotesque amounts of toilet paper and Clorox wipes for themselves, the image of reciprocity and intersubjectivity we encountered in Hard Times felt like a scene from another world.  As one of my students wrote in a journal reflection about these chapters, “[COVID-19] has brought out the nastiness in some people’s gluttonous expenses and swayed away from the compassion and acknowledgment of the less fortunate during a time of crisis.”  At a moment in which we are asked (but often fail) to think outward – after all, we wear cloth masks protect others, not ourselves; we stay home so we don’t spread the disease to those in our communities – a world based on shared affect and mutual aid can seem almost inconceivable.  In this way, Hard Times, arguably the least subversive text on our syllabus, which elsewhere contained anti-imperialist treatises, proto-feminist manifestos, and even a work of queer pornography, seemed unexpectedly disruptive.

We should certainly refrain from praising Dickens for any kind of sweeping vision of an ethical, other-focused world.  The societies Dickens portrays – and at times seems to endorse – are often far from utopian (especially as troubling details about his biography continue to emerge and scholars continue to shed light on his often problematic views on race, class, gender, and sex).  We don’t want to live in a world in which the Stephens have to die, or where the Jos or the Little Nells get sacrificed while the middle-class, bourgeois characters survive (even if the Gradgrinds among us are moderately, though unconvincingly, reformed).  Of course, we do live in that kind of world, and that’s also what we find so tragic in Stephen’s death scene.  It’s all too familiar for us to see the suffering of those whom society has abandoned – especially visible in the last few months and weeks as COVID-19 disproportionately ravages marginalized communities and as the much longer pandemics of anti-Black police brutality and systemic racism continue to rage.  In such a world, then, it is perhaps no surprise that we are so stirred by even the briefest flicker of communal care.

Dickens is far from the first or the best author we should turn to for radical visions of collectivity and mutuality.  For truly sweeping imaginations of social change, we must study writers like Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Claudia Rankine, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, as well as Ibram X. Kendi, Layla F. Saad, and Reni Eddo-Lodge, who offer concrete strategies for the kinds of antiracist and intersectional feminist worldmaking that are (and have always been) so urgent.  Especially in recent weeks, we have witnessed particularly profound examples of the power of collective action in the worldwide rallies for Black Lives Matter (a movement whose crucial work has, of course, been ongoing for many years but has experienced a recent, if belated, surge in widespread public acknowledgment).  Certainly, now is not the time to be turning to Dickens for any kind of sustenance or motivation.

What does seem worth attending to, however, is the unsettling extent to which even the briefest, meagerest, and most historically distant literary representation of communal care can seem so moving.  It is wrenching that we are so struck by a scene in which characters briefly succeed at the most basic act of human decency (not leaving a man to die in an abandoned pit), but also reflective of our aching desire to imagine dramatically better worlds.  Maybe my best (and perhaps most naïve) hope is that one day when I teach Hard Times, the Stephen scene won’t seem remarkable at all.


The last serial installment of Hard Times appeared in Dickens’s journal Household Words on August 12, 1854, just over two weeks before a cholera outbreak erupted in London.  While past issues of Household Words likely remained scattered on drawing room tables and newspaper stands, the disease devastated the Soho district, killing 616 people by late September.  As the physician John Snow traced the outbreak to a contaminated water pump on Broad Street (polluted, in part, due to industrial contamination of the River Thames), the outbreak forever changed the landscape of epidemiology, public health, and sanitation.

“A Court for King Cholera.” Punch magazine. 1852. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Attribution 4.0 International.
John Snow, map from On the Mode of Communication of Cholera. 1854. Public Domain.

As with COVID-19, nineteenth-century cholera outbreaks underscored existing social inequalities.  As Pamela Gilbert writes, in these epidemics, leaders were often slow to act, quick to blame the (disproportionately poor) victims, and eager to trace the outbreaks to other parts of the world, such as India.  As Gilbert points out, it is likely no coincidence that the 1854 outbreak, centered in a more fashionable part of London, inspired the most successful public reform.  Cholera punctuated and exacerbated the environmental, racial, imperialist, and class-based violence embedded in Victorian society (and indeed upon which it was founded).  As my students observed upon learning this context, it’s impossible to overstate its resonances with our moment.

Yet, as my students also reminded me, in such moments, we do have the potential to act as a collective, to enact mutual aid, to think intersubjectively, and to imagine – and actively work towards – better worlds.  Like those who gently led Stephen through the fields outside Coketown, we have the capacity to carry each other.

Dr. Shannon Draucker (@sdraucker) is an Assistant Professor of English at Siena College in Loudonville, NY, where she is also an affiliated faculty member in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.  Her research and teaching focus on Victorian literature and culture, sound and music, the history of science, and gender, sexuality, and queer studies.  Her current book project, Sounding Bodies, explores how nineteenth-century scientific understandings of music’s effects on the body transformed how Victorian writers depicted pleasure, desire, and intimacy.

Notes & references

[1] All student quotations included with permission.  I am grateful to them for their insightful reflections and willingness to share them.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. 1854. Ed. Kate Flint. London: Penguin, 2003.

Gilbert, Pamela K. “Mistakes of past epidemics being repeated.” The Gainesville Sun. 11 March 2020.

—. “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation, and Nineteenth-Century History. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. 24 June 2020.

Raw, David G. “A Source for The Old Hell Shaft in Hard Times.The Dickensian 113:503 (Winter 2017): 244-251.

Schaffer, Talia. “Care Communities: Ethics, Fictions, Temporalities.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 118:3 (July 2019): 521-542.

Header image credit: “She Stooped Down On The Grass At His Side, And Bent Over Him.” By Harry French. The Victorian Web. Scanned by Philip V. Allingham.

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