The Hands & Old Stephen

Stephen represents the “Hands”, and is supposed to seem typical in some respects and not in others. His dignity, patience and courtesy are all qualities that Dickens reported finding among the Preston strikers during his visit there in January 1854. He shares these qualities with the resolute Rachael, and depends on her support at critical moments, most notably when he is tempted to let his wife die, in Book I Chapter 13. In other respects, “Old Stephen” (so called, although only in his forties) is very much unusual. He is exceptionally awkward and stubborn.

He irritates not only Bounderby and the trade unionists, but also many critics of the novel. Some critics think that he is stupid. There can be no doubt that asking Bounderby for help is a stupid thing to do, however this action may be explained by saying that Stephen does not know Bounderby, and believes that he may be good and ready to help those below him. Socialists have objected to the mildness of his criticism of capitalism, as well as to his refusal to join the union. In his second scene with Bounderby, in Book II Chapter 5, he lays responsibility for reform on the employers, and here once again he says that society is “a muddle”.

“Muddle”, always stubbornly repeated, is characteristic of Stephen’s slow, unbending outlook of the world. Other weavers would have found stronger words than “muddle” (and so does Dickens), however as Dickens says when we first meet Stephen, “Thousands of his compeers could talk much better than he”. During the union meeting, Slackbridge is a good speaker, clearly not from Coketown with regards to his speech, he manages to work the crowd up and almost turn them from a group of workers to a mob.

When it comes to Stephen’s turn to talk however, he has no brilliant speech, he gives no reasoning for why he cannot join them, and he simply says that he can’t. Many of his fellow workers seem to be quite tempted to join him, which shows Stephen’s reputation and how liked he is by his colleagues. This differs from most of the other hands because, had they have told the crowd that they could not join the union; they would not have achieved this same reaction from the crowd.

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