Background.

Hard Times
  • All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white‘ is a quotation from Hard Times (Book 1, Chapter 5).
  • Hard Times – For These Times (more commonly now known as Hard Times) is the tenth novel by Charles Dickens. It first appeared in weekly parts, published in Household Words, from April to August 1854. The shortest of Dickens’ novels, the story is set in the fictitious northern English industrial mill-town of Coketown.

Context.

This quotation is a description of Coketown in Hard Times. Coketown was a fictional place, based on the industrial mill towns of northern England at the time. The character Stephen Blackpool lives in this impoverished, dirty area. This quote describes the monotony of this soulless area, with buildings and inscriptions all appearing the same.

Illustration from a later edition of Hard Times showing Stephen Blackpool being cared for after his fall into a mine-shaft.
Illustration from a later edition of Hard Times showing Stephen Blackpool being cared for after his fall into Old Hell Shaft, an abandoned mine-shaft on the outskirts of Coketown.

Coketown.

Hard Times is set during the mid-nineteenth century in Coketown, a fictitious industrial northern English mill-town, similar to the Lancashire cotton-producing towns such as Manchester or Preston. Dickens visited Preston at the early stages of writing the novel during a period of industrial unrest in the town. The buildings of Coketown are utilitarian, reflecting the theme of utilitarianism that Dickens mocks in Hard Times, their dull uniform appearance built for the interests of the machines that run inside them rather than the people that live or work there. The factories of the town belch out pollution discolouring the bland red bricks that many are built of. There is no regard to the health of the people that live in Coketown, the poorer people having to live in filthy slum-like areas beside the dirty factories, whilst the wealthy owners can afford to live further away.


Source.

Taken from the following passage in Book 1, Chapter 5 (The Keynote) of Hard Times:

These attributes of Coketown were in the main inseparable from the work by which it was sustained; against them were to be set off, comforts of life which found their way all over the world, and elegancies of life which made, we will not ask how much of the fine lady, who could scarcely bear to hear the place mentioned. The rest of its features were voluntary, and they were these.

You saw nothing in Coketown but what was severely workful. If the members of a religious persuasion built a chapel there—as the members of eighteen religious persuasions had done—they made it a pious warehouse of red brick, with sometimes (but this is only in highly ornamental examples) a bell in a birdcage on the top of it. The solitary exception was the New Church; a stuccoed edifice with a square steeple over the door, terminating in four short pinnacles like florid wooden legs. All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white. The jail might have been the infirmary, the infirmary might have been the jail, the town-hall might have been either, or both, or anything else, for anything that appeared to the contrary in the graces of their construction. Fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the material aspect of the town; fact, fact, fact, everywhere in the immaterial. The M’Choakumchild school was all fact, and the school of design was all fact, and the relations between master and man were all fact, and everything was fact between the lying-in hospital and the cemetery, and what you couldn’t state in figures, or show to be purchaseable in the cheapest market and saleable in the dearest, was not, and never should be, world without end, Amen.

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All the public inscriptions in the town were painted alike, in severe characters of black and white.