Background.

Hard Times
  • The piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness‘ 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 the repetitive action of a machine in Coketown, the setting for Hard Times, comparing it to that of a mad elephant nodding its head continuously. 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.

Dickens shows the disconnect between the machines of the industrial revolution and the human labour they largely replaced. The machines are unaffected by factors that have an impact on human work, such as temperature, emotions or the time of day, repetitively working away all day without stopping.

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.

Literary Technique.

This is an example of the figurative language Charles Dickens uses in his works, here using a simile to compare the motion of a steam-engine piston going up and down to the behaviour of an elephant, driven mad to the extent that the animal is constantly bobbing its head. The use of similes helps an author to strengthen a description, and for the reader it helps to better visualize the scene in their heads. This quote is also an example of zoomorphism, a literary technique in which animal attributes or features are ascribed to gods, humans, and inanimate objects.

Source.

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

Coketown, to which Messrs. Bounderby and Gradgrind now walked, was a triumph of fact; it had no greater taint of fancy in it than Mrs. Gradgrind herself.  Let us strike the key-note, Coketown, before pursuing our tune.

It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood, it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage.  It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves for ever and ever, and never got uncoiled.  It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and a trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.  It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and to-morrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next.

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.


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.


Chunee.

Charles Dickens makes several references to a mad elephant in his works, such as in the sketch Gin-Shops and the novel Hard Times. The inspiration for their inclusion may have originated from a famous incident when Dickens was younger. In the Spring of 1826, when Dickens was a 14 year-old boy living and studying in London, a large elephant called Chunee was shot dead in the city by soldiers after going mad. Chunee, also known as Chuny, was one of three Indian elephants brought to England between 1809 and 1811. He was used as a performing animal and as an exhibit, even appearing in theatrical performances. Chunee was housed in a menagerie at Exeter Exchange in London’s Strand where people would pay to see him perform tricks. Chunee was a famous attraction in the city and his death made national news, in part because of the gruesome manner in which he was killed. Even after his death, the bones of Chunee were put on exhibition around the country.

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The piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness.

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