Background.

Hard Times
  • 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.

Coketown is hot during a summer day, made worse by the pollution which traps the heat and machines pumping out warm vapors. Dickens uses this description of the town frying in oil to strengthen this image to the reader.

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 2, Chapter 1 (Effects In The Bank) of Hard Times:

The streets were hot and dusty on the summer day, and the sun was so bright that it even shone through the heavy vapour drooping over Coketown, and could not be looked at steadily. Stokers emerged from low underground doorways into factory yards, and sat on steps, and posts, and palings, wiping their swarthy visages, and contemplating coals. The whole town seemed to be frying in oil. There was a stifling smell of hot oil everywhere. The steam-engines shone with it, the dresses of the Hands were soiled with it, the mills throughout their many stories oozed and trickled it. The atmosphere of those Fairy palaces was like the breath of the simoom: and their inhabitants, wasting with heat, toiled languidly in the desert. But no temperature made the melancholy mad elephants more mad or more sane. Their wearisome heads went up and down at the same rate, in hot weather and cold, wet weather and dry, fair weather and foul. The measured motion of their shadows on the walls, was the substitute Coketown had to show for the shadows of rustling woods; while, for the summer hum of insects, it could offer, all the year round, from the dawn of Monday to the night of Saturday, the whirr of shafts and wheels.

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The whole town seemed to be frying in oil.