The Industrial Town: Representations of a Changing Way of Life in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss and Charles Dickens’s Hard Times by Anna Rogers, San Diego State University
The mid-nineteenth century in England was a period of considerable social upheaval produced by widespread economic, political, and technological shifts. The decades following the Napoleonic wars brought repeated class conflicts and economic depressions as well as continual expansion of British imperial interests and increasing industrialization. The 1850s, in particular, were a period of intense social redefinition in England. The widespread introduction of steam power into manufacturing brought about what many have identified as the Second Industrial Revolution.
This was the development that completed a final transformation of Britain’s home economy from a rural agrarian model to an urban industrial one. In addition, the empire was being actively enlarged and solidified which supplied a massive influx of wealth and goods. In 1858 the British Raj was established in India when the government assumed direct rule after the failure of the British East India Company to effective put down the Sepoy Rebellion, and the Australian Gold Rush began in the early 1850s, which added to the mineral wealth already being extracted from Southern Africa. The wealth and raw materials obtained through these expansions of Britain’s international interests provided additional fuel for the industrial transformation at home. Attendant on these radical social changes were artistic and literary developments, the rise of the novel as a popular literary form being one of the most significant.
In some capacity, the novels of the mid-nineteenth century respond to the pressures shaping Victorian society, particularly those produced by increased industrialization. In some, this response takes a direct and easily recognizable shape, while in others, the effect of contemporary societal pressures is less overtly detectable. Charles Dickens’s Hard Times (1854) and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860) each take shape as a response to shifts occurring during the period when they were written. Numerous aspects of these two novels reflect the concerns of mid-century British life but for the purpose of this essay, only the emergence of these concerns in relation to the specific authorial choices of setting will be examined.
Each of these novelists crafts a vivid picture of the town where the events of the narrative takes place. For these two authors, the setting of their stories plays an important role, not only as a force in the lives of characters, but as a lens through which to understand the social, economic and political structures that affect their lives. Both George Eliot and Charles Dickens place a specific town at the center of their novels. Each town is impacted in some way by increases in industrialization, but they differ dramatically beyond this. Perhaps most obviously, the authors diverge in their choice of the period that they portray in their novels, a divergence which, in turn, profoundly affects the depiction of the settings in which their respective characters operate.
Eliot’s novel takes place earlier in the century, though it was published in 1860. This places St. Ogg’s, her fictional town, at a point sometime around the 1830s, when it began its transition into an industrial center. Eliot’s depiction of St. Ogg’s reflects her upbringing in the Midlands during this period when “local time was replaced by standard time…, and local dialects were gradually supplanted by standard English. In the villages, farms and towns of [her] upbringing, new time and old time, new social formations and old, local and global concerns, all coexist.”[i] Rather than addressing the world as it was at the time of composition, Eliot takes a somewhat nostalgic look back at a time prior to total industrialization. The portrait she paints of this period through her description of St. Ogg’s and its citizens is a strange mixture that celebrates the great age of the town, its connection to the fields and the natural world around it, along with its growing industry and prosperity, even while it exposes the great vulnerability of all these. In like manner, its people are both venerated for their deep ties to their homes, lands and families and exposed for their narrow-minded backwardness and hypocrisy.
Dickens’s Coketown, on the other hand, is a fictionalized representation of a contemporary industrialized town. Dickens’s novel was published in 1854 and very purposefully presents the reader with a contemporary view of an industrial environment: “Hard Times takes place in and near a contemporary city and deals with a problem (the attitude responsible for such a city, as well as numerous other ills) that was very much a part of the world in which Dickens lived. His decision to add the subtitle “For These Times” to the first edition of Hard Times in volume form… only intensified the connection between this novel and its contemporary milieu.”[ii]
The portrait Dickens constructs of Coketown is devoid of the ambiguities of St. Ogg’s. Dickens presents the reader with a dark vision of a fully industrialized town that consumes its human inhabitants as fuel. He makes no pretenses of identifying a thriving, if flawed, current of humanity running through it, as Eliot does. Instead, his depiction of the town is a lament for what is being wasted there under the oppression of life in such an environment. In this regard, his treatment of Coketown in relation to the contemporary social and economic conditions in Britain is more straightforward than Eliot’s, but by no means less effective in conveying the social critique he undertakes. So emphatic is he on the importance of the town in relation to this, that he titles chapter 5 The Key-note and, before launching into a lengthy and detailed description of the town, suggests, “Let us strike the key-note, Coketown, before pursuing our tune” ( Hard Times 27). In doing this, he is indicating to his reader that all else will ultimately follow, which is to say that Coketown and what it represents is at the heart of this tale.
Though Dickens tackles the effects of industrialization on human beings directly and performs the majority of this work through his construction of the town, it is also a clear concern for Eliot, though the relationship to progress that emerges in her novel is more ambivalent:
It is by no means insignificant that the impact on the life of the Tullivers—and particularly Maggie—of external social and economic forces is invariably negative: although St. Ogg’s shares in the early nineteenth-century economic and technological progress, its results on the novel’s central protagonists are ultimately destructive… it is ultimately the modernity of the new, industrial England that quite literally kills [Maggie] when the boat she and Tom are using to escape from the mill during the flood is hit by fragments of ‘some wooden machinery [which have] just given way on one of the wharves.’ This conservative Wordsworthian vision of a traditional order of rural life being destroyed by the arrival of the progressive but ruthless forces of modernity is of course in line with the novel’s presentation of the world of the Tulliver’s Dodson relatives, personifying the very attitudes and values that made the development of the modern, nineteenth-century England possible.[iii]
The problem of industrialism clearly plays a major component in the construction of each of these settings. In addition, both towns share further similarities that result from the social changes of the mid-nineteenth century. Civilization’s relationship to nature, the dehumanization of history, and the often troubled dichotomy between the individual and the mass, are common to both towns, although their expressions of these themes are achieved through very different means.
Before proceeding, let us examine some of the aforementioned similarities, since they are quite striking, between the authorial descriptions of the two towns. Eliot begins her book by laying out the setting and describes St. Ogg’s as such:
The town of St. Ogg’s, which shows its aged, fluted red roofs and the broad gables of its wharves between the low wooded hill and the river brink, tinging the water with a soft purple hue under the transient glance of this February sun. Far away on each hand stretch the rich pastures and the patches of dark earth, made ready for the seed of broad-leaved green crops, or touched already with the tint of the tender-bladed autumn-sown corn. (The Mill on the Floss 1)
While Dickens’s Coketown picks up a similar red building material and is situated along a river, the treatment is very different:
It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if smoke and ashes had allowed it; but, as matters stood 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. (Hard Times 27)
What is beautiful in one becomes distorted in the other. The red brick has been dimmed by pollution and the river described as taking on a purple hue in each book does so from very different sources.
Of particular interest in these passages are the references to nature. Dickens, in describing the development of his town, points out the absolute absence of any form of nature in its benevolent growth:
Nature was as strongly bricked out as killing airs and gases were bricked in; at the heart of the labyrinth of narrow courts upon courts, and close streets upon streets, which had come into existence piecemeal, every piece in a violent hurry for some one man’s purpose, and the whole an unnatural family, shouldering, and trampling, and pressing one another to death. (Hard Times 67)
The denizens of Dickens’s city are alienated from all contact with the natural world, but this does not mean that nature is totally absent; instead, it has gone horribly wrong. Rather than escaping it completely, as one could imagine might be the ultimate achievement of the Industrial Revolution, the commercial progress of humanity has transformed nature into a distorted and malevolent force, as suggested by the smoke serpents and the mad elephants to which he refers throughout the book. Tamara Ketabgian links these images with the Victorian idea of the “animal machine” which possessed a very specific resonance for the Victorians:
The animal machine conveyed soullessness and degeneration at their worst, epitomized by the figure of an instinctive body absent of all dignifying human emotion. Such visions of mechanical instinct resonated with popular concerns surrounding the Condition of England, and in particular, England’s new industrial culture. Saturated by anxieties about working class unrest, these bestial images multiplied around the factory, the factory town, and a population that, at least according to observers, worked more closely with machines that ever before. A symptomatic figure for modernity, the animal machine defined both everything that the human body was and everything that the Victorian industrial masses threatened to become.[iv]
At St. Ogg’s, however, nature is very much present and, though it is both benevolent and destructive (the latter by gently foreshadowing their doom), for the majority of The Mill on the Floss it is used to heighten the sense of a possibility for peace or fulfillment for the main characters. Eliot creates the sense of a shared local history and connection to the past through the natural world, even though that history also ominously includes the floods of St. Ogg’s. Here Eliot describes the town itself as being intimately linked to nature.
It is one of those old, old towns, which impress one as a continuation and outgrowth of nature as much as the bower birds or the winding galleries of the white ants: a town which carries the traces of its long growth and history, like a millennial tree, and has sprung up and developed in the same spot between the river and the low hill from the time when the Roman legion turned their backs on it from the camp on the hillside. (The Mill 123)
Interestingly, Eliot also uses nature to identify the flaws of the townsfolk who will cause Maggie much suffering:
You could not live among such people; you are stifled for want of an outlet towards something beautiful, great, or noble: you are irritated with these dull men and women, as a kind of population out of keeping with the earth on which they live – with this rich plain where the great river flows forever onward and links the small pulse of the old English town with the beatings of the world’s mighty heart. (284)
Eliot’s use of natural imagery is multifaceted, and she employs it to very different ends than Dickens, identifying to some extent the complexities of her main character’s situation through the novel’s relationship to the natural world. Nature in relation to these two towns (one locating the dehumanization of its inhabitants in their separation from a benevolent natural world and the other identifying a degree of dehumanization in the inhabitants’ inability to appreciate the glorious natural world around them) suggests, in some degree, a conflicted dichotomy between the human and the inhuman.
This separation of human beings from their humanity, which is dehumanization, is thematically central in each of these books and is carried further by each in a variety of ways. Its manifestation is relatively straightforward in Dickens’s novel. Dickens clearly locates the source of the dehumanization of Coketown’s inhabitants in the grinding factories that consume their lives, day after day. Moreover, he names his town after ‘coke,’ the end product of a treatment process for coal that makes it more efficient as fuel. Coketown is named for what it consumes; the fuel that keeps it alive. That fuel is not just the coal burning in the furnaces; the real coke is the thousands of human lives burnt up in the factories of the town, the “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 tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next” (Hard Times 28). The name that Dickens gives his town, when combined with the descriptions he provides of its inhabitants as they go through the machinations of their daily lives, indicates the total dehumanization that Dickens himself sees happening in the fully industrialized city. Indeed, for Dickens, dehumanization seems to naturally accompany industrialization.
In The Mill on the Floss, the threat to Maggie’s humanity is embedded in the deeper idea of individual self-agency that was emerging in the mid-nineteenth century. Annette Federico has argued that at the heart of Maggie’s struggle is the rising notion of self-determination and the conscious choosing of an appropriate mode of living:
The story that Maggie, other young people in the novel, Marian Evans, and the reader find themselves a part of is the story of nineteenth-century liberal individualism, and in particular the liberal-existentialist predicament of choosing how one wishes to live. It is a problem that occupies the ethical center in many Victorian novels, for “making a choice,” as John Stuart Mill maintained in 1859, is both the prerogative and burden of the modern liberal subject.[v]
St. Ogg’s is named for the boatman who ferried the disguised Virgin Mary across the Floss simply because it was “enough that [her] heart need[ed] it,” without questioning her or attempting to dissuade her, as the other townspeople did (The Mill 124). In other words, St. Ogg’s is named after an individual who understood an individual human desire. This identifies the heart of the struggle taking place within St. Ogg’s as constituted by the tension between that individual desire and what is perceived within the context of this town to be the rational and correct way of thinking and acting. Thus, the way the people of St. Ogg’s ostracize Maggie because she has chosen the only course of action acceptable to her heart is paralleled in the townspeople’s treatment of the Virgin before St. Ogg agrees to ferry her across in the storm. Their response to her when she asks them for help is to execute the conventional course of action they always already dictate: “Wherefore dost thou desire to cross the river? Tarry till the morning, and take shelter here for the night: so shalt thou be wise, and not foolish” (124). The people of St. Ogg’s see the equally simple solution to Maggie’s problem of marrying Stephen Guest, and when she will not take it, she is punished by them because they cannot conceive of a morally correct situation which would justify her course of action.
Clearly, the relation between the individual and the mass, and how it should be understood, is one of the most important ideas expressed through the towns in both Hard Times and The Mill on the Floss. A great anomaly persists within each town regarding this. In Coketown, it is the grotesque of the faceless masses that Dickens achieves by focusing on the absolute annihilation of the individual. Yet, due to Coketown’s total industrialization, this annihilation has already been achieved; Dickens’s goal is to make the reader understand the consequent implications. Her asserts,
So many hundred Hands in this Mill; so many hundred horse Steam Power. It is known, to the force of a single pound weight, what the engine will do; but, not all the calculators of the National Debt can tell me the capacity for good and evil, for love or hatred, for patriotism or discontent, for the decomposition of virtue into vice, or the reverse, at any single moment in the soul of one of these its quiet servants, with the composed faces and the regulated actions. (Hard Times 71)
Although there is struggle on the part of the two characters singled out of this mass, there is no triumph. Stephen dies as a victim of a system that uses him and suspects him at the same time, while Rachel, who remains alive, returns to her long-suffering life to live out the rest of her days laboring in the factories of Coketown with no promise of relief.
In contrast, Maggie is the anomaly in St. Ogg’s. The town here is undone by the individual in the face of the mass and, in this way, it resists the view of humanity that Dickens presents. The force of Maggie’s life and the force of the flood can be seen as bound together since the flood comes in the moment when she has found a final resolve to her course of action and is only left to lament the great length of the life that remains to her. The flood comes to release her from suffocation under the condemnation of the society of St. Ogg’s. It comes to deliver her and mete out punishment on the townspeople since, in the words of Dr. Kenn, “[t]he persons who are the most incapable of a conscious struggle such as yours, are precisely those who will be likely to shrink from you on the ground of an unjust judgment; because they will not believe in your struggle” (516). Significantly, in this case such persons also did not believe a terrible flood would ever come again.
St. Ogg’s represents a type of passive consumption that produces a terrible effect which culminates in a single catastrophe. Although the catastrophe comes in the form of a flood, more truly catastrophic is the conflagration of a single life under the insidious resistance of a weak-minded society to a morally higher creature. In Coketown, the consumption is aggressive and relentless. The thing consumed is not the one that resists the general current of societal feeling, but the many who are, in effect, the living fuel of the town. For the synecdochic “Hands” of Coketown, however, there will be no great final conflagration. Coketown has been burning all the while.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. London: Penguin Group, 2003.
Dolin, Tim. George Eliot. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Eliot, George. The Mill on the Floss. London: Penguin Group, 2003.
Federico, Annette R. “Being Torn: The Mill on the Floss.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 12 (2001): 359-79.
Jedrzejewski, Jan. George Eliot. New York: Routledge, 2007
Ketabgian, Tamara. “‘Melancholy Mad Elephants’: Affect and the Animal Machine in Hard Times.” Victorian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Social, Political, and Cultural Studies 45 (2003): 649-76.
Thomas, Deborah A. “Hard Times”: A Fable of Fragmentation and Wholeness. New York: Twayne, 1997.
[i] Dolin, Tim. George Eliot. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 46
[ii] Thomas, Deborah A. “Hard Times”: A Fable of Fragmentation and Wholeness. (New York: Twayne, 1997), p. 5
[iii] Jedrzejewski, Jan. George Eliot. (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 49
[iv] Ketabgian, Tamara. “‘Melancholy Mad Elephants’: Affect and the Animal Machine in Hard Times.” Victorian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Social, Political, and Cultural Studies. 45 (2003): 649-76. p. 653
[v] Federico, Annette R. “Being Torn: The Mill on the Floss.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 12 (2001): 359-79. p. 362
 Dolin, Tim. George Eliot. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 46
 Thomas, Deborah A. “Hard Times”: A Fable of Fragmentation and Wholeness. (New York: Twayne, 1997), p. 5
 Jedrzejewski, Jan. George Eliot. (New York: Routledge, 2007), p. 49
 Ketabgian, Tamara. “‘Melancholy Mad Elephants’: Affect and the Animal Machine in Hard Times.” Victorian Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Social, Political, and Cultural Studies. 45 (2003): 649-76. p. 653
 Federico, Annette R. “Being Torn: The Mill on the Floss.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory 12 (2001): 359-79. p. 362