Background.

Hard Times
  • The orator having refreshed himself, wiped his corrugated forehead from left to right several times with his handkerchief folded into a pad, and concentrated all his revived forces, in a sneer of great disdain and bitterness” is a quotation from Hard Times (Book 2, Chapter 4).
  • 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 quote is a description of the trade union organiser Slackbridge, pausing during a passionate speech.

Book 2, Chapter 4 of Hard Times begins with Slackbridge addressing a crowd of Coketown workers, urging them to join the union and fight against low wages and poor conditions.

Charles Dickens writes a number of less than complimentary observations about Slackbridge in describing the orator at work.

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, a mine-shaft on the outskirts of Coketown.

Character Profile: Slackbridge.

Slackbridge is a trade union organiser in Coketown, who tries to recruit workers to his movement. An unpleasant side emerges when he is angered when Stephen Blackpool refuses to join his cause, encouraging colleagues to shun him, which sets in motion a series of events with tragic consequences.

Source.

Taken from the following passage in Book 2, Chapter 4 (Men and Brothers) of Hard Times:

As he stood there, trying to quench his fiery face with his drink of water, the comparison between the orator and the crowd of attentive faces turned towards him, was extremely to his disadvantage.  Judging him by Nature’s evidence, he was above the mass in very little but the stage on which he stood.  In many great respects he was essentially below them.  He was not so honest, he was not so manly, he was not so good-humoured; he substituted cunning for their simplicity, and passion for their safe solid sense.  An ill-made, high-shouldered man, with lowering brows, and his features crushed into an habitually sour expression, he contrasted most unfavourably, even in his mongrel dress, with the great body of his hearers in their plain working clothes.  Strange as it always is to consider any assembly in the act of submissively resigning itself to the dreariness of some complacent person, lord or commoner, whom three-fourths of it could, by no human means, raise out of the slough of inanity to their own intellectual level, it was particularly strange, and it was even particularly affecting, to see this crowd of earnest faces, whose honesty in the main no competent observer free from bias could doubt, so agitated by such a leader.

Good!  Hear, hear!  Hurrah!  The eagerness both of attention and intention, exhibited in all the countenances, made them a most impressive sight.  There was no carelessness, no languor, no idle curiosity; none of the many shades of indifference to be seen in all other assemblies, visible for one moment there.  That every man felt his condition to be, somehow or other, worse than it might be; that every man considered it incumbent on him to join the rest, towards the making of it better; that every man felt his only hope to be in his allying himself to the comrades by whom he was surrounded; and that in this belief, right or wrong (unhappily wrong then), the whole of that crowd were gravely, deeply, faithfully in earnest; must have been as plain to any one who chose to see what was there, as the bare beams of the roof and the whitened brick walls.  Nor could any such spectator fail to know in his own breast, that these men, through their very delusions, showed great qualities, susceptible of being turned to the happiest and best account; and that to pretend (on the strength of sweeping axioms, howsoever cut and dried) that they went astray wholly without cause, and of their own irrational wills, was to pretend that there could be smoke without fire, death without birth, harvest without seed, anything or everything produced from nothing.

The orator having refreshed himself, wiped his corrugated forehead from left to right several times with his handkerchief folded into a pad, and concentrated all his revived forces, in a sneer of great disdain and bitterness.

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The orator having refreshed himself, wiped his corrugated forehead from left to right several times with his handkerchief folded into a pad, and concentrated all his revived forces, in a sneer of great disdain and bitterness.
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