Midway through Chapter 31 in The Pickwick Papers, Sam Weller and Pickwick happen upon a "celebrated Sassage factory," whereupon Sam narrates an urban legend involving the "mysterious disappearance of a respectable tradesman . . . the inwenter o' the patent-never-leavin-off sassage steam 'ingine'" that would "swaller up a pavin' stone . . . and grind it into sassages as easy as if it was a tender young babby." A contented man in most other respects, this hapless tradesman takes a most "ow-dacious wixin" as his wife, and the morning after a particular bought of their "screamin' and kickin," the husband turns up "missin." Two months later, Sam reports, the following interview occurred.

One Saturday night, a little thin old gen'lm'n comes into the shop in a great passion and says, 'Are you the missis o' this here shop?' 'Yes I am,' says she. "Well Ma'am,' says he, 'then I've just looked in to say, that me and my family ain't a goin' to be choaked for nothin'; and more than that Ma'am,' he says, 'you'll allow me to observe that as you don't use the primest parts of the meat in the manfacter o' sassages, I think you'd find beef come nearly as cheap as buttons.' 'Buttons, Sir!' says she. 'Buttons, Ma'am,' says the little old gentleman, unfolding a bit of paper, and shewin' twenty or thirty halves o' buttons. "Nice seasonin' for sassages, is trousers' buttons, Ma'am.' "They're my husband's buttons,' says the widder, beginnin to fain. "What!' screams the little old gen'lm'n, turnin' wery pale. 'I see it all,' says the widder; 'in a fit of temporary insanity he rashly converted hisself into sassages!" (Pickwick Papers 465, Ch. 31).

The abject working-conditions resulting from nineteenth-century industrial expansion in England were well known to both Gaskell and Dickens. "The conditions under which women and children toiled in mines and factories were unimaginably brutal" (Norton II 894), and involved among other things low wages, excessive working hours, the exploitation of children laborers, and dangerous machinery. In terms of the food industry, Anthony S. Wohl's research suggests that Dickens' comical portrayal of "'those odds and ends of meat, the by-products of the butchering business'" is perhaps not far from truth. "The Privy Council estimated in 1862 that one-fifth of butcher's meat in England and Wales came from animals which were 'considerably diseased' or had died of pleuro-pneumonia, and anthacid or anthracoid diseases" (Wohl, "Adulteration and Contamination of Food"). Laura Del Col has simuilarly researched the textile industry against which Gaskell inveighs, citing Michael Sadler's parliamentary investigation into the condition of textile mills in 1832 as one of the "great reports on the life of the industrial class" that led ultimately to the passage of the Act of 1833 limiting hours of employment for women and children in textile work (Del Col, "The Life of the Industrial Worker"). Del Col also draws upon P. Gaskell's observations of the "physical deterioration of textile workers" in Gaskell's The Manufacturing Population of England — a deterioration physically manifest in the "spiritless and dejected air," the "sallow and pallid" complexions, and "flat feet" of "great numbers of girls and women walking lamely or awkwardly."

In this sense both Gaskell and Dickens comment upon the material reality of nineteenth-century factory workers; however, where Dickens satirizes these conditions, Gaskell renders the conditions of Northern textile work through Bessy's realistic monologue. That is, Bessy's description of "fluff" bears a striking similarity to the well-documented conditions of nineteenth-century textile mills. In terms of theme, Bessy, herself a teenager (and ostensibly the only woman Gaskell describes as a worker), decries the mutability of life. Having "been bornšjust to work my heart and life away," she foresees the "end of it all." It seems Gaskell aligns her sympathies with Bessy by simultaneously lamenting the futility of Bessy's situation and finding genuine value in Bessy's Northern ethos of enterprise, self-sufficiency, and agency. So rigorous are these textile mills that the "mill noises" resonate against Bessy's mental and physical health. She "could go mad," but also suffers from the "fluff filling my lungs." The theme of mutability is brought about largely by Gaskell's technique or style of realism. That is, Gaskell participates in the "nineteenth-century movement that believed novelists and painters should concentrate on describing the physical, material details of life" ("Realism" Victorian Web).

If Gaskell is concerned with accurately portraying these factories, Dickens attempts the same social reform through satire. Satire emphasizes humanity's ridiculousness by means of humor in an attempt to reform or correct these follies and improve the human condition. Whereas Gaskell conflates Bessy's body and spirit, her mental anguish and physical deterioration, Dickens literally casts the body of his tragic protagonist headlong into the "sassage" machine — turning him ironically into "sassage" himself. Sam's urban legend provides Pickwick with much-needed insights into the horrors of industrial life. No matter how cynical and fantastic the tragic protagonist's "mysterious disappearance" may be, Sam's embedded tale cleverly suggests the same social reform that Gaskell desires. Notice, too, that whereas Gaskell's Bessy occupies an important space in the novel's narrative, Dicken's depiction of industry appears in an ancillary embedded tale.

North and South

Created October 1992; last modified: 26 March 2000

Last modified 8 June 2007