Stephen Blackpool, a worker or a "hand" at Mr. Bounderby's factory, is waiting for a woman by the name of Rachael on a dark and wet night after work. He is an older, grey-haired man who has evidently suffered a lot. Rachael, a woman with a beautiful and peaceful face, eventually comes, and the two walk a ways together. There are not married (for they go their separate ways after a while) but Stephen evidently has a deep affection for Rachael. Upon returning home, he is aghast to find his bed occupied by a drunk and filthy woman, more creature than human. By their conversation, it comes out that they are acquainted with each other.
With Stephen the novel introduces the workers at Bounderby's factory. That these workers are called "hands" indicates the degree to which they aren't treated as real, full people. From the point of view of Bounderby, their sole purpose is to do the things he wants him to do—to be his hands. Stephen's physical indication signals the difficult life of a worker, but it is clear that the greater cause of his unhappiness lies with these two women in his life: sweet Rachael and the drunk hag, who is actually his wife. Two greater opposites could not be imagined.