Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
When Mrs. Sparsit notices that Louisa and Harthouse are spending a lot of time together, she imagines that Louisa is running down a long staircase into a “dark pit of shame and ruin at the bottom.” This imaginary staircase represents her belief that Louisa is going to elope with Harthouse and consequently ruin her reputation forever. Mrs. Sparsit has long resented Bounderby’s marriage to the young Louisa, as she hoped to marry him herself; so she is very pleased by Louisa’s apparent indiscretion. Through the staircase, Dickens reveals the manipulative and censorious side of Mrs. Sparsit’s character. He also suggests that Mrs. Sparsit’s self-interest causes her to misinterpret the situation. Rather than ending up in a pit of shame by having an affair with Harthouse, Louisa actually returns home to her father.
Mr. Sleary’s circus entertainers stay at an inn called the Pegasus Arms. Inside this inn is a “theatrical” pegasus, a model of a flying horse with “golden stars stuck on all over him.” The pegasus represents a world of fantasy and beauty from which the young Gradgrind children are excluded. While Mr. Gradgrind informs the pupils at his school that wallpaper with horses on it is unrealistic simply because horses do not in fact live on walls, the circus folk live in a world in which horses dance the polka and flying horses can be imagined, even if they do not, in fact, exist. The very name of the inn reveals the contrast between the imaginative and joyful world of the circus and Mr. Gradgrind’s belief in the importance of fact.
At a literal level, the streams of smoke that fill the skies above Coketown are the effects of industrialization. However, these smoke serpents also represent the moral blindness of factory owners like Bounderby. Because he is so concerned with making as much profit as he possibly can, Bounderby interprets the serpents of smoke as a positive sign that the factories are producing goods and profit. Thus, he not only fails to see the smoke as a form of unhealthy pollution, but he also fails to recognize his own abuse of the Hands in his factories. The smoke becomes a moral smoke screen that prevents him from noticing his workers’ miserable poverty. Through its associations with evil, the word “serpents” evokes the moral obscurity that the smoke creates.
When Louisa is first introduced, in Chapter 3 of Book the First, the narrator explains that inside her is a “fire with nothing to burn, a starved imagination keeping life in itself somehow.” This description suggests that although Louisa seems coldly rational, she has not succumbed entirely to her father’s prohibition against wondering and imagining. Her inner fire symbolizes the warmth created by her secret fancies in her otherwise lonely, mechanized existence. Consequently, it is significant that Louisa often gazes into the fireplace when she is alone, as if she sees things in the flames that others—like her rigid father and brother—cannot see. However, there is another kind of inner fire in Hard Times—the fires that keep the factories running, providing heat and power for the machines. Fire is thus both a destructive and a life-giving force. Even Louisa’s inner fire, her imaginative tendencies, eventually becomes destructive: her repressed emotions eventually begin to burn “within her like an unwholesome fire.” Through this symbol, Dickens evokes the importance of imagination as a force that can counteract the mechanization of human nature.