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.