How is symbolism used in Hard Times?
I tend to think that Thomas Gradgrind is one of the strongest symbols in Dickens' work. Dickens uses Gradgrind as the fundamental example of rationalist thought. Gradgrind is a symbol of the rationalist and industrialist setting. Dickens uses him as a symbol as all that is wrong with the individuals who take rationalism and industrialist thought to its logical conclusion. Dickens uses his character as a symbol of that which is wrong or limited with believing only in utilitarian thought, as driven by industrialism and rationalism. For Dickens, Gradgrind is a symbol. He is reflective of the beliefs pervading the social order of the time. Dickens uses him as a way to ensure that others understand the implications belief in such potent philosophies to an extent where no other thought can enter. It is for this reason that Gradgrind is someone that is seen in a sad light by the end of the novel. He is symbolic of the limitations of a world where industrialist thought and rationalism are taken to its extreme, a world where "fact not fancy" is the only guiding principle within it.
In Hard Times, the circus symbolizes learning through experience. It's here that Sissy Jupe learns what a horse is, for example, without needing to give the kind of precise, lexicographical definition insisted upon by Mr. Gradgrind. The people who live and work in the circus may not be educated in the formal sense of the word, but they know much more about the world than this stern, unbending pedant.
One could argue that it's because Sissy has grown up in the circus that she's better able to navigate her way through the travails of life than Gradgrind's children, who've learned nothing except their father's narrow, fact-based curriculum. If he hadn't caught them catching a sneaky peak through the circus tent—who knows?—maybe their lives would've turned out better than they did. Because then they might've actually learned something through experience.