Hard Times is an 1854 fictional novel written by Charles Dickens. It tells the story of Thomas Gradgrind—a man who, along with his children, tries to navigate his life in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and the new socioeconomic climate in Victorian England. The story was first published in Dickens’s weekly magazine Household Worlds and it is broken down into three separate books: Book I: Sowing (April, 1854), Book II: Reaping (May, 1854), and Book III: Garnering (July, 1854). Because of its various social and moral themes such as industrialism, utilitarianism, morality and ethics, the clash between rationalism and emotionalism, and the aesthetic of Victorian England, many literary critiques consider the novel to be a sociological satire on the industrial age and society.
Aside from the thematic representations, another interesting element of Hard Times is its symbolism. Throughout the novel, Dickens uses numerous symbols and metaphors to present his own concepts and ideas on the society he lived in. In fact, the characters themselves could be considered symbols of the positive and negative implications of the industrial revolution and society.
For instance, the main protagonist, Mr. Gradgrind, is a symbol for the negative aspects of the Utilitarian theory. He is an incredibly logical and calculating man who gives meaning only to the rational and factual knowledge and ideas and rejects everything that is built upon the concepts of empiricism and emotionalism. He represents all of those who tend to ignore and neglect the beauty and the emotional value of everything and everyone and thus, end up lost and bitter.
Then, there are Josiah Bounderby and Gradgrinds’s children—Louisa and Tom. Through the selfish, immoral and exploitative Mr. Bounderby, Dickens tells us how greed and the never-ending desire for money and material treasure can dehumanize a person. Louisa and Tom, on the other hand, represent the importance of proper nurture, love and compassion. If it weren’t for their father’s ruthless and cold nature and their strict upbringing, perhaps they would have been able to feel love and experience the true joys of life.
Furthermore, Dickens writes of an inn called "Pegasus' Arms," named after the winged horse Pegasus from Greek mythology. Pegasus symbolizes the beauty and the importance of imagination and fantasy, which are foreign and unfamiliar concepts to Louisa and Tom. Unable to cope with his daily struggles, Tom seeks solace in alcohol and gambling, and even robs the bank he works in. Mr. Bounderby's bank is a symbol of wealth, money and high socioeconomic position, and represents something that the poor and unfortunate lower classes could never have.
Another symbol that can be seen as a representation of Dickens’ views and opinions on industrialism is the imaginary Coketown, which is the main setting of the story. Dickens describes Coketown as a very monochromatic, polluted, industrial town filled with factories and various machines. Many readers argue that this is a symbol for the first stages of the modernization of society and the start of people’s unhealthy obsession with machines and technology.
A secondary representation of this would be Mr. Blackpool’s loom. The unfortunate Stephen Blackpool works in one of Bounderby’s mills, on a steam-powered loom. This machine is a symbol for the work ethic in the Victorian society. In the industrial age, a person’s job was the most important part of their life. As the days go by, the people (especially those from the middle class) would throw themselves into their work and gradually forget about the excitement and the pleasures of life. They would become lethargic and uninterested, but they won’t feel any discomfort, since they won’t feel the need to break the dull, monotonic tempo of their lifestyle.
Finally, there is Mr. Sleary’s circus. As a contrast to Gradgrind’s factual and organized world, the circus represents the people’s need for entertainment, art and amusement. It is a symbol of joy and pleasure, and represents a prosperous and pleasurable lifestyle where one can actually enjoy their work. In the story, Mr. Sleary’s circus provides an escape from the harsh and dull reality and its entertainers are a symbol for all that is fun, and most importantly, humane.