Use of Symbolism in Dickens's Hard Times

Dickens uses symbols in his novel in order to give an exact shape to his moral purpose. Most of the characters in the novel are an embodiment of a certain idea or principle. There are two groups of symbolic characters: one symbolizing the objectionable qualities of Victorian life, and other symbolizing certain positive qualities and these two opposite poles are confronted with the novel.

Charles Dickens

Dickens not only uses characters as symbols, but the setting of Coketown as brick jungle as it is the symbol of ugly industrialization. The industries and factories scattering in the towns make the city dirty with black smoke symbolize unnatural death of the workers by the modern monster like machines.

Among the characters who symbolize vice, evils, abuses and pitfalls of the ugly society is Mr. Gradgrind who holds the first and foremost position in his society. He successfully symbolizes the negative qualities of the utilitarian education system. He entirely focuses on the facts, calculation and numbers and denies the attachments with fancy, love, emotions and imaginations.  He is the rigid and blind follower of the absurd utilitarian educational theory. What he gives importance is just the factual knowledge not the practical learning because of which he has to lose the charm and beauty of his children’s lives.

Another major character Bounderby, the banker and manufacturer, is the symbol of utilitarian economic theory and the theory of Laissez Faire (the theory which believes that economy works best if private industry is not regulated and markets are free). This ugly man represents the greed for money and inhumanity in his practical life. When it comes to the fulfillment of the basic requirements of his workers, he turns his deaf ear and moreover he dismisses Stephen Blackpool.

The daughter of Grandgrind; Louisa becomes the symbol of the suffering and victim of wrong education, upbringing, imposition of fact, avoidance of imagination from one’s life. She receives our sympathy when she can’t identify her feeling of love and pain. Tom, brother of Louisa, too symbolizes the same dangerous product of his father’s absurd theory of education and upbringing. Bitzer symbolized another evil of the then existing society and culture. He is the best product of Gradgrind’s principle of education for whom everything if the matter of bargain and is controlled by self-interest. Mrs. Sparsit becomes the symbol of snobbery and hypocrisy of the upper class of the Victorian era.

The other group of people who represents positive features of that society are Stephen Blackpool, Rachel, Sissy Jupe and the Circus. Stephen and Rachel are the symbol for noble minded and generous persons. Sissy Symbolizes vitality as well as goodness: she has a golden heart and full of spirit of service. She represents the opinion of the antithesis of calculating self-interest. The circus and its people are the symbol of humanity and art where different colors of life are counted and emotion, sentiments have right place and value.