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Hard Times | Study Guide

Charles Dickens

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the symbols in Charles Dickens's novel Hard Times.

Hard Times | Symbols



Stephen Blackpool makes multiple references to his loom, a steam-powered machine used widely in textile factories after industrialization. For Stephen, the loom defines his life and gives it purpose. Thus, it symbolizes the dominance of work in the lives of the workers and the narrow definition of the workers' sense of self and place in the world. Stephen views his work as a comfort, which it is in a sense, but the loom also symbolizes the overwhelming power of work that keeps Stephen tethered to a bleak, monotonous, and unchangeable existence.

He is, in a sense, both defined and imprisoned by his loom. The position in which he must remain to operate the machine—hunched—defines his posture: stooped and hunched. Old beyond his years, he knows no way of life other than the loom, to which he returns day after day, year after year. Although he longs for better conditions, he has no desire to leave the security his loom provides him within these conditions, as a person imprisoned for many years might have little desire for freedom.

Bottle of Nine Oils

One of the last things Mr. Jupe does before leaving is send Sissy to get him a bottle of nine oils, a primitive remedy for the aches and pains he suffers from executing the acrobatics of his performances. Sissy keeps the bottle throughout her childhood, and Mr. Gradgrind tells Mr. Sleary she still has it as an adult when Mr. Sleary reveals his belief that Mr. Jupe has died. To Mr. Gradgrind, the bottle symbolizes Sissy's childlike feelings about her father: her unwillingness to accept facts and accept her father is not coming back. Such sentimentality is the primary obstacle to her formal education.

For Sissy, however, the bottle represents unfailing hope and love for her father. Her belief he might return helps her cope with the pain of his absence and reminds her of his love for her. Her sentimentality provides her with emotional stability in the face of his abandonment, and by keeping the legendary bottle into adulthood, she symbolically carries her father's love with her into adulthood. Her belief in his love allows her to grow into a productive and balanced adult.


With clowns, acrobats, and elaborate horse-riding shows based on legendary themes, the circus symbolizes the triumph of imagination and whimsy, or what Mr. Gradgrind would call "fancy." The circus features such performance pieces as the enticingly named "equestrians Tyrolean flower-act," which presumably combines flowers and horses in a creative way. Another performance features Master Kidderminster as Cupid, complete with "curls, wreaths, and wings." These performances provide factory workers an escape from the monotony and squalor of everyday life.

Even though wealthy men such as Mr. Gradgrind and Mr. Bounderby dismiss circus performers as disreputable slackers, circus performances require great skill and extensive training, showing the variety of expertise and ability that can lead to a productive and satisfying life, one most definitely not based on fact. The circus represents not merely the escape entertainment provides but also a broader understanding of what success and prosperity can mean. The dismissal of the circus, in turn, represents a restrictive worldview that neglects the validity of fanciful human joy.


In complete contrast to the haphazard whimsy of the circus, the bank is a regimented and organized space, cleaner than the factories but dismal and restrictive in its own way. It is part of "the wholesome monotony of the town," a red brick building nearly indistinguishable from the other red brick buildings that surround it. The desks in the office space are set up in rows that echo the rows of machines in a factory, and Tom Gradgrind finds his place in the bank as oppressive as Stephen Blackpool finds the factory—perhaps more so. It is a privileged but dull existence. As a symbol of wealth, the bank shows how wealth oppresses those who don't have it. The images of heavy doors and locks emphasize how the money is kept separate from all human eyes and hands.

The building itself, as well as the institution, is a symbol. A nondescript but imposing brick structure, the bank is inaccessible to those who do not have money, and thus serves as a physical reminder of what people living in poverty can never obtain.

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