Study Guide

Hard Times Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Charles Dickens

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Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Fairy Palaces and Elephants (a.k.a. Factories and the Machinery inside them)

This one is from the narrator and runs throughout the novel: the idea that the ugly, square, fact-based, oppressive mills look like fairy palaces with elephants in them when they are lit up at night. The image first pops up as something a person riding by Coketown in a fast-moving train might say – in other words, someone who doesn't know any better what the reality of the place actually is. It's an idea dripping with irony, since we already know that there is nothing beautiful or magical about the factories. Then, in a pretty neat trick, "Fairy Palaces" becomes kind of a nickname for the mills, and is used whenever Dickens needs to poke readers awake and yet again quickly remind them how awful life is for the factory workers.

Fire, Sparks, and Ashes

Purely a Louisa thing here, since she's a big fan of sitting around staring at the fire and thinking about life. There are two strands to this image. One is for fires in the fireplace, which send up little burning ashes that extinguish and fall. The second is for the fires inside the factory chimneys, which lie dormant all day and then suddenly burst forth at night. It's not really clear what we're meant to take from these images. Is Louisa the ashes – her life's energy will be used when she is still very young, and she will spend the rest of her life as ashes, a waste product? Or is she the fiery chimney – seemingly very quiet, reserved, cool, and detached, but secretly waiting for the right moment to burst forth with all her passion aglow? Or is the idea to connect Louisa with a more mystical scene of a wise woman, oracle, or shaman, looking into the village fire before she speaks some kind of primal truth to whoever is nearby?

Turtle Soup, Venison, and a Gold Spoon

Bounderby's old standby whenever he wants to talk smack about the things his workers want is to bust out their unreasonably (and obviously totally fictitious) desire to eat this fancy, expensive meal. There are probably a couple of things to explore in this symbol of good living. First, this goes to describe another part of Bounderby's character. He is good at making up stories (ahem, lying) so this is yet another myth he invents, this time about the unionized factory Hands. Second, it's interesting that of all the possible ways to indicate unreasonableness (why not, say, "all they want is flying unicorns and magic wands!"), Bounderby goes with the wealthy display of an aristocrat. For someone as obsessed with status, blood purity, and birth as he is, the idea that his workers would suddenly become members of a social class higher than his own must be an extremely stressful thought.

Mrs. Sparsit's Staircase

So, there's a really great million-dollar word that applies to Mrs. Sparsit: schadenfreude (pronounced sha-den-froi-da). It's an awesome term we borrowed from German, and it means "taking pleasure in the misery and misfortune of others." Use it the next chance you get (correctly! In the right context!) to impress your friends and wow your teacher. Anyhow, Mrs. Sparsit is completely immersed in trying to get Louisa to cheat on Bounderby with Harthouse. In her mind, she pictures the process of seduction and, hopefully, illicit sex, as Louisa walking down a long staircase into a giant pit of doom and sin. The staircase imagery is pretty powerful. It contrasts the civilized world (someone had to build that staircase, and architecture tends to be manmade) and the bestial nature of sex and desire (the hole of despair at the bottom is shapeless and not of this world).

We could probably take it a step farther, and think about the way this staircase to Hell compares with the Biblical image of Jacob's ladder to Heaven (Jacob sees it in a vision in the Book of Genesis), and the similar ideas about it taking small, incrementally staggered steps to get to these places.

Old Hell Shaft

And speaking of giant pits of despair – Old Hell Shaft! So there are subtle symbols, and then there is this one. Let's see if we can decipher the very cryptic meaning here. Literally falling down a giant pit of doom is a little like…? Yes, that's right, figuratively falling down a giant pit of doom. Just as Stephen is actually killed because he can't escape from the big hole in the ground he walked into sight unseen, so too is he emotionally and psychically trapped in his terrible marriage. Or maybe it's the legal system that he is trapped inside – the legal system which won't let him get a divorce? Or maybe it's not his marriage that is the pit of doom, but the way he is treated by the workers who shun him for not joining the union? Are there other possibilities? You decide.

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