The struggle between imagination and cold hard practicality seems to be the running theme of the book, as there are many scenes that show Coketown's focus on facts to the point of discouraging flights of fancy. Mr. Gradgrind, for example, believes that people should only behave in ways that will directly benefit them - a consequence of people being forced to do whatever they have to in order to survive. At the same time, this is contrasted with Sissy Jupe, who constantly daydreams and is compassionate toward others. Gradgrind's hiring of Mr. McChoakumchild is contingent upon him teaching the children nothing but the facts they need; when he asks a question about what a horse is, Sissy wants to give a more detailed explanation but another student is able to please Gradgrind by dryly explaining the concept of a horse. This scene in Chapter 2 is indicative of the conflict between those two ideas, as a horse can either be practical or an inspiration for imagination. The former is valued instead of the latter.
Sissy is constantly shown to be the symbol of imagination and compassion in this dark and twisted world; she goes out to purchase oils to ease her father's pains, which prevent him from working as a circus performer. When she is send away to live with Gradgrind, who sets out to teach her the ways of practicality and fact, there is the implication that she will lose her innocence and compassion. In fact, the forces of imagination and wonder are constantly downtrodden by Gradgrind and Bounderby, the banker, who seek to snuff out that kind of curiosity. Dickens states that the workers and the children of Coketown "have Fancy in them demanding to be brought into healthy existence" (Chapter 5); however, the oppressive forces of practicality seek to mute those senses of wonder, valuing fact instead. The circus performers are the greatest symbol of wonder and fancy; they are the source by which Sissy finds her imagination, but they fall on hard times due to the lack of support the rest of Coketown offers them.
Through many of Hard Times' characters, Dickens explores the concept of evil and the behaviors that play into that capacity for evil in humans. The class system set up in Coketown is very much predicated on human greed and lack of compassion for one's fellow human beings; the myth of Bounderby is that he came from poverty to become wealthy on his own. As a result, he perpetuates a system of social mobility that places undue pressure and accountability on the poor to escape their own conditions. In essence, Bounderby perpetuates the libertarian dream of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, and that poor people have only themselves to blame. By disproving this assertion by showing Bounderby's true parentage and the source of his wealth, Dickens shows that this is a cruel, evil perspective that only serves to make the rich feel better about not giving back to the poor. Evil is also shown to be closely related to pragmatism; Gradgrind, for example, is an extremely rigid and pragmatic figure, with his "square coat, square legs, square shoulders," believing that self-interest rules all. However, with his eventual change in perspective, as with Louisa, Bounderby and others, Dickens shows that people are not inherently evil, and can change their ways if they so choose.
While at the school Sissy is sent to, she does not do well because she simply cannot adjust to the slavish adherence to facts that the teachers demand. Instead, she holds on to the idea that her father will come back for her. With this, Dickens shows the reader that living in a world of cold, hard facts is simply not enough to survive; one must have Fancy and imagination in order to remain warm, complete human beings. This is further cemented in the ending to the book, as Bounderby is found to not be a self-made man after all, having his beneficiary be revealed as his mother. Dickens' dark tone within the book is very much still in keeping with the ending; Bounderby and Tom both die after realizing how wrong they were - this kind of bittersweet comeuppance supports Dickens' assertions that even the most repentant do not escape karmic punishment for their sins. Still others are not immune to hardship; Louisa never marries or has children after the events of the book, though Sissy's family looks after her and loves her. By having the evil characters punished by the end of the book, Dickens permits a semblance of social justice to be found.
Hard Times is a great example of social-change fiction, in that it provides the reader with an easily translatable and relatable parable of a society with severe wealth inequalities in Coketown. By focusing on several different characters in different situations, we see how this kind of society affects all walks of life - there is Sissy's entrance in the education system of Coketown, which increasingly stresses conformity and submission of feminine strength (as exemplified through Louisa). Furthermore, the union struggle to gain rights while threatening to take profits away from the wealth occurs with Stephen's storyline; he attempts to navigate the tough world of union negotiations, as he wants to do the right thing to settle disputes between employer and employee, even if the other Hands disagree. Furthermore, the whole of Coketown, and Gradgrind's philosophy, comment on the ways modern society was changing in the wake of the Industrial Revolution - by making production more mechanized, people became more mechanized as well. Dickens' well-drawn characters and deeply felt themes allow the reader to explore those changes, and how others rebelled against them.
Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. Norton Critical Edition (3rd ed), 1854. Print.