Welcome to my three-part series about Symbolism, Theme and Motif. Each week we’ll be examining one of these ideas, looking at examples and how they can be used in writing. This week we’re starting with symbolism, intentional and unintentional and how they can be interpreted by different readers.
What is a symbol? A symbol is something that means something else. Here is a literal example.
The picture of the triangle in a circle does not mean triangle in a circle. It is the universal symbol for play as in play the DVD. You encounter symbols everyday such as a stick figures for men and women on toilet doors and symbolism can be found almost as frequency in literature. Here are a few examples:
- The flashing light across the bay from Gatsby’s House in The Great Gatsby.
- Holden Cauldfield’s red hunting hat in Catcher in the Rye.
- The Mississippi River in Huckleberry Finn.
Authors use symbolism to add deeper meanings to an object, person or place. On its own, the flashing light across the bay doesn’t mean much. To the casual observer in the novel it’s just a flashing light. To Gatsby however that flashing light represents his dreams hopes and ambitions. The narrator of the novel, Nick, comments on this green light, calling it an “enchanted object”.
“Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that green light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.” The Great Gatsby.
Holden Cauldfield’s red hunting hat is equally as famous a symbol (you could count it as one of the most famous literacy symbols of the twentieth century) as the light Gatsby gazes at. Holden brought his hat for one dollar after losing his school’s fencing foils (an unforgivable crime!) and it shows up again and again when Holden is facing trouble. When he’s alone or knows that he won’t see anyone that knows him Holden wears his hat but when amongst company the hat is hidden away. Interestingly the hat is the same colour as his siblings, Allie and Phoebe’s, hair as well as Allie’s baseball mitt. It is widely accepted that Holden’s hat is a symbol of his individuality. He wants to be different to everyone else around him but Holden also wants to be accepted in the world.
“…but it was freezing cold and I took my red hunting hat out of my pocket and put it on, I didn’t give a damn how I looked” The Catcher in the Rye.
The Mississippi River isn’t just a river to Huck and Jim, it takes on god like qualities, it becomes friend and foe. It is a path of escape and the path to a better life, it is an obstacle to be overcome and a means for their enemies to chase them.
“So in two seconds away we went a-sliding down the river, and it did seem so good to be free again and all by ourselves on the big river, and nobody to bother us.” Huckleberry Finn.
Admittedly some of these symbols are better than others. That could be because some of these symbols are deliberate while others may not be. Unconscious ideas seep into the text and through the various drafts and edits they accidently take on meaning. There is a debate whether these organic symbols are better than the deliberate ones or if they count as symbols at all. Some authors argue that no one writes with any theme in mind and that all symbols come naturally. English teachers and professors are often accused of symbol hunting by their students, trying to find and create meaning where there is none.
How can we be sure that the flashing green light is a symbol of Gatsby’s goals? Why can’t it mean something else? The author tells us in the above quote what the symbol represents but what about Holden’s Hat? Why can’t it be a symbol of his vulnerability instead of a symbol of his uniqueness? How can we be sure that is what the author meant without asking them? If we don’t have the author’s word we could interpret almost anything as a symbol and assign it meaning.
This idea is frowned upon by students and by many writers as it completely ignores authorial intent. I’m planning to cover the idea of authorial intent in a separate post but consider this. There is no right or wrong answer in literature, almost everything is ambiguous. You can see the flashing light in same way Gatsby does, as his hopes, dreams and ambitions and how close he is of achieving them or you could take Nick’s more pessimistic opinion that the flashing light shows how close Gatsby is to his goals and yet how he can never achieve them. You could see the flashing light as a symbol of the American Dream and how people flocked to America to start a better life. Or you can see the flashing light as a flashing light.
To quote Sigmund Feud “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
And just to end here is a little joke I found about symbols floating around online.
Thanks for reading. What do you think of these symbols? Do you agree or disagree with my interpretation of them or do you have your own meaning? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you next week where we will be discussing themes.