Symbols in Literature’s Orchestra

A brief note before this week’s column begins: Since I started “Dave Astor on Literature” four months ago (on July 14), the blog has received 10,303 page views and 3,319 comments. Thank you, everyone!

Those of you who’ve seen the iconic Citizen Kane movie know how important a symbolic object can be to a story. The same can be said for novels.

A symbolic object — or something like a recurring theme, a repeated word or phrase, etc. — can make a novel more interesting and evocative, and impress readers with the author’s artistry.

I thought about this last week while reading Anne Lamott’s Blue Shoe, in which a footwear knickknack among her late father’s possessions helps stir Mattie Ryder to learn more about him. There’s even a line in the novel about “waiting for the other shoe to drop” — which refers to discovering the father’s sordid history and also to what might happen to Mattie, a divorced woman dealing with two stressed kids, her abrasive/physically declining mother, and a friendship with an unhappily married guy she grows to love.

The title of Morag Joss’ psychological thriller Half-Broken Things also has a double-edged meaning — describing inanimate objects as well as the emotionally damaged humans secretly living in a mansion that’s not theirs (the owner is away).

Two things are referenced, too, in The Lacuna‘s title: gaps (lacunae) in the telling of the novel’s story and an actual watery gap that’s crucial to the plot. Barbara Kingsolver’s book is about a gay man who works for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera before carving out a fiction-writing career and then falling victim to Joe McCarthy — that symbol of right-wing political intolerance.

Speaking of water, some novels contain recurring images of that ubiquitous liquid. In Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, for instance, protagonist Edna Pontellier is at first fearful of water, then grows to love it, and then…well, I won’t give the ending away. In George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, there are eerie parallels between a canal scene (involving the kindly Daniel Deronda and the despairing Mirah Lapidoth) and a later boat scene (involving the beleaguered Gwendolen Harleth and her abusive husband Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt).

Moving to another form of transportation, a car plays an outsized role in Paul Auster’s The Music of Chance — as a symbol of freedom, or perhaps a symbol of being boxed in. Jim Nashe drives all over the country in that car, loses it in a gambling situation, and then gets to ride it one more time, only to…

Speaking of freedom, that word is used a number of times — sincerely and ironically — in the novel Freedom. Jonathan Franzen’s book looks at that particular “F word” from all kinds of angles and via a number of 21st-century-American characters.

Another novel with one word that helps tie things together is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Solitude” not only appears in the title but is repeated many times in the book, and refers to the isolated town of Macondo as well as the situations of various characters.

Or a novel can contain a repeated phrase rather than just one word — as with the fatalistic “So it goes” refrain that famously appears in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

Sometimes symbolism comes from the initials of character names. Examples include Jim Casy, the Jesus Christ figure in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath; Martin Eden, the semi-autobiographical “me” in Jack London’s Martin Eden; and Undine Spragg, who embodies crass U.S. materialism in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country.

A name symbolizing the better side of America is possessed by Americus, the beloved young daughter of Novalee Nation in Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is (a heartwarming book I also read last week). Novalee finds friendship and an extended “family” in Oklahoma after being abandoned, while pregnant with Americus, by her boyfriend during a car trip from Tennessee to California.

Then there’s the “Gogol” first name that The Namesake‘s Indian-American son is stuck with — a moniker that evokes the absurdity of life as well as the often-absurdist Russian author Nikolai Gogol admired by the father in Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel.

Or how about an animal symbolizing a person, as is the case with experimented-on Algernon the mouse being the critter counterpart to experimented-on Charlie the mentally challenged man in Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon.

In literary works, what are your favorite symbolic objects, recurring themes, repeated words or phrases, and other things of that nature?

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88 thoughts on “Symbols in Literature’s Orchestra

  1. “Or a novel can contain a repeated phrase rather than just one word — as with the fatalistic “So it goes” refrain that famously appears in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.”

    Probably mentioned this before: it sounds like it contains a similar meaning as the “oh well, what the hell” refrain in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

    They’re both bereft of hope and an admission that nothing is possible, especially Vonnegut’s three simple words.

    Not far from that landscape is “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” In the play someone at a faculty party starts singing it, meaninglessly substituting the author for the big bad wolf. But it’s the title of the play so it must mean something. Virginia Woolf wrote in the stream-of-consciousness style, not easy to decipher. Perhaps that is true of Albee’s absurdist play.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Joe, for mentioning that “Catch-22” catch phrase! I had forgotten that one. It’s indeed another great fatalistic phrase from another great antiwar novel. And Joseph Heller’s book, of course, predated Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

      I’ve yet to see or read “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — so I’m also not sure what that phrase/question means in the context of Edward Albee’s play. But I wasn’t afraid to read Virginia Woolf ( 🙂 ), and found “Mrs. Dalloway” a very absorbing novel when I finally got to it a couple of years ago. I’ve read that the shell-shocked Septimus Smith in Woolf’s book is not only a character in himself but is also used by the author as a symbol of how badly and cluelessly mental illness is treated by some doctors — and misunderstood by some people in general.


  2. Since you just recently saw the movie “To Kill A Mockingbird”, I’ll bring up that wonderful cigar box. “Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.” The movie was so faithful to the book in the symbolism of that beloved box. How many of us had boxes as children, and still do as adults, pieces of our memories of childhood and youth? Each little treasure is a symbol of something that was precious. I still have my mother’s little box of treasures from her childhood, and she would be 98 if she were still with us.

    And speaking of symbolism, what about the “Mockingbird” itself?

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    • Beautifully expressed, Mary. Thank you for the heartfelt comment!

      That box was indeed full of symbolism. I guess Boo finally got something in return by having Scout’s (and the whole Finch family’s) gratitude and friendship — but, still, he was one of those people who gave without necessarily expected anything back for that.

      Maybe Harper Lee was also trying to symbolize that one almost needs to be mentally challenged not to do or think some of the nasty things people do and think. Though of course Atticus was also good and admirable, and he was brilliant.

      As you note, the box greatly evokes childhood, too, and the saving of not only things but memories — as it does for you with your late mother’s box of treasures. A wonderful and a melancholy thing to have.

      “To Kill a Mockingbird” certainly works on so many levels!

      And you’re right that the bird in the novel’s title and in the book itself is a symbol of good people (such as Boo and innocent victim of racism Tom Robinson) who do nothing to hurt anybody or bother anybody (yet they might be treated badly, nonetheless).


      • So many among the poor and innocent are persecuted, simply because they can be. I can relate to that on so many levels lately. In the course of doing my rescue work, I have been treated VERY badly by an egotistical, megalomaniac who is a veterinarian and professes to CARE about the animals in his care. Actions speak louder than words. He does NOTHING for the animal control animals in his care. We have been banished from his clinic because we DO care about the animals in his care.

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        • That’s awful, Mary! Such a shame a person like him became a veterinarian. 😦 If I’m extrapolating correctly from what you said, this vet treats animal-control animals worse than animal patients of his who live in private households. Sounds like a “One Percenter” kind of doctor. Animals of course can’t control their living situation and, if anything, animals without their own homes need more compassion, not less. Very sorry to hear about this.

          (I must admit that dog-shooting scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird” was troubling. I wonder if it was the case back in the 1930s — when the novel was set — that sick animals in general weren’t put down more humanely?)


          • I think that was par for the course, Dave. Probably in the 80’s a fox showed up at my parents’ house and displayed no fear of humans. Daddy called the vet and he said something had to be dreadfully wrong with the fox and to shoot it. Daddy did. Much more recently than that, we had a raccoon show up in the daytime and it would NOT run off. I called my vet and he said to shoot it. Luckily, my brother was home, so he took that horrible task off my plate.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yikes, Mary, it’s hard to imagine having to do what your father and brother had to do. I suppose it would be difficult and dangerous to catch a sick fox or raccoon and kill it with an injection.

              I’m a product of where I grew up; I’ve never shot a gun. Closest was when I was covering a conference in Arizona about 20 years ago, and attendees were taken out in Jeeps to see the desert and shoot guns if they wanted. I declined.


  3. Symbols in novels, to my way of thinking, are a subset of the narrator’s perceptions. Remember the ‘luminous detail’ of the Imagists in early 20th century poetry? The one bright thing that represented the unnamed whole? Pound, for example, may have transcribed the motto on a single column to stand for an entire temple, and the temple to stand for an entire civilization, but then there are folks that have walked by everyday without noticing the motto.What made the motto so bright, if not for the narrator’s perceptions, which, if not consciously, are hierarchically ordered by his state of mind and its abiding interests?

    A peppy character walks into a sunny room, sees dust and thinks how clean and cheerful the room will be after a good sweeping. Especially since there’s that sweet picture of a puppy on the wall, and puppies are so full of wonder and life. A glum sort sees no sun, only the picture of his boyhood pet on the wall, now dead many years though sorely missed, and knows that all flesh is come from dust and will return to dust, so why bother to sweep? Each might make a narrator; each would make of his world what he would, investing meaning where he finds it, or makes it.

    An omniscient narrator is the best symbol-maker, in that the thing symbolizes what the narrator says it does, appears as often as it should and in its proper aspects, given its pertinence to the narrative. An untrustworthy narrator might make a symbol but his motives and its appearances possibly say more about the narrator than anything or anyone else. Same for the character-narrator. What he sees and what his perceptions symbolize are a function of himself, and reflect on the perceiver accordingly.

    Conversely, Melville’s White Whale was symbol for Nature beyond Man’s power to regulate or commodify, a symbol for the terror of mortality, a symbol of awful purity. But when it came for the Pequod, it was most of all, a very real whale that destroyed the vessel of its tormentors. Or as Freud put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

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    • There you go again, jhNY, writing a comment that’s a gem of an essay. (“There you go again” does not symbolize Ronald Reagan. 🙂 )

      You make an excellent point that people can sort of label/symbolize things in an optimistic or pessimistic way. Kudos, too, for your observation that literary objects or characters can be both symbolic and very real — as is Moby-Dick in Herman Melville’s novel.

      Melville seemed almost of two minds about whether humankind could or could not control nature and living creatures. It couldn’t control the white whale, but one of the Pequod crew did take down a bird with the ship — symbolizing that humankind could drag down the Earth even as humankind dragged down itself. Perhaps one of the earliest climate-change messages?


      • My take: he might grab one bird on his way to the bottom, but he didn’t grab all birds. And should his corpse float to the surface later, birds will grab a little something for themselves.

        Tangential, but, as a way of illustrating how our relationship with nature has changed, consider: the general in charge of constructing The Great Wall for China’s first emperor took his own life after completing his task, because he was certain, given the scale of the project, that he had cut some of the sinews of the earth in the process, and thus felt obliged to compensate.

        ALSO: Congratulations on all the comments and views to date!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, that’s true, jhNY. Just one bird, albeit perhaps a symbolic bird. And, yes, living creatures tend to devour other living creatures, though obviously more because of instinct and hunger than the conscious/thinking malice some humans display.

          That’s a terrific paragraph about The Great Wall of China! Humankind indeed had certain superstitions and weird views in the past, partly because scientific study hadn’t advanced that much yet.

          And thank you very much for the congratulations! You were one of the people who played a big part in making that happen. 🙂


  4. Jhumpa Lahiri`s latest novel ” Low Land” the symbol ” Naxalism” started as Naxalite” political movement in the late 60`s initially set on bettering the living conditions of India`s poor through violent uprising.

    Udayan, then an idealistic student in Calcutta in the 1960s, was swept up in the Country’s Naxalite rebellion against poverty and inequality into Mao-inspired revolutionary politics.He was the younger of two brothers in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta (now Kolkata), Naxalism, its name derived from Naxalbari, a tiny village to the north of Calcutta where impoverished peasants rose up against the police and landlords in 1967, sparking off dreams of a nationwide insurgency that would replicate Mao’s earlier revolution in China.

    That was a devastating violent phase in Calcutta, Bengal…so many bright very young college students were drawn into that violence have lost their lives.

    Udayan was killed by Police early on and in the end of this epic novel all became clear.

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    • Thanks for your very informative and very interesting comment relating to “Lowland,” bebe! Glad you mentioned that Naxalite political movement, because political movements and political parties do have very strong symbolic aspects in addition to their more prosaic sides. (Both of which can be reflected in literature with political elements.)

      When I think of political symbols, one thing that comes to mind is America’s Republican Party, with its decades of often bogus, often racist, and often (unfortunately) very effective symbols — the so-called “welfare queen” with a lot of money, Willie Horton in the 1988 presidential campaign (a distorted image of black men that stretches today to places like Ferguson), Benghazi as existential proof that the Obama presidency is supposedly incompetent, Northeast liberals allegedly being wine-sipping, brie-eating elitists, blah, blah, blah. It’s a shame the poor, kind, intelligent elephant has to be a symbol of the GOP!

      Snowing quite a bit in New Jersey now. Did you get any snow today or yesterday?

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      • It is a novel of fiction, but when I used the search engine to look for some names who started the ” naxalite” movements…they are all real even the dates matched. Just as today, so many idealistic youth were swept up in those movements and were killed or were in prison as political rebels some became looters and killers just as happening in MO. .

        Well said Dave on ” welfare queen”, some have started movements on ” Birth Certificate” of twice elected photogenic President mainly by photo challenged Trump. Then there is Ted Cruiz” , I hear he was born in Canada and no one is out there questioning him.
        On and on and on……

        And now the unarmed teen killed in Ferguson .

        I always wonder why the majestic Elephants represents the GOP !

        Liked by 1 person

        • bebe, it sounds like Jhumpa Lahiri did her research for “Lowland.” (I’m not surprised!)

          Very true — that whole “birther” thing was meant to symbolically portray Obama as an “other,” not a “true American.” Symbolically because I can’t believe any “birther” actually believed Obama was born in Kenya. And you’re right, not a peep from right-wingers about how Ted Cruz is from Canada.

          The Republican elephant and Democratic donkey symbols were created by 19th-century editorial cartoonist Thomas Nast, but I have no idea why he chose those animals. And, back in the 1800s, the Republicans were “the party of Lincoln,” so they were better fit for the majestic elephant! 🙂

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    • Good morning to you, too, bebe. That’s a terrific observation you made, after last night’s infuriating Ferguson verdict. White police officers really do seem to be allowed to kill unarmed African-American males with no punishment — just as the white power structure in Alabama caused the death of the innocent Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s novel. 😦

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      • Dave I have a very good African American Friend who lives in NY, he removed himself from HP long ago and he also have your blog addy in case he wants to comment.

        I just send an email to him…that i was thinking of him and I simply can`t imagine what is going on through his mind. This friend I must say is color blind but has been in the receiving end many a times.

        Liked by 1 person

        • bebe, my best wishes to your friend, who I’m sure has dealt with plenty of indignities in NYC. While an ostensibly liberal city, NYC has a police department that disproportionately harasses African-American men. This was especially frequent under law-and-order mayors Koch, Giuliani and Bloomberg, but still continues under the more progressive Bill DiBlasio. There have also been a number of Ferguson-like police killings of unarmed black males by white officers who almost never got punished. And, while there are plenty of tolerant people in NYC, there are also plenty of racists who might make life difficult for your friend. What a “post-racial” world. 😦

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          • On the flip side of the coin Dave…just picked up my soul mate from her grooming place, the owner to my surprise is a liberal, however the front desk lady very nice and friendly. She started saying how the policeman was just doing his job and my jaw dropped…and how the prosecutor was explaing so nicely…i said huh ? i came out ASAP.

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            • Ugh — it’s so depressing when otherwise nice people excuse anything a police officer does. Michael Brown was unarmed! Sorry you had to deal with that, bebe. I also know a number of people who feel the police can do no wrong. Wonder how they’d feel if it was their own innocent son who was killed?

              And that prosecutor — ugh, again.

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  5. The first novel that comes to mind in which a physical symbol is the literal embodiment of the main theme is ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray.’ Many people know the premise without ever having read the novel. Of course, the image in the portrait ages and reflects the increasing moral decay of the eternally youthful Dorian. The earlier novel that influenced Wilde is Balzac’s ‘The Fatal Skin’ aka ‘The Wild Ass’s Skin’ aka ‘The Magic Skin’ in which the main character purchases a small piece of wild ass’s skin which he is told that, if he wears it as a talisman around his neck, will instantly enable all of his wishes to become reality. The only catch is that with each wish the skin shrinks as does his life span. Of course, he wishes for all the hedonistic frivolous things first: wine, women, parties, all manner of sensual delights. The wishing takes its toll however as he realizes that he really can’t stop wishing and therefore shortening his life.

    Ray Bradbury used paper allusions throughout ‘Fahrenheit 451.’ I believe he said (in an interview on the DVD of the film version) that the main character’s name, Montag, was a brand of typewriter (?) at the time that he wrote the novel. Another character is named Faber after a brand of pencils I believe. So he stuck with that paper, writing tools theme throughout the novel. Of course, the idea of reading a book as a way of preserving culture and memory is integral to the purpose of the novel.

    I also thought of ‘The Golden Bowl’ as one of the other commenters mentioned. Henry James did employ character names to embody themes or character traits. The central intelligence/narrator of ‘Daisy Miller’ is named ‘Winterbourne’, which perfectly evokes his frozen, static nature. There’s Christopher Newman, the title character of ‘The American.’ And in the late career novella, ‘The Beast in the Jungle’ the male character is named John Marcher, evoking the month of March as well as a character marching resolutely to his destiny. The female is May Bartram. I don’t recall, but I think much of the story takes place in April–the unfolding, blooming month between stormy, still wintery March and full bloom May. ‘May’ also implies that he ‘may’ take advantage of his opportunity i.e. to love her. Obviously, HJ took great pains with the process of naming his characters.

    Back to an embodiment of one of the major themes of a novel, in ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ short chapters are interspersed of a turtle attempting to cross Route 66. He often gets spun out of control or flung off the road back to his starting point but he gets up and attempts the crossing again. As I recall, Ma Joad says the same thing about the family, something about being ‘knocked down but we keep comin’ back’.

    There are hundreds, probably thousands of other examples of symbols in literature but this batch will do for now.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, bobess48, for all those GREAT examples of novels containing potent symbols!

      “The Picture of Dorian Gray” — definitely! Same for “The Wild Ass’s Skin” (I own the paperback) — that shocking, fascinating, kind of racy Balzac novel written so long ago. I still remember the early scene featuring what’s basically an eating orgy. A reader almost expects a Monty Python-like result of one more bite making a person explode!

      I’ve never read “Fahrenheit 451,” but plan to soon. Very interesting paper and writing symbols! I do happen to now be reading Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine,” and the comfy tennis shoes purchased near the beginning of the novel symbolize summer and childhood.

      Wonderful observation about the meaningful names of various Henry James characters. Christopher was a “new man” indeed compared to that stuffy, calcified European family he tried to marry into. (There was also Newland Archer in “The Age of Innocence” by James’ pal Edith Wharton.) And Winterbourne of “Daisy Miller” — excellent!

      I do recall that determined turtle in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Certainly a part-metaphor for the determined (and beleaguered) Joad family.

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  6. I always try to relate your topic to a recent book I’ve read, since it is fresh on my mind. I mentioned last week that I recently completed “Steppenwolf” by Hermann Hesse. What jumped out to me on reading that book is the symbolic use of character names that made it quite evident that this novel was a very personal account for Hesse. The main character is named Harry Haller, so right off the bat, it’s easy to make the jump to Hermann Hesse, what with the initials. Further, in the novel, Harry meets up with a woman named Hermione, who serves as a kind of mentor to Harry, encouraging him to accept the bourgeois comforts and pleasures of life. Hermione, being a feminized version of Hermann, clearly represents at least an aspect of Hesse, especially when Harry realizes that Hermione reminds him of his boyhood friend Hermann. Without getting into any detail in this psychological novel, the use of the names really make it more profound as the reader realizes that what Harry struggling through is exactly what Hesse was struggling through. Now that I think about it, the symbolic objects that keep appearing in the novel are mirrors, further reflecting not only Harry’s self- examination, but Hesse’s as well.

    Speaking of names, and perhaps a little off topic, I have always been appreciative of the names selected by the great Charles Dickens – and how his selections, just in the pure phoentic way that they sound, really seem to enhance the character. Would “A Christmas Carol” be as effective if the main character were named Michael Jenkins as opposed to Ebenezer Scrooge? Yes, Scrooge has come to define a closed-off, miserable, miserly person. But remember, the name preceded this common usage. It would be difficult to imagine referring to your stingy old uncle as a real “Jenkins”. Wackford Squeers, that evil pedagogue from “Nicholas Nickleby” seems aptly named, as does the ever-suffering, everyman hero Newman Noggs. The examples with Dickens are virtually endless.

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    • Yes, drb19810, the double-H name of Harry Haller must indeed be more than a coincidence in Herman Hesse’s “Steppenwolf”!

      That reminds me of how Charles Dickens reversed his initials for the title character in his most autobiographical novel — “David Copperfield.”

      And I agree that Dickens had MANY colorful, evocative character names — such as Uriah Heep in “David Copperfield” and the ones you mentioned. You’re absolutely right that Ebenezer Scrooge wouldn’t have had quite the same oomph as a character if Dickens had given him a common name.

      Getting back to “Steppenwolf,” thanks for the superb thoughts on that novel — including the symbolic nature of both the Hermione character and mirrors.


      • Dickens’ employment of names that signify character has annoyed me more often than it has amused, but he was neither first nor will he be last to do it. On one hand– what a time-and type-saver! On the other– what supreme laziness!

        What complicates my feelings a little though, is the fact that occasionally, there are names attached to people in real life that seem to fit the personalities of their possessors almost too well to seem uncontrived, yet they were assigned in the usual way to the usual suspects– by parents to hapless offspring.

        Farcical treatments in prose or script seem best suited for this sort of characterization by name. Doctor Quack will prescribe elixirs of youth to Mrs. Paint; the teacher Boxer will strike his pupils in the ear.So much so, that when such characterizations appear in more supposedly serious work, I am put off. See The Great Gatsby’s party scene and all such funnily fortuitous names therein.

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        • Nice to hear from you, jhNY, and a Happy Thanksgiving a day in advance! I’m thankful for another of your thought-provoking comments.

          I see what you’re saying about the colorful names Dickens often used. They WERE annoying in a way. But overall I liked it and accepted it — partly because Dickens’ characters (especially the supporting ones) were frequently almost one-dimensional caricatures who seemed more suited to having colorful names than realistic ones.

          Of course, there was also plenty of realism in Dickens’ novels as he depicted poverty, injustice, etc. One of that author’s great skills was mixing realism with the picaresque, with buffoonery, etc. (can’t quite think of the exact word).


          • Happy Thanksgiving to you!
            I think what grates is: the practice comes out of satire and farce, and operates accordingly. I don’t care for the appearance of it in places ostensibly non-farcical and non-satirical.

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            • Thanks, jhNY!

              Combining satire/farce with non-satire/farce in the way that Dickens did can indeed be an uneasy mix — something I also see in an author such as John Irving, who has been compared a bit to Dickens. But somehow it works for me with those two authors, even though the novel parts can sometimes seem crudely sewn together like Frankenstein’s body parts. 🙂

              Maybe I like the juxtaposition of the serious and the ridiculous because that adds stylistic variety and keeps things from being too one note. Maybe it’s because it can be nice to have a humorous breather from serious chapters, even if the tension gets dissipated somewhat.

              But, as I believe you allude to, there’s a LOT to be said for a powerful novel that remains consistent in its approach!


  7. Hi Dave, the first two novels that came to my mind were both by Henry James. The first is “The Wings of the Dove,” which I know I’ve mentioned before in response to one of your columns, although I don’t remember which one. The “dove” in the title is a symbol for the heroine, Milly Theale, and one of the other characters calls her that several times. The most striking example is when she appears at her grand party in Venice, and although Milly usually wore dark or even black clothing, she appears at this party dressed all in white, even down to white pearls. The male character trying to woo her for her money, Densher, makes the comment to the woman who conceived of this plan, that they are nestled under Milly’s wings (i.e., under her patronage and protection. That last sentence was paraphrased from the Introduction to the edition I last read. The other James novel is “The Golden Bowl,” although for the life of me I don’t recall whether I read the novel or just saw the movie starring Uma Thurman and Kate Beckinsale. At any rate, this golden bowl, which turns out to a have a flaw, is a major plot device, as well as to me at least, says something about the flawed marriages portrayed, which led to an adulterous affair. As a side note, I just read the Wiki page for the novel to remind myself of the plotline, and it mentions the secondary characters of Fanny and Bob Assingham, and they wonder if that pun was intentional or not on the part of James.

    Another thought of mine was that sometimes houses become not just a symbol, but actually a character in the book, most notably “Howard’s End.” I think “Mansfield Park,” and “Northanger Abbey,” might also fall in that category. Not to mention “Bleak House” and “Brideshead Revisited.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Kat Lib! I didn’t know that about the “Dove” in the title of “The Wings of the Dove,” which is one of the Henry James novels I want to read the most when I return to that author. It sounds like James used the dove symbolism quite extensively in the book, which you make sound VERY intriguing.

      I recently read James’ “The Portrait of a Lady” (superb), “The American” (excellent), and “The Europeans” (very good), and I’m momentarily stumped about whether there was much symbolism in those earlier-than-“The Wings of the Dove” novels.

      I do remember occasional wordplay in James’ work, so who knows about those secondary characters you mentioned? 🙂

      Terrific observation about houses as symbols in novels! That’s a huge category in this discussion. In addition to your great examples, I’m thinking of Thornfield Hall in “Jane Eyre” (and what happens to that house near the end of the novel), the house in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the house in Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House,” the house in Margaret Drabble’s “The Witch of Exmoor,” and other abodes.


      • Dave, it’s only because I have I have four fans blowing air on my carpet and on my carpet padding that I’m able to be somewhat OK with the flooding of my entryway. dining way, and living area. Is there anyone who can fix my problem??

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          • No, mostly it’s someone not doing what they were supposed to be doing in my condo to do the required maintenance. At least I’ll get a free carpet cleaning out of all of this, But you can probably see why I feel there’s something wrong with my condo. I asked my sister if she could walk across the street to ask the priest if he knew someone who could do an exorcism. or my lapsed Catholic friend if she knew of anyone, but alas, she only knew the number of priests who do that kind of thing (apparently there are only fifty! 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

    • So you don’t think I’ve forgotten, or that I don’t read what others write, a confession: I have not finished “The Wings of the Dove”, though I solemnly intend to. A recent trip inspired me to indulge in less strenuously careful reading and less challenging reading material, and so far, I haven’t retrieved James from where I left him. When I do, I hope we can discuss the book a bit.

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      • jhNY, I totally understand (and I’m sure Kat Lib does, too) about reading lighter fare here and there. I do it every fourth or fifth book or so. I’m hoping to get to “The Wings of the Dove” no later than the end of this winter. In the meantime, it’s possible that today’s snow convinced that dove to start winging its way south… 🙂


  8. Dave, you can get very overt in the symbols used, Such as the “Hunger Games” trilogy, where the rebels take up the mocking jay, a bird the Capitol created, as their own. To mock the Capitol.

    There is also the subtle symbols like Scout climbing into Atticus’ lap in “To Kill a Mocking Bird.” The safety factor is obvious but it happens less as the book progresses showing Scout’s growing and changing in a more subtle way.

    Having finished “To Kill a Mocking Bird” here is what I think; The book covers so many things in so many small ways it really is quite important to the American canon of books. The first theme is perhaps the most important. People live life their own way how they choose, even if people don’t like it. Lee shows us in this book several ways people lived in 1930s Alabama. She carefully crafted her story using a young child’s perspective of these different ways to live to show the conflicts that arise from them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The mockingjay is an excellent use of a symbol, GL! Thanks for mentioning it! I was impressed with “The Hunger Games” trilogy — perhaps liking the first two books a bit better than the third. The third novel was even more depressing than the first two, but perhaps that was Suzanne Collins’ intent in such a dystopian work. And of course the trio of novels had inspiring moments as well.

      Also, great observations about “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Scout, etc.! Harper Lee, in telling her story mostly through the eyes of the Finch children and tolerant adults such as Atticus, indeed seemed to understand that people lived their lives different ways — unfortunately, in some cases, in very destructive ways that create such horrible situations.

      When reading your terrific comment, I was reminded that the mockingbird in Lee’s novel is also a symbol: of any living creature or person — such as Boo Radley and the unfairly convicted Tom Robinson — who doesn’t really harm or bother anyone.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes so true…” Mockingbird” is a symbol…to me it was Boo Radley a symbol of goodness destroyed by the evil mankind. In the movie..Scout after escorting Boo to his home said Boo was never seen again. Perhaps it was not in the book.

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        • Boo Radley did indeed have a good heart, bebe, a much better heart than the racists in Maycomb had. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he became a hermit — so he wouldn’t have to deal with those narrow-minded people. I forget if Boo never being seen again was also in the novel; the copy I read is back in the library now. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Okay then , I could not remember that..the movie followed the book basically and was equally absorbing as the Novel. Only if Boo had a normal upbringing he could have spread so much goodness around. But it was a fiction and being a recluse made him even more endearing figure to us the readers.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Well said, bebe!

              The movie did indeed follow the book closely — while (as you know) leaving out some stuff as films have to do because of time constraints.

              Yes, Boo had a far from normal upbringing. And, yes also, being a recluse made him more endearing — and served the novel’s plot.

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  9. Hey Dave, fun topic as always . I am a fan of symbols and symbolism when used subtly . I don’t like when an author takes a particular marker and beats it like a drum ,or cymbal 🙂 , throughout the story. An example being the second most hated novel we were forced to read in High School ..Lord Of The Flies ,I mean who here didn’t tire of getting whacked upside the head by that conch shell a quarter of the way into the book. The Namesake provides excellent examples of well used symbolism not just with the protagonist’s “family name ” of Gogol but with the wonderfully done descriptions of food the authoress uses so well. Meals done by Gogol’s mother with their evocation and attempt to bridge American life with their Bengali heritage contrasted with the almost desperately eclectic dinning habits of Gogol and his always soon to be ex wife on top of the perfect descriptions of the repasts enjoyed with his marvelous American girl friend and her wonderfully sophisticated parents. Indeed I think food in the Namesake could fuel an entire essay as could the fact that the symbolism and characters themselves were never dragged down into the realm of caricature . One more thing above when I said “second most hated” it was with Catcher in the Rye in mind as number one, I seem to recall quite a few of us in here agreed upon that a few posts ago.

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    • Thanks, Donny!

      Ha ha — “beats it like a drum, or cymbal.” I agree with you that symbols can be laid on too thick and overtly. Sometimes, they’re so blatant that the reader can clearly see the author pulling the puppet strings. As you say, much better to be subtle.

      In “Daniel Deronda,” for instance, I didn’t overtly notice all the water stuff until, after reading the novel, I thought — wow, that was really skillful on George Eliot’s part. (It also helped that commenter Brian Bess discussed that topic in an online conversation we had!)

      GREAT observation about — and description of — food in “The Namesake.” That really does infuse the novel. To misquote Freud, “sometimes food is more than just food” — in a lot of novels. One that comes to mind is Geraldine Brooks’ “March,” in which the protagonist’s vegetarianism is a symbolic contrast to all the Civil War carnage he witnesses. And Laura Esquivel’s “Like Water for Chocolate” is almost Exhibit A for food as symbol and metaphor.

      Yes, we are both members of “The Catcher in the Rye Not a Fan Club,” and it’s not a small group! 🙂


      • Your infectious love of George Eliot a year or so ago prodded me into giving her another shot, failed twice on Middlemarch over the years, so I read The Mill on the Floss. I much liked it on first impression and found it to have all the strengths and weaknesses I associate with Victorian literature . Thing is with distance it’s actually somewhat grown and resonated in my imagination which to me is the indefinable criteria that makes a work great.. In short I now think you’ve put Daniel Deronda atop my to read list.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Glad you (mostly) liked “The Mill on the Floss,” Donny! George Eliot was so brilliant that she broke the mold of Victorian literature in many ways, but, as you note, she didn’t break the mold completely. Some sections of her novels are wordy, preachy, and melodramatic, but, overall, I think she may be one of the top five novelists who ever lived. So psychologically astute, with an amazing ear for dialogue and an otherworldly capacity to depict emotions, individuals as they relate to society, the role of women in the 1800s, etc.

          “Daniel Deronda” unspools a bit slowly at first, but I it became so memorable for me that, after I finished the novel, I incessantly reread scenes from it for days. The interactions between Daniel and Gwendolen, Daniel and Mirah, and Daniel and Mirah’s brother Mordecai are just sublime. And those water scenes I mentioned in my column are as gripping as they come. Hmm — quite a water scene at the end of “The Mill on the Floss,” too…


      • What a relief!! I thought I was the only reader who intensely disliked “The Catcher in the Rye”. I recall feeling like a dull-witted outsider when at the end of the book I asked myself just what was the fuss all about, and wondered if the fulsome praise of the book had anything to do with a case of “The Emperor’s Clothes” Disorder. 😀


        • Nice to hear for you, Clairdelune! Coincidentally, I just started a novel you recommended — Ray Bradbury’s “Dandelion Wine.” I’m very early in it, but it seems like a wonderfully nostalgic and semi-autobiographical story of a Midwestern childhood.

          I loved how you wrote your comment — and welcome to the group of people not that impressed with “The Catcher in the Rye”! I thought the novel was okay, but also kind of pretentious and annoying and narcissistic. One could say that those three adjectives describe some of what J.D. Salinger was trying to do in the novel, but, heck, I think those three adjectives describe him more than anything. 🙂 I never quite “got” why “The Catcher in the Rye” is considered a 20th-century American classic like “The Great Gatsby,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” etc.


  10. You can always be trusted to come up with an interesting, new viewpoint! Also, looking at both symbols and sentences is interesting: both are devices that anchor the story. Some writers, like WH Auden, felt that the search for symbols was the primary driver behind literature and especially poetry.

    My example comes from a wonderful book that I’m reading at the moment: “The Steps of the Sun” (1983) by Walter Tevis” (better known as the author of “the Man who fell to Earth”.

    The protagonist of the story is a billionaire in a mildly dystopian USA of the 2060s. Dystopian mainly in the sense that the energy crisis has led to a slow, not particularly painful, but noticeable decline of the US as a country. Benjamin Belson, the billionaire (nice alliteration!) smokes cigars — he is reaching for cigars, lighting them, trying to get them, offering them to others etc. The cigar is a continuously used symbol. Its sexual connotation, being classic Freud, is not particularly hidden or meant to be: for more than half of the book, Belson struggles with impotence and addiction. I won’t say more — the book comes highly recommended despite a number of reviews that I found on goodreads which seem to completely miss the point of this clairvoyant novel. (I will write my own review). It is also beautifully written: a literary novel crossing over into sci-fi, an engrossing, absorbing read full of humanity expressed in a way in which it was still possible to express in the early 1980s, before the loss of innocence.

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    • Thank you for the kind words, Marcus, and nice to hear from you!

      “…symbols and sentences…” — I love the way that phrase flows.

      And you’re absolutely right that poetry is often packed with symbols and symbolic language. Worth a whole blog post (in fact, a whole book) in itself. But that post wouldn’t be by me; I don’t read enough poetry. 😦

      “The Steps of the Sun” sounds riveting; thanks for describing it in your always eloquent way. I will look for that novel. A cigar can indeed be a significant Freudian symbol (of more than just getting cancer; it was cancer of the jaw that killed the famed psychoanalyst).

      Liked by 1 person

      • Me neither (poetry – I hardly pack any)…but I’ve recently come to love Auden. The biography by Carpenter (faber & faber) is first rate.

        Cigars: there are more, more modern uses of the cigar as well, but that would bring us to an entirely different domain…let us not go there, you and I.

        Cancer: who knows, perhaps it was his job rather than his smoking that caused cancer of the jaw. Biting his tongue for so many hours while his clients relate their mental malaise…

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m not sure I’ve ever read Auden; I’ll look up a couple of his poems online today!

          Like many people who love literature, I’ve managed to read a smattering of poetry here and there: Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte sisters, Poe, Whitman, Frost, Ginsberg, Gwendolyn Brooks, etc. But really very little compared to novels.

          Yes, cigars are rife with associations — sexual, sleazy politician, greedy capitalist, etc. And it’s hard to conjure up an image of some authors — Twain, for instance — without thinking about a cigar in their mouths.

          Great/funny line ending your comment, Marcus! Also, on occasion, some of Freud’s clients probably bit their tongues listening to HIM. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  11. Thanks, Dave. White Teeth is on my list, maybe you can reserve at your library. My recollection is On Beauty not as well received. White Teeth garnered a myriad of accolades. Citizen Kane was indeed brilliant,as was the young Orson Welles at that time. This was way before Paul Masson years! He made a masterpiece,a film that can be watched many times if not for stand alone film techniques,many which were novel,innovative. Harkening back to my NYIT college days,rack focus,one image blurry in foreground to background,then reversed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Probably that’s why “On Beauty” was in the library and “White Teeth” wasn’t. 🙂 But at least I’ll get a sense of Zadie Smith’s writing — and I’ll hope to read “White Teeth” sometime in the future.

      Yes, Orson Welles in his younger years was a genius; after that, a thwarted genius, I guess. And he was indeed pioneering with some of those “Citizen Kane” filming techniques, such as the way he conveyed the passage of time. Wasn’t a bad actor, either.

      Thanks, Michele!


  12. The iconic rosebud ,of course, for Citizen Kane. I can hear the reverberation. Sue Monk Kid wrote a beautiful tale that I have on my bookshelf called The Mermaid Chair. The chair has many symbols,is kept in a church ornately carved with mermaids and dedicated to
    saint who,legend claimed,was a mermaid before her conversion. Many questions arise on the power of the mermaid chair,if its only a myth. It helps Jessie the main character, work through her tormented life,a lovely,well written book of love,loss,renewal and,what we all need,hope and faith on a spiritual level which speaks to one ‘s imagination.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Citizen Kane” is a terrific movie, isn’t it? A thinly veiled portrait of William Randolph Hearst, of course. 🙂

      Michele, it sounds like “The Mermaid Chair” contains a GREAT example of a symbolic object. Thanks for the eloquent description of that novel, which is now on my to-read list.

      By the way, a week or two ago you recommended Zadie Smith, so I looked for her work in the library today. The only novel by her there was “On Beauty,” so I took that out. The jacket copy sounded appealing. Have you read that one?


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