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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