Humor columnist Dave Barry says that college students who major in English are likely to “say that Moby Dick is really the Republic of Ireland.” He refers to this sort of insight as a “lunatic interpretation,” or symbol hunting gone awry. But the ability to discover symbolism in a piece literature ultimately expands the scope and importance of that literature. Symbolism is the author’s way of illustrating a situation, either in the story or in the world, and understanding the symbols allows the reader to appreciate and identify with the text. And it certainly doesn’t take a lunatic to do it! Follow these 8 easy steps to analyze symbolism in literature.
1) Take notes. Keep track of objects, characters, and ideas. This is the only way to ensure you can connect the description of a lonely tree in a field on page 12 with the divorced man on the court steps on page 513.
2) Learn what a symbol is. According to most definitions, a symbol is an object/person/idea that represents another idea through association or resemblance. Consider these examples:
- The U.S. flag represents freedom. This is because the United States, with its Bill of Rights, is associated with freedom, and the flag is the emblem of the country.
- The sunrise has become a symbol of rebirth or new beginning. This is a symbol of resemblance: the sunrise starts a new day and thus can represent the larger idea of new beginnings.
3) Look for detailed descriptions. When reading, pay attention to any items, locations, or people that are described with extended details. The author is using these descriptions as big neon signs! Make note of an object’s details. For example, if a flower is being described, what is the color, type, or size? Keep this list of details and look for anything else in the reading that seems to resemble the list.
4) Look for “big idea” names. These are names that may or may not be conventional names. For example, it could be something that is obviously representational, such as “Young Goodman Brown.” This name alerts readers to the fact that the character is a symbol of youth and goodness. The name can also be a bit trickier, though. Consider the character “Godfrey St. Peter” from Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. It is a seemingly conventional name, but “St. Peter” could be interpreted as a symbol of the heavenly figure. In that case, the first name—pronounced “God-free”—becomes part of a highly symbolic idea.
5) Look for repetition. If the author repeats the object or idea, then there is significance to it. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses rhyme repeatedly. However, a careful reader will notice that the rhyme always accompanies some discussion of evil deeds.
6) Do research. Do not hesitate to research the list of objects, numbers, and so on that you have made. Look for historically symbolic meanings associated with the image. As mentioned before, the sunrise is symbolic of new birth. The number 13 is symbolically unlucky. Black typically symbolizes death, and red generally represents either love or passion.
7) List the characteristics. If no historical symbolism can be found, make a list of the characteristics of the item. Draw connections between those characteristics and other things in the story or in life. Consider the following example:
Stapler Heavy Romantic relationship
Holds things together Keeps people together
Puts holes in things Can be hard to handle (heavy)
Can cause emotional holes
8) Draw conclusions. Look at all the details and make connections between the objects and the characters, the characters and the plot, the descriptions and the themes, and so on. Readers may draw different conclusions, and it is often that more than one conclusion is correct. The accuracy lies in the supporting details you can produce.
Essay/Term paper: Hills like white elephants: the symbolism of the setting
Essay, term paper, research paper: Ernest Hemingway
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Hills Like White Elephants: The Symbolism of the Setting
In Ernest Hemingway's story "Hills Like White Elephants" an American couple is
sitting at a table in a train station in Spain. They are discussing beer,
travel, and whether or not to have an abortion. The train station and its
surroundings are symbolic in this story. The station itself represents the
choice on whether or not to have the abortion. There is a set of tracks on
either side of the station, each representing one of the choices. On one side of
the station, the tracks run through a lush, green landscape full of grainfields
and trees. A wide river runs lazily in the foreground of some tall mountains.
It is almost like a paradise. This side of the station symbolizes the choice of
going through with the abortion. As it is now they travel all around the world,
drinking and staying in hotels, and seeing all the beautiful places in the world.
They have no responsibilities or schedules in their life. With an abortion,
they could continue their party- and fun-filled, although meaningless existence.
The other side of the station is dry and barren of plantlife. The ground looks
as if there has been no rain for quite some time. There are hills in the
distance that have a whitish color as the sun radiates on them. The woman said,
"They look like white elephants."(343) White elephants are known to symbolize
unexpected gifts, which is certainly what the baby would be should they choose
not to have the abortion. The barrenness of the land refers the tame life--
settling down and having the responsibilities of parenthood--that they would
have to start living when the baby came; a life that would be duller but would
have a purpose. The bead curtain represents the fact that once they choose a
side, to have the baby or not, they cannot change their minds and then switch
sides. Once the decision has been made, it will affect their lives forever.
The man wants to have the abortion so they can continue to have the luxuries
they enjoy now. On the other hand, the woman is tired of the wilder life and
wants the baby and to settle down.
Hemingway, Ernest. "Hills Like White Elephants" Literature and the Writing
Process. Eds. Elizabeth McMahan, Susan X Day, and Robert Funk. 4th ed. Upper
Saddle River: Prentice, 1996. 343-46.
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