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The Lure of Literary Symbolism

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Symbolism-Steve-Johnson-860.jpg?resize=8This morning, it was just there, a memory, the rusting railway overpass, scrawled with the words, DALE LOVES SOPHIE TO DEATH. Symbolism, but also story, remembrance of story.

The family has a fight in the car on the way there. Then they spot the familiar landmark, a graffito on a bridge: “Dale Loves Sophie To Death.”

From that image’s haunting symbolism, I then remembered the author’s name, Robb Forman Dew, that the story appeared in the New Yorker Magazine during a time when the stylistic choice of using present tense was popular i.e. Anne Beattie. And after reading that story, I read more of Forman Dew’s work, recently discovering that she died in 2020. I admit the basic story line is vague in my memory—but the scrawled words on the railway bridge so permanent, the story narrator’s marriage, probably not. (Anyone wanting to weigh in?)

So why the memory, and is it because of the image, the unusual symbolism? I would answer yes.

When we write, do we sometimes find ourselves falling in love with an image, a symbol, while also forgetting the hard framework of story? We definitely have to have both, though there must be a way to combine the two, incorporate symbols while building memorable story. Plot is the groundwork, yet its other elements essential, necessary. Adding symbolism is an artistic choice, verbal jewelry that pulls the reader in, enhances plot lines, makes story elements more memorable. Literary symbolism can be one or two words, even phrases, paragraphs, that encompass, echo and remind the reader of essential story elements. And yes, symbolism can be overused. Like real jewelry, a little goes a long way.

And now, I have to mention…And as I sat there, brooding on the old unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it…So we beat on…

First, The Purpose of Symbolism

As a writer, I admit I love symbolism. If handled carefully, not over done, it is powerful, filling a reader’s brain with an image that lingers, that connects aspects of the story without the writer having to wave a flag—hey reader, remember this, lean in, it’s important, and I’ll be coming back here, so pay attention.

I believe a symbol, reoccurring throughout a work, is a literary choice that actually lights up the reader’s brain, is no longer a word, but in the hands of a deft writer, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, recalls an entire scene: his green light, the sign on Dew’s bridge—each becoming more than it is.

Emma Donoghue, when writing her novel The Wonder, wanted her protagonist to realize that her people, the English, were partly responsible for the Irish Famine. “But I didn’t want that just to be presented as a political argument.” Thus Donoghue has her protagonist walking along a road built by the starving Irish, who often died along the way. “…everything green and pastoral—and then we watch as she begins realizing that the bumps of the grass under her feet are not clods of soil, but skulls.” (from the essay You and Me, by Emma Donoghue)

So, As We Write…

In my “forever novel” there is a street in Chicago, a row of cottonwood trees along that street, and when it’s spring, those cottonwoods shed their seeds, the grass, pavement, even the air full of tiny white vessels, or in my writing world, “the cottonwoods are blowing snow.” The image, whenever it appears, references an evil that happened to a child, “the day the cottonwoods blew.” The image becomes not only an experience of nature, but like the green light, the bumps of grass under her feet, it takes on symbolism, meaning, it references a story event, carries the reader deeper into story—which is what we as readers love when engrossed in a novel.

There are many ordinary symbols we can use, imbuing them with new meaning, as they quietly build to a climax. Because we don’t want our helpful Beta reader saying—”wow, page 91, that scene, the MC crashing into that other driver, the wife in the car…Is he careless, suicidal, wants to kill her or maybe he just forgot his glasses? Whatever it is, you pulled me right out of the story.”

So we go back. What is the purpose of the car crash? Are there symbols that might keep the reader interested, but also gradually clarify the scene’s purpose? Placement is crucial. Symbols can act as signposts, integrate elements of plot, infuse story with emotion. Literary symbols can echo through the text, build story, add tension: the MC’s calendar marked with missed doctor appointments; the pile of traffic tickets his wife finds in a drawer; sloppy lane changes on the 405, his wife asking, “Are you going blind or trying to kill us?” (I’m spit balling here. So many ways this story could go.) Thus, we thank our Beta readers.

Symbolism doesn’t have to glitter like jewelry. It can be traffic tickets, a marked calendar, an unknown phone number, all working to emphasize and reveal story elements. As writers, we use symbols to attach importance to a scene, hint at story complications, create those echoes I referred to above.

As we create characters, listen to them speak, watch how they interact with their environment, symbolism can be gorgeous language or the simple presence of something out of the ordinary, that presence and its repetition winding through story, until we fully see it’s purpose, react to it presence.

A Simple Symbol

Janelle Brown when reviewing Ann Patchett’s novel, Commonwealth, writes: “Commonwealth is a novel about family stories: how they shift based on the person who tells them, and how they can slip from your grasp and become part of someone else’s narrative.” When writing, we need to ask: who is telling this part of THE STORY? The use of symbols can help. Thus…a symbolic moment sparks the beginning of Commonwealth, fueling the entire plot. Patchett’s choice was a California orange, not Eve’s apple. Patchett writes: “The christening party took a turn when Albert Cousins arrived with gin.”

And it’s not just the gin, it’s also California, a gorgeous sun-filled day; it’s Beverly’s stunning figure; it’s the orange tree, heavy with fruit, in her yard.

“Beverly was standing at the sink, a butcher knife in her hand. She was slicing oranges from an enormous pile that was sliding across the counter while the two lawyers from LA Country District Attorney’s Office, Dick Spenser and Albert Cousins—suit jackets off, ties off, and shirtsleeves rolled up high above the elbow—were twisting the halves of oranges on two metal juicers. …”   “Perfect timing,” Beverly said…She poured a short drink—half gin, half orange juice, from the full pitcher. She made another and another… (The cover of my paperback version has a drawing of three large oranges.)

More Complex Story Symbols

In Jennifer Haigh’s MERCY STREET, the main character, Claudia Birch, is a counselor at a Boston abortion clinic. In many scenes, the city is covered in white snow that eventually turns to slush. Despite this the “regulars” come every day, to stand outside the clinic in protest. In the following passage, Haigh reveals the vicariousness of nature (tree, snow, rain, sun) ironic choices, highlighting this ongoing, if not eternal social struggle that is the novel’s message.

“They stood in concentric circles like the growth rings of a tree. In the center were the professionals—Archdiocesan priests in slick nylon dress slacks, a few monks from the Franciscan monastery in New Bedford…In the outer rings were the regular people, holding rosary beads or carrying signs. They had come straight from church, their foreheads marked with dark soot. Like gunshot victims, Claudia thought. But did that outward symbol have the power to reveal the heart, the soul, what was within? That morning, riding the MBTA train to work, she’d seen a lot of dirty foreheads. In Boston—still, despite recent events, the most Catholic city in America, Ash Wednesday could not be ignored.”

Haigh then emphasizes change, the snow turning to dirty slush, the regulars who arrive promptly at the clinic, who do nothing to help anyone, but will surely leave when it starts to sleet—all of them becoming cold, wet, never dressed for eight hours of exposure. It’s not health these gatherers are concerned with, but inertia, their very presence their purpose. On a sunny day, they’ll also be there, no brisk walk in the sunshine, no eagerness to work! Weather is their inertia and the outside of the clinic their duty, their home, whenever it is open.

Expanding Story from One Literary Image 

Margot Livesey’s, THE BOY IN THE FIELD, begins with one symbol, allowing it to spread and grow, creating questions, lies and mishaps, that slowly answer the story question which springs from this initial image:

From a distance it was still possible to believe that the boy was asleep… His hair was dark, his skin very pale. He wore a deep blue shirt, a color Duncan would call cobalt, black shorts, and what appeared to be long red socks…  His eyelids were pale with a delicate tracery of veins. Everything that happened, they all three later agreed, was only possible because of those closed lids. His chest rose, fractionally, and fell, fractionally. With no one to tell them what to feel, they did not cry out or exclaim. 


I’ve presented a few examples of the lure of literary symbolism, of your ability to enhance your story world with images—the rest being your choices and wide open. Living out in the world encourages writers to look for and find symbols, images that will enhance story, underline a message, even be outrageous, because you have made a connection not seen in another work. It’s an exciting challenge. True, the plot is central, but that jewelry? So tempting.

When you are writing, do you find yourself including symbolism as you go? Or do you find it works better when you go back, look at the work as a whole to find those connections, those story threads? No matter your method, IT’S ALL GOOD.


About Beth Havey

A former teacher of English and a labor and delivery RN, Beth Havey attended the Iowa Summer Writing Workshops, working with David Payne and Elizabeth Strout. From 2004-2008, she proofread for Meredith Books and co-authored Miami Ink: Marked for Greatness. In 2015, Foreverland Press published her story collection, A Mother’s Time Capsule. Her work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Better Homes & Gardens, the Des Moines Register, The Nebraska Review and other literary and little magazines. Each week she publishes an essay on her blog, and is a member of the Women’s Fiction Writers Association.

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