We hear about symbolism all the time. At least once in every English class, there’s a teacher who will ramble on about some detail in the assigned book; for example, that the curtains in a house were red. Rather than overlook this as a surface-level description, they’ll explain how thinking about the curtains in a deeper way changes the Entire Book, and how it is Extremely Important because Everything Authors Do Is Intentional.
Now, maybe the curtains are red because it’s the author’s favorite color. Maybe they didn’t think about the color at all. But maybe it does represent something deeper. Perhaps they chose red to represent the overwhelming rage their protagonist feels, staring out a window as she plots revenge against her enemies. It really could be that deep.
But how can we know for sure?
There are a couple of ways to spot symbolism in a novel. The most prevalent is when authors use a part of the setting as a stand-in for something else, usually an emotion or something intangible.
Take The Great Gatsby, for example. This is a classic English Lit choice, one where your teacher’s probably taking a whole class to focus on the meaning behind the green light. And they’d be right too!
The Green Light, on the surface, represents Gatsby’s dreams. This could be any number of things, including his love for Daisy.
In addition to representing the intangible, symbolism can also give us some sneak peeks into the character that the author may not say out loud. So if the light is his love for Daisy, we can parallel the way he interacts with the light and the way he treats her.
We see Gatsby throw elaborate parties in her honor and show off the things he owns, but does nothing to get close emotionally; he’s only trying to impress her from afar with appearances. He isn’t trying to find out the source of that green light, either. Both relationships are something he yearns for, yet makes no move to actually attain. It’s easier to sit and stare than to take real steps toward achieving the dream.
Setting as symbolism is also in The Catcher in the Rye. Not going to lie, this book caused some serious debate in my class around Holden’s character. I was rooting for him; he deserved better, even if he was kind of pretentious. But I digress.
What’s important here is the way that Holden’s world acts as a mirror to his emotions.
The story is set in New York, and Holden goes back to a Central Park duck pond multiple times in varying emotional states. We also see him ask questions about where the ducks go in the winter, or if they get picked up in a truck “or something”. Either he asks the adults around him, who have no answer that matters, or the questions are thought to himself.
He visits the lake in winter, a scene that I think has a lot of symbolic meaning. Here, he is drunk, and the ducks he’s used to seeing in warmer weather have left him. Alcohol is a depressant so this exacerbates the loss he feels at being alone at the pond. He is known to go there for comfort, so it being empty can represent how he views the world around him: cold, unreachable, and an uncertain means of support.
Holden’s experiencing a lot of inconsistency with the people in his life, be it with the kids he goes to school with or the mentor figures he chooses. To have his “safe place” thus far be disturbed only adds to this feeling, and drives him to become even more distressed around the idea of growing up and fleeing the nest, the way ducks do each winter.
So we’ve deduced that the curtains can be red as a way of cluing us in on the way a character feels. We know the setting in a story can symbolize different things at different times: Gatsby’s longing and lack of emotional closeness and Holden’s uncertainty about the adult world. But what if we move away from all of that? Symbolism can also be used outside of physical descriptions, even in other characters.
Symbolism can be sniffed out in one of my favorite tropes: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Think Ramona Flowers with her seven evil exes, or Summer with her (questionably legitimate) love of The Smiths. I personally enjoy this type of character, even though they’ve got a reputation for turning women into aggressively quirky caricatures. I think the brightly dyed hair and taste for older music can serve as symbolism when compared with the cast of characters they interact with.
Manic Pixie Dream Girls, or MPDGs, serve as a catalyst for the main character, often your standard Guy Who Works In An Office, Or Retail, Or Something. This girl, the complete visual and emotional opposite of them, jump-ropes into his life and shoves a handful of cassette tapes into their hands, and teaches them how to Really Live ™. This is not only a means of symbolizing the freedom the main character wants, but in having a relationship with her, they gain a sense of hope.
Through engaging with recklessness personified, our Average Guy feels free enough to engage with his desires long after she leaves. While pointedly Not Like Other Girls, the MPDG is ultimately a symbol of growth. She teaches the Average Guy some important lessons, while also showing the possibility for them to change.
So! Going back to our red curtains one more time (our heavily symbolic, rage-filled curtains). How can we be sure that this was a Deliberate Creative Choice on the part of the author?
The gist of it comes down to looking at what we already know from the story. In the Great Gatsby, we can already see this unattainable love come through in the parties he throws and the way he puts his wealth before any honest portrayal of himself.
With Holden, we know he’s the epitome of teen angst. We see him slouch and dismiss the world as “phonies”, so we get that he’s probably not feeling too great. He needs certainty but can’t express it so he tries it out by asking about the ducks. Ramona Flowers has a million types of tea, sure, but she shows Scott Pilgrim what it means to invest in a partner.
Even Summer shows our Average Guy that what you expect people to be like isn’t always the reality. In looking at what we already know, we can see the hints the author puts in things like the setting, the protagonist’s emotions, or other characters.
Or maybe the curtains are just red. But isn’t it fun to see if there’s more to it?
About the Author: Angelina is completing her BA in Creative Writing from Drew University! She most enjoys poetry, specifically slam poems/spoken word, and would like to compete in a slam competition in the future. Other than poems, she also writes and reads short fiction, creative nonfiction, and fanfiction. In her free time, Lina enjoys watching period dramas, playing the ukulele, and scoping out the nearest renaissance fairs.