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What is a literary symbol?

A literary s y m b o l combines an image with a concept, a literal, concrete quality with a suggestive, abstract dimension. It may be universalorindividual.

In literature an example of a universal symbol is a journey into the underworld (as in the work of Virgil, Dante and James Joyce) and a return from it. Such a journey may be an interpretation of a spiritual experience, a dark night of the soul and a kind of redemptive odyssey. Examples of individual symbols are those that recur in the works of W.B. Yeats: the sun and the moon, a tower, a mask, a tree, a winding stair, and a hawk.

Dante’s Divina Commedia is structurally symbolic. In Macbeth there is a recurrence of the blood image symbolizing guilt and violence. In Hamlet weeds and disease symbolize corruption and decay. In King Lear clothes symbolize appearances and authority; and the storm scene in this play may be taken as symbolic of cosmic and domestic chaos to which ‘unaccommodated man’ is exposed. The poetry of Blake and Shelley is heavily marked with symbols.

In prose works the great white whale of Melville’s Moby Dick (the ‘grand god’) is a kind of symbolic creature — a carcass which symbol-hunters have been disseting for years. Much of the fiction of William Golding (especially Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin and The Spire) depends upon powerful symbolism capable of more interpretations than one. To these examples should be added the novels and short stories of Kafka, and the plays of Maeterlinck, Andreyev, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Synge and O’Neill.



How do you recognize a symbol?

Careful reading and common sense are the most important requirements. Only after you feel you fully understand the literal level of the story’s meaning and yet sense a pattern of suggestive details, a dimension beyond the literal, will you wish to explore symbolic interpretation. Sometimes symbolic significance is readily accessible through speech,gesture, and action.

Symbolism in fiction depends for its effectiveness on the reader’s making the right associations, understanding the ways in which symbols may expand and deepen meaning. Symbols make good literary sense only when considered in the overall context provided by a piece of fiction. As an interpreter of symbols in fiction, you are concerned with putting things together, with seeing the story in more than one dimension.

Exercise 1.

Below you will find a number of traditional symbols. With which concepts are they generally associated?

The snake the dog the swan the crown

The heart the apple grapes the fox

Spring winter autumn the Sun

The Moon the diamond the red colour the white colour

The black colour the green colour

Read the short story and answer the questions that follow it.

L. Carrington

The Debutante

When I was a debutante, I often went to the zoo. I went so often that I knew the animals better than I knew girls of my own age. Indeed it was in order to get away from people that I found myself at the zoo every day. The animal I got to know best was a young hyena. She knew me too. She was very intelligent. I taught her French, and she, in return, taught me her language. In this way we passed many pleasant hours.

My mother was arranging a ball in my honour on the first of May. During this time I was in a state of great distress for whole nights. I’ve always detested balls, especially when they are given in my honour.

On the morning of the first of May 1934, very early, I went to visit the hyena.

“What a bloody nuisance,” I said to her. “I’ve got to go to my ball tonight.”

“You’re very lucky,” she said. “I’d love to go. I don’t know how to dance, but at least I could make small talk.”

“There’ll be a great many different things to eat,” I told her. “I’ve seen truckloads of food delivered to our house.”

“And you’re complaining,” replied the hyena, disgusted. “Just think of me, I eat once a day, and you can’t imagine what a heap of bloody rubbish I’m given.”

I had an audacious idea, and I almost laughed. “All you have to do is to go instead of me!”

“We don’t resemble each other enough, otherwise I’d gladly go,” said the hyena rather sadly.

“Listen,” I said. “No one sees too well in the evening light. If you disguise yourself, nobody will notice you in the crowd. Besides, we’re practically the same size. You’re my only friend, I beg you to do this for me.”

She thought this over, and I knew that she really wanted to accept.

“Done,” she said all of a sudden.

There weren’t many keepers about, it was so early in the morning. I opened the cage quickly, and in a very few moments we were out in the street. I hailed a taxi; at home, everybody was still in bed. In my room I brought out the dress I was to wear that evening. It was a little long, and the hyena found it difficult to walk in my high-heeled shoes. I found some gloves to hide her hands, which were too hairy to look like mine. By the time the sun was shining into my room, she was able to make her way around the room several times, walking more or less upright. We were so busy that my mother almost opened the door to say good morning before the hyena had hidden under my bed.

“There’s a bad smell in your room,” my mother said, opening the window. “You must have a scented bath before tonight, with my new bath salts.”

“Certainly,” I said.

She didn’t stay long. I think the smell was too much for her.

“Don’t be late for breakfast,” she said and left the room.

The greatest difficulty was to find a way of disguising the hyena’s face. We spent hours and hours looking for a way, but she always rejected my suggestions. At last she said, “I think I’ve found the answer. Have you got a maid?”

“Yes,” I said, puzzled.

“There you are then. Ring for your maid, and when she comes in we’ll pounce upon her and tear off her face. I’ll wear her face tonight instead of mine.”

“It’s not practical,” I said. “She’ll probably die if she hasn’t got a face. Somebody will certainly find the corpse, and we’ll be put in prison.”

“I’m hungry enough to eat her,” the hyena replied.

“And the bones?”

“As well,” she said. “So, it’s on?”

“Only if you promise to kill her before tearing off her face. It’ll hurt her too much otherwise.”

“All right. It’s all the same to me.”

Not without a certain amount of nervousness I rang for Mary, my maid. I certainly wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t hate having to go to a ball so much. When Mary came in I turned to the wall so as not to see. I must admit it didn’t take long. A brief cry, and it was over. While the hyena was eating, I looked out the window. A few minutes later she said, “I can’t eat any more. Her two feet are left over still, but if you have a little bag, I’ll eat them later in the day.”

“You’ll find a bag embroidered with fleurs-de-lis in the cupboard. Empty out the handkerchiefs you’ll find inside, and take it.” She did as I suggested. Then she said, “Turn round now and look how beautiful I am.”

In front of the mirror, the hyena was admiring herself in Mary’s face. She had nibbled very neatly all around the face so that what was left was exactly what was needed.

“You’ve certainly done that very well,” I said.

Towards evening, when the hyena was all dressed up, she declared, “I really feel in tip-top form. I have a feeling that I shall be a great success this evening.”

When we had heard the music from downstairs for quite some time, I said to her, “Go on down now, and remember, don’t stand next to my mother. She’s bound to realise that it isn’t me. Apart from her I don’t know anybody. Best of luck.” I kissed her as I left her, but she did smell very strong.

Night fell. Tired by the day’s emotions, I took a book and sat down by the open window, giving myself up to peace and quiet. I remember that I was reading Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. About an hour later, I noticed the first signs of trouble. A bat flew in at the window, uttering little cries. I am terribly afraid of bats. I hid behind a chair, my teeth chattering. I had hardly gone down on my knees when the sound of beating wings was overcome by a great noise at my door. My mother entered, pale with rage.

“We’d just sat down at table,” she said, “when that thing sitting in your place got up and shouted, ‘So I smell a bit strong, what? Well, I don’t eat cakes!’ Whereupon it tore off its face and ate it. And with one great bound, disappeared through the window.”


1. What features and characteristics do the words debutante and hyena usually suggest?

2. Characterize the debutante. How is she different from the traditional image?

3. Compare and contrast the debutante and the hyena. Do they have anything in common? In what way are they different?

4. In the story who seems to be more cruel and cynical — the debutante or the hyena? Prove your opinion by reference to the text.

5. What does the hyena symbolize? How does this image help the author to reveal her idea of human nature?

6. What other objects and details acquire symbolic meaning in the story?


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