Ciao, SEers. Today is a two-fer. I’m writing the last of my posts on literary elements, and I’m also writing my last post of the year. And what a year it’s been, huh? Say what you want about 2020, it’s definitely one we’ll never forget. (And one I’m happy to put behind me.)
Okay, literary elements. We’ve already covered theme and subject. Please click on the links if you missed those posts or want a quick refresher. This installment will discuss symbolism and how it relates to the other two elements.
Unlike theme and subject, symbolism is pretty widely understood by authors. It’s the use of something—usually a repeated use—that comes to represent something more than its literal definition.
Some common, recognizable symbols:
- dove = peace
- heart = love
- owl = wisdom
- water = purity
- fire = passion
- white = good
- black = evil
- green = envy
- blue = sadness
- yellow = cowardice
- spring = new beginnings
- winter = endings
Let’s take a look at our tried and true example of The Wizard of Oz. There are so many symbols in the story, so I’m only going to look at a few.
Theme: always follow your heart’s desire (Dorothy’s desire is to go home)
Subject: home (Dorothy learns there’s no place like home)
Symbolism: the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers, and her actual home
The yellow brick road symbolizes the journey to your heart’s desire. There will be good and bad along the way. You must not let good things tempt you away from your goal, and you must not let bad things frighten you away from continuing.
The ruby slippers symbolize Dorothy’s power. In the story, they are magical (or powerful). Remember, once they were on her feet, she was unable to remove them. That’s because her power is always with her, whether she knows how to use it or not. And at the end, she is able to use the magic (her power) to attain her desire, which is to go home.
Yes, home is actually a symbol here. In two ways, actually.
- Kansas versus Oz. When we meet Dorothy, Kansas is dull and dreary. Undesirable. When she goes to Oz, everything is bright and cheery. But as she follows the yellow brick road, she learns that there are dangers around every curve, and when she finally gets back to Kansas, we see it as a soothing and calming area.
- The house itself. Our first introduction to Oz is in Munchkinland, which looks like a happy place, but it’s a land terrorized by the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy put an end to that terror—a problem she didn’t even know existed yet—with her house. It’s a tangible symbol that home is a powerful and protective force.
So, you can see how the three literary elements work together to drive home (no pun intended) an author’s message.
Theme, the most general and overarching element, is the umbrella under which everything is contained.
Subject is the vehicle through which the message is delivered.
Symbols are the items used to reinforce the author’s point.
I would argue authors use theme and subject in every story, sometimes without even being aware of it. Symbols require a bit more forethought, but they can be used quite effectively in tandem with the other two elements.
Do you use symbolism in your stories? Can you point to theme, subject, and symbol in your work or in the work of others? Or what about other symbols in The Wizard of Oz (there are a bunch). Let’s talk about it.
And, as I won’t be posting again this year, let me take this opportunity to thank you for your continued support throughout a trying fifty-two weeks and wish you a healthy and happy holiday season.