Symbolic Themes, John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, p. 234–238
After story symbol and character symbol, the next step in creating a symbol web is to encapsulate entire moral arguments in symbol. This produces the most intense concentration of meaning of all the symbol techniques. For this reason, symbolic theme is a highly risky technique. If done in an obvious, clumsy way, the story feels preachy.
To make a theme symbolic, come up with an image or object that expresses a series of actions that hurt others in some way. Even more powerful is an image or object that expresses two series of actions — two moral sequences — that are in conflict with each other.
THE SCARLETT LETTER
Hawthorne is a master of symbolic theme. The scarlet letter “A” appears at first glance to represent the simple moral argument against adultery. It is only over the course of the story that this very obvious symbol comes to represent two opposing moral arguments: the absolute, inflexible, and hypocritical argument that chastises Hester in public and the much more fluid and true morality that Hester and her lover actually lived in private.
This story of three brothers who join the French Foreign Legion shows a crucial feature of the technique of symbolic theme: it works best when you do it through plot. In the beginning of the story, the three brothers are children playing a game of King Arthur. While the oldest brother is hiding in a suit of armor, he overhears some information about a family sapphire known as the Blue Water. Years later, as an adult, he steals the jewel and joins the Foreign Legion, all to save his aunt’s name and the family’s reputation. That knight’s armor comes to symbolize and act of chivalry and self-sacrifice, the beau geste that is the central theme of the story. By embedding this symbol in the plot, the writers allow the connection between symbol and theme to envolve and grow over the course of the story.
THE GREAT GATSBY
The Great Gatsby showcases a writer with tremendous ability at attaching symbol to theme. Fitzgerald uses a web of three major symbols to crystalize a thematic sequence. These three symbols are the green light, the spectacles billboard in front of the dump, and the “fresh, green breast of the new world.” The thematic sequence works like this:
The green light represents modern America. But the original American dream has been perverted to seeking material wealth and the golden girl who is desirable only because she is beautifully wrapped.
The spectacles billboard in front of the dump stands for America behind the material surface, totally used up, the mechanical refuse created by America the material. The machine has eaten the garden.
The “fresh, green breast of the new world” symbolizes the natural world of America, newly discovered and full of potential for a new way of living, a second chance at a Garden of Eden.
Notice that the symbol sequence is out of chronological order. But it is in the right structural order. Fitzgerald introduces the “fresh, green breast of the new world” on the very last page. This is a brilliant choice, because the lush nature and huge potential of the new world are made shockingly real by their stark contrast to what has actually been done to that new world. And this contrast comes at the very end of the story, after Nick’s self-revelation. So structurally, this symbol, and what it stands for, explodes in the minds of the audience as a stunning thematic revelation. This is masterful technique and a part of creating a work of art.
SYMBOL FOR STORY WORLD
In Chapter 6, I talked about many of the techniques used to create the world of the story. Some of these techniques, like miniature, are also symbol techniques. Indeed, one of the most important functions of symbol is to encapsulate an entire world, or set of forces, in a single, understandable image.
Natural worlds like the island, mountain, forest and ocean have an inherent symbolic power. But you can attach additional symbols to them to heighten or change the meaning audiences normally associate with them. One way to do that is to infuse these places with magical powers. This technique is found in Prospero’s island (“The Tempes”), Circle’s island (the “Odyssey”), the forest in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, the Forest of Arden in “As You Like It”, the Dark Forest in the Harry Potter stories, and the Forest of Lothlorien in “The Lord of the Rings”. Strictly speaking, magic is not a specific symbol but a different set of forces by which the world works. But making a place magical has the same effects as applying a symbol. It concentrates meaning and charges the world with a force field that grabs an audience’s imagination.
You can create symbols that convey this supernatural set of forces. An excellent example is in “Moonstruck”.
John Patrick Shanley uses the moon to give a physical manifestation to the notion of fate. This is especially useful in a love story where what is really at stake is not the individual characters as much as the love between them. The audience must feel that this is a great love and that it would be a tragedy if it doesn’t grow and last. One way of getting this across to an audience is to show that the love is necessary, that it is fated by powers far greater than these two mere humans. Shanley connects the two main characters, Loretta and Ronny, to the moon by establishing Loretta from the beginning as unlucky in love. This creates a sense of the larger forces at work. Loretta’s grandfather tells a group of old men that the moon brings the woman to the man. At dinner, Loretta’s uncle, Raymond, tells the story of how Loretta’s father, Cosmo, courted her mother, Rose. One night, Raymond woke up to see a huge moon, and when he looked out the window, he saw Cosmo in the street below gazing up at Rose’s bedroom.
Shanley then uses the crosscut technique to place the entire family under the power of the moon and connect it with love. In quick succession, Rose gazes out at the huge full moon; Loretta and Ronny, after their first lovemaking, stand together at the window and watch it; and Raymond awakes and tells his wife it’s Cosmo’s moon, back again. These two old people, long married, are inspired to make love. The sequence ends up with the grandfather and his pack of dogs howling at the big moon over the city. The moon becomes the great generator of love, bathing the entire city in moonlight and fairy dust.
You may also want to create a symbol when you write a story in which the world evolves from one stage of society to another, like village to city. Social forces are highly complex, so a single symbol can be valuable in making these forces real, cohesive, and understandable.