What It Means to Have Light Shine (Or Not Shine) on Our Heroes

The symbolism of using light as a narrative motif in fiction

Jasmin James
Feb 18 · 8 min read
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Credit: Jasmin James

In Kerala, I used to catch fireflies. Creeping down the staircase at night, I’d stop at the windows. The tiny pin-pricks of light caught on window-sills let the darkness live. It was magical, that perfectly illuminated silence.

Careful not to crush them, I’d cup the fireflies in my palm, forming a loose fist. The glint that escaped was not unlike the glow in the picture above, one I took because it seemed to reflect my own wonder at all the light this world seems to hold.

Watching a match flare up in utter darkness and seeing bluebottles fry themselves to a crisp against emergency lights. Being taken by surprise as electric lights flickered and died away all of a sudden. Talking and laughing, freely and openly, under the cover of night and praying to soft candlelight.

It was a time to remember.

Important Lights in Traditional and Modern Fiction

Often enough, light is a symbol of hope in literature.

Many of us may be familiar with that most famous proclamation featuring light in writing-’Let there be light!’. In a stroke of beautiful grandeur and awe-inspiring showmanship, God starts off Creation in Genesis by making both the Sun and the Moon.

In fiction, this is reflected by C.S.Lewis in his use of a lamp post.

In the first book of the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan as a stand-in for God similarly sings Creation into being. As his song makes living things multiply, a bar of iron hurled at him by the White Witch grows into a lamp post. Said lamp post comes to denote the border of Narnia, a marker for its origin story, as the faun Tumnus tells Lucy when she visits him, hundreds of years later.

Light is also a key element to understanding Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Considered an ‘Anti-Narnia’ of sorts by many, the story of a girl who crosses worlds in quest of the meaning of Dust, a mysterious substance that has the Church (‘The Magisterium’) of her world in uproar is closely connected to the concept of light.In the story, the Northern Lights are portals to other worlds and also the place where Dust can be seen best.

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Credit to Pauline Baynes and Chris Wormell

But Illumination as a motif does not only feature in so called children’s literature-it’s a powerful symbol found in many of our beloved classics, ranging from Harper Lee’s powerful coming-of-age story To Kill a Mockingbird to F.Scott Fitzgerald’s eponymous Roaring Twenties novel The Great Gatsby. In the former book, Atticus Finch, the father of the teen protagonist, brings a lamp into the prison where the unjustly accused Boo Radley is held. As the lawyer tasked in bringing to light (see what I did there? 😄) a black man’s innocence during a time of racial tension, the physical presence of the light as a harbinger of hope is a connotation easily made by a reader. For Jay Gatsby, the doomed hero of The Great Gatsby, ‘a green light, far away’ stands for all the hopes and dreams he has of a future life with the woman he loves. It is as distant and unreachable as she is to him yet lures him in the same way a will-o’-the wisp does in a dark moor, with consequences that prove just as devastating.

Two enduringly popular works of 19th century English Literature-Jane Eyre and A Christmas Carol- make use of light in an ambiguous way. The titular Jane finds comfort in the blaze of a good fire, hailing as she does from a home that is both literally and figuratively cold, yet the flames also connotate danger, as the mad Bertha Jerkins tries to kill her husband and Jane’s great love, the brooding Mr. Rochester, by trying to burn him twice in his sleep. The spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come featured in Dickens beloved Christmas classic appear as lights in the night to the miserly Scrooge. Here the association of light despite the terror inspired by the ghostly apparitions is due to the bettering influence they have on the story’s protagonist. The man who cares not a whit about love, family or charity ends up spending a good deal of the money he prized above all to secure those other ideals after encountering the spirits mentioned.

The dichotomy is an old one, considering the way angels are described in the Bible- as creatures of light both ‘beautiful and terrible’.

Yet the one writer of the selfsame age who wrote most eloquently on light- or rather, the absence of it- was Thomas Hardy.

Hardy and the ‘Accursed Light’

As a young man, Hardy was attached to the Anglican Church. His love for custom, lore and country naturally extended to a faith he saw embedded in that framework. Later, he would lose that conviction yet retain certain aspects of it. These were:

  • his family’s ties to faith
  • his love for church music and the language of the Bible
  • his belief that the Church was the social, ethical and educational center of a community

The last conviction must have been especially hard to stomach, seeing as Hardy lost faith in a personal God soon after reading Darwin’s theories on evolution. His fiction often has its protagonists square off against societal and religious restraints that sound reasonable on paper (ex.‘You shall marry!’ ,‘You shall be faithful’ or ‘You shall be content with your station’) but when confronted with the struggles of an individual life ultimately doom where they are intended to save. Hardy’s break with orthodox faith was cemented when the Bishop of Wakefield publicly burned the last book he ever wrote, Jude the Obscure, for supposed obscenity and immorality. (In a move of even greater spite, the Bishop mailed the ashes of the book to Hardy with a letter lambasting its ‘wickedness’.The author ‘s refusal to pen another novel in his lifetime and his subsequent retreat into poetry does not surprise, considering these events.)

Yet, despite all that, Hardy’s ties to faith remained. The controversial late 19th century author never discovered another faith for himself and in his later poetry often showed a lingering regret for all that he could not personally believe in.

This is where he introduced the idea of light most skillfully.

In Neutral Tones, Hardy writes of a ‘God-curst sun’ that shines on a narrator reflecting on a broken relationship. Even more poignantly, in Her Dilemma, he has a young woman lie to a dying man in a ‘sunless Church’, saying that she loves him. The irony lies in the fact that she is caught between telling the truth and being kind to him, both values exhorted by the religion they follow. Literally hemmed in by this choice by the very walls of the church described, it is a moral choice typical for Hardy. In contrast, She, to Him movingly has an aged, broken narrator ask his former lover for recognition and her hand in friendship. It’s her hand that he hopes for, going down Life’s sunless Hill.

These poems are emblematic for the emptiness Hardy bemoans in the real life application of religious tenets, coupled with a perceived abandonment of the world by God.

In their stead, he often uses light as a metaphor for the vigour of youth in its prime. The young have ‘stars’ for eyes or girls have long tresses of hair ‘sheened as stars’. The aging have their ‘life-light decline’ while fate itself is described as ‘the day-star’. The act of love harboured for another is beautifully described as ‘my light in thee’.

There is one poem I believe expresses most eloquently the harrowing pain that blindsided Hardy in his contemplation of the nature of God and the reality of Good and Evil.

Consider these lines from Nature’s Questioning:

“Has some Vast Imbecility,
Mighty to build and blend,
But impotent to tend,
Framed us in jest, and left us now to hazardry?

Or come we of an Automaton
Unconscious of our pains?…
Or are we live remains
Of Godhead dying downwards, brain and eye now gone?

Or is it that some high Plan betides,
As yet not understood,
Of Evil stormed by Good,
We the Forlorn Hope over which Achievement strides?”

Thus things around. No answerer I….
Meanwhile the winds, and rains,
And Earth’s old glooms and pains
Are still the same, and gladdest Life Death neighbors nigh.’’

The words would very well suit Frankenstein’s creature, equally at a loss to make head or tale of his Creator and the circumstances that turn his life into an Oedipal tragedy. Yet unlike the Monster, Hardy does not remove himself from the sphere of influence that religion represents to him.

In The Impercipient, he describes himself as a ‘gazer’, an ‘outcast from a bright, believing band’ taking part in a Cathedral service. The narrator describes how his inability to perceive a ‘He who breathes an All’s Well’ is a mystery to him. Yet it is abundantly clear that said narrator would give anything to return to that Shining Land if he could only accomplish it intellectually

O, doth a bird deprived of wings
Go earth-bound wilfully!

Interestingly, the pleasantness and goodness of light as expressed in literature also found its expression in Hardy’s fiction. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the tragedy of a ‘ruined woman’, contains an ode to a time of light, which is how Tess sees her own childhood. The novel contains mentions of ‘rays from the sunrise [that] drew forth the buds … lifted up sap in noiseless streams’, a passage that actively promotes the doomed love of Tess and Angel. In perfect union, understanding and love of two souls and the beauty of the natural world they share, Hardy locates some of the light he kept on perpetually seeking in his life.

Martin Luther King said once that without darkness, we would not see the stars. It makes one wonder whether the bleakest words only serve to express a strong light shining in the darkness. For critics bemoaning the tragic endings of celebrated classics, that might be a thought to hang on to.

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Jasmin James

Written by

Photojournalist and narrative non-fiction writer


A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Jasmin James

Written by

Photojournalist and narrative non-fiction writer


A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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