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Symbolism in Literature: The Great Gatsby, In the Time of the Butterflies, Romeo and Juliet, Metamorphosis, Raisin in the Sun

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The practice and art of using an object or a word for the representation of an abstract idea is called Symbolism. An action, person, object and place all can have symbolic meaning. If an author wants to express an emotion and feeling rather than saying it directly, he hints it in the symbolic undertones. The symbol for love can be rosy hue and the fire for passion. Symbolism is used by writers to enhance their writing. It can give a literary work more in depth richness and colour. A figure of speech for example a metaphor can be used as a symbol. “Time is money” indicates the symbolism of time in terms of monetary gain and reward. The essay is written to explore the symbolism in the readings. The readings include the works of the twentieth century writers and one of the renaissance era. It aims to give a brief thesis statement, research objectives and discuss under the title of every reading, a brief symbolic significance that the readings express.

Thesis Statement “Symbolism is prevalent in the feelings, moods and attitudes of the individual texts and they are depicted through objects and places that have deeper meanings explored in literary symbolism.”

Research Objectives

  1. The context of the texts is briefly summarized.
  2. The symbolism is explored through critical reading of the texts.
  3. The relationship is explored between context and symbolism

The Great Gatsby

The novel, The Great Gatsby, is written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the year 1925. The novel is about the examination of the adherence to material values found to be prominent in the Jazz Age generation. At the time of writing the novel, America experienced a revolution in both culture and life style. In the period of economic boom, stock market raise and the rich of the society spent money on parties and on acquiring expensive accessories. The automobile became the symbol of wealth and glamour and profits in business were made by both legal and illegal means. The end of the World War I in 1918 left the people who experienced the horrors of war, disillusioned and the generation came to be referred to as “the lost generation”. The period of roaring twenties are evidently succumb to the materialism and rushed into a madcap behaviour and the expatriate American artists who remained in Europe felt at loss due to their dislocation.

In the era of the Jazz Age, the music called Jazz was promoted by the recent innovations such as the phonograph and radio. The music captured the national imagination and with improvisation and wildness the Jazz broke the rules of the music. The advent of the new woman took freedom from the age old conventions of suppression and the right to “vote” and work outside the home was demanded. The hair cut into fashionable “Bob” and wearing flappers was the mode of fashionable twenties.

The most important symbol that emerges in the novel is the green light. The lights situated at the end of Daisy’s East Egg dock and hardly visible from Gatsby’s West Egg lawn, it is a symbol of the hope and future associated with the American dream. The symbolism is penetrated more to the complex love that Gatsby feel for the Daisy. The green serves the purpose of connecting American dream to Gatsby quest for Daisy (Samkanashvili, 35). The symbolism here plays the role of making connection and that’s what prevent the love between the characters to be isolated from the outside world. In Chapter one, Gatsby reaches to the green light in the darkness to guide him towards his goal. In a dialogue between Gatsby and Daisy, Gatsby says, “You always have a green light…….end of your dock” (Fitzgerald, 99).

In chapter two, the Valley of the ashes is a place that exists between West Egg and New York City (26). The valley as its name symbolise is a damp place that is desolate and consists of dumping of industrial ashes. The symbol is deep as the valley is representative of the moral and social decay resulted from the irrational pursuit of wealth as the rich exploit money and resources for their own pleasure. The valley is indicative of the plight of poor and the character of George Wilson, is emblematic of the life lived among dirty ashes and as a result he loses his vitality (Hauhart, 202).

As per the study of Zhang, “Colour symbolism of yellow and gold is indicative of the rich and their wealthy possessions.” (38).The colour yellow is part of the general symbol of hope and gold a direct hint at wealth. The consistent use of colours according to Fitzgerald serves the purpose of making disconnection between wealth and goodness and to associate it with corruption and impurity. The objects that are indicative of the colour yellow and gold such as a small block of yellow brick (27), gold coloured tie (90), and yellow cocktail music (44) are part of the corrupting influence of wealth and actions of the corrupt. The novels’ attention to white, in the beginning, was more and more replaced with the mention of yellow as the work progress as if the former white is being sullied into the moral and material corruption.

The question raised after reading symbolism of the text is about the way people interpret and explore the concept of the American dream. It is crucial that Fitzgerald made certain distinctions between fact and fiction because the symbolism in the novel is quite literary and some of the most important contextual themes such as, the Jazz music, the roaring twenties, woman emancipation and rights are seen in the novel as themes and not incorporated into the important symbolism of the novel.

Romeo and Juliet

The play written by William Shakespeare between the years 1594 and 1596 is about the story of the two star-crossed lovers who face opposition from their families as the families were involved in the hatred and feud with each other. Romeo Montague who falls in love with Juliet Capulet. They are young and their love story must be kept in secret due to their family allegiances. The symbolism of the play is deep and is depicted in objects/ props used in the play. The symbol of suicide is poison that is used as an instrument by Romeo and Juliet. According to Romeo, “Hadst thou no poison mix’d” (Shakespeare, 27). It is also in deep significance representative of the feud between the Montagues and Capulets. According to Kottman, The stings of poison ended the relationship between the two lovers (20). The poison is also an indication of the corrupting influence of love on both as they took their lives out of love. It is ironic that they died because of poison intake.

The character of Queen Mab in the story is one of fairy and it is mentioned by Mercutio before going to the party that she is the fairy that comes at night (Shakespeare, 10). She is the reminder of the falsehood and vices and he reminds dreamers of the power of these vices and fantasies where people reach a certain point in their lives to act on such vices and the symbolism is the love between Romeo and Juliet that had become their vice and lost its purity and therefore ended tragically. Another important symbol in the play is one of light and darkness. Juliet is praised by Romeo in words that “her beauty teaches the torches to burn bright” and Juliet compares Romeo with “the light that illuminates the darkness.” The comparison between Romeo face and little stars that hang in the heavens to lighten up the night is made by Juliet.

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The brawl between Tybalt and Romeo executed on the hot day and it is a symbol of heat of the fight that killed Tybalt and Mercutio (Shakespeare, 22). The power of the heat is the symbol of the hot-headed households that contributed to the brawl and feud being held. The heat of the hot day symbolised how the households had not absolved their conflicts causing the deaths and violence in the city of Verona. Another pertinent symbol is the night time because all the major actors in the film took place at night, the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet, the killing of Tybalt and Mercutio, Romeos’ banishment etc. the love between Romeo and Juliet is mysterious as it is symbolised by the night time. They kept their love secret like the night time. The love also proved deadly like the night time as it is an apt symbol of darkness and death. Their relationship rather than bringing them to the light and acceptance of the world made them doomed as it revealed to them the darkest corners of their personalities. It eventually led to their death.


The novella written by the German writer Franz Kafka and published in the year 1915 tells the story of the salesman Gregor Samsa. The protagonist of the story wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into a huge insect and the story then proceeds to tell about his struggle to adjust in the new condition. It has been discussed among literary critics and is seeped with the symbolism. Kafka uses symbols to build layers of meanings in the text and to make connections between characters and moving the plot of the story forward. The symbolism centres on the objects used in the film, actions of the story and characterization. The German word used for the insect is ungerziefer and it refers to the vermin that Gregor transforms into (Kafka, 3). The form of Gregor’s vermin seems to represent the dehumanized and degrading aspects of his life and work in modern society (Batson, 2). The travelling salesman rarely has time to sleep and eat properly or to develop close association with customers and colleagues. The life of Gregor Samsa is one of pure misery because he is so busy working day and night that his existence becomes nothing more than the vermin. He has no ability for motivation and to carve out his own path.

The symbol of woman in furs is displayed in Gregor’s room. It shows “a lady fitted with a fur….sat upright…….heavy fur muff……..her lower ram….viewer.” (Kafka, 3). The picture was framed by George lovingly and it therefore hints in the direction of his being human as the woman in frame with sexual undertones is provocative and make the reader see in the symbolism a form of human interaction because the picture in the frame is a symbol of last hope for Gregor. As Grete and Mrs Samsa remove the furniture from his room he remains cling to it. At this point, the story is on the brink of embracing life as a bug and leaving his former life as a salesman. The uniform of Mr Samsa is “polished with gold buttons” (Kafka, 50). It symbolizes the self –respect he experienced when he returned to his work and supported his family. Before the transformation of Gregor he rarely left the apartment because he was the breadwinner of the family. Mr Samsa, however, seem disturbed by his new role as a provider and Gregor notices this and with the passing of time the uniform takes on a disturbing significance. As the work started to take a toll on Mr Samsa the uniform becomes greasy and worn. The inability of Mr Samsa to remove his uniform at night at home is an indication of the transformation he feels similar to Gregor’s.

As per the study of Kim, 175, “Apples are the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of Good and Evil in the Bible. By eating this fruit Adam and Eve were expelled from heaven because they gained knowledge in turn that was considered a sin.” Apples takes on a significance of a new understanding that leads to misery. Gregor’s father after seeing that his mother has fainted because of his appearance, pelts Gregor with apples (Kafka, 51). The one apple lodges in Gregor’s back and starts to rot and it causes the area to become inflamed. The loss of interest in food and Gregor’s sister final rejection of him, the injury contributed to Gregor’s death.

Raisin in the Sun

The play by Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, that was staged in 1959 has symbolism incorporated in it at various levels of its production. The character of Walter is the symbolic presentation in the movie of hope and ambition, dreams and desires, passion and fury. The setting of the play is Younger’s family apartment in Southside Chicago and the era was civil rights movement that was seeped with the oppression and segregation for African-Americans (Gale, 1). Another powerful symbol connected with the character of Walter is the symbol of eggs. According to the play, the dialogue between Ruth and Walter is indicative of the fact that, “Man says to his woman: I got me a dream. His woman says, eat your eggs” (Hansberry, 37). Therefore the eggs represent the hope, dreams and ambition. The eggs also symbolise Walter’s children. He always wanted best for his child, Travis who is young, fragile and new, like the egg. He declares, “I am much warrior!” and he is seen in the play as a warrior of the entire race and combating injustice with hope and dreams.

Mama is the African American lady of the era that is depicted in the play. Her characteristics are symbolic of steady faith and loyalty that gives strength to her character. She keeps the plant as it is the symbol for the dreams of the Younger family but she is the keeper of the dream of all the black people in the country. Mama is also the character that is keeper of faith. According to the critic, “Mama continues to have faith in her plant because she is endowed with the recognition that plant is stubborn to grow.” In the first part of the play, the plant is outside such as the dream out of reach and (faith and hope) are brought in for small amount of nourishment that is required to keep it alive but when the family decides to move, Mama brings it inside like the dream is almost upon them but when Walter loses money it was moved outside once again like a dream deferred (Hansberry, 4). It is important to note that it stays alive and Mama takes care of it and tends it in order to keep her dream. The dream of Mama has a symbolic significance because she wants to purchase one with “a whole lot of sunlight” for her plant. The house happens to be in a neighbourhood where there are not any coloured people living. The dream thus becomes the symbol of breaking down segregation. The sunlight is also symbolic of hope that keeps the plant, the dream, alive (Hansberry, 43).

The life insurance check is the apparent symbol in the play as it represents false hope (Hansberry, 72). Even before the arrival of the check to the family it tore the family apart. The down payment of the house when put by Mama it crushed Walter for three days but when she entrust him with the rest of the money, he becomes maniacally happy but later when the money was stolen by Willy Harris it devastated the whole family. The character of Willy Harris is the personification of the criminal tendencies in human spirit and the destruction of dreams. As per the study of critic, “the money is deus ex machina of the play” because it does not solve the family problems but gives the family a different set of issues to deal with (Beşe, Ahmet, and Deniz Aras, 23).

In the Time of the butterflies

The writer Julia Alvarez’s wrote the novel in 1994 and it is a work of historical fiction. It is centred on the lives of the four Mirabel sisters that are part of the underground efforts to topple Rafael Leonidas Trujillo’s three- decade- long dictatorial regime in the Dominican Republic. The sisters named, Patria, Minerva and Maria Teresa were slain on Trujillo’s orders on November 1960. This story haunted Alvarez, whose family had fled the Dominican Republic just three months earlier in fear of arrest because her father was part of the resistance movement against Trujillo (Sørensen, 241).

In the façade of the novel symbolism, Alvarez says that, “Trujillo is a devil” (Alvarez, 37). The character Sinita uses the devil to describe Trujillo. There is an apparent symbolism between Trujillo being devil and it illustrates Trujillo’s deception, cunning, and evil characteristics. Another symbolism is of rain, “Today is the big day. It’s been raining since dawn…..” (Alvarez, 146) because the rain symbolizes cleansing and a new beginning. In the mentioned scene, the rain symbolizes the start of Minerva’s new life with Manolo. Another important part of the symbolism is that, “They are sitting in the cool darkness……….anacahuita tree…..drinking guanabana juice” (Alvarez, 21). The anacahuita tree represents the spirit of the Mirabel sisters because the tree is a symbol of strength, perseverance and hope. In this novel the Mirabal sisters are called Mariposas- Butterflies because the symbolism found in butterfly is one of freedom, beauty and short lives (In the Time of the Butterflies, 1).


The essay concludes that the symbolism is prevalent in the works of literature and it holds certain contextual background necessary for the understanding of the concurrent symbolism in literature. It is the matter of gaining superficial to in depth signification that the readings included in the essay makes with the aid of certain important aspects of the readings gaining symbolic significance with the every page the reader turns.

Work Cited

  1. ‘In The Time Of The Butterflies.’ NEA. N. p., 2017. Web. 18 Jan. 2019.
  2. Alvarez, Julia. In the Time of the Butterflies. Algonquin Books, 2010. 1-353
  3. Batson, Robbie. ‘Kafka~ Samsa. Reality Through Symbolism.’ The Kafka Project 1 (2011). 1-5
  4. Beşe, Ahmet, and Deniz Aras. ‘CULTURAL SPACES AND MARGINALITY IN A RAISIN IN THE SUN.’ Review of Interstud Interdisciplinary Centre for Studies of Contemporary Discursive Forms (2013): 23.
  5. Fitzgerald, Francis Scott. The Great Gatsby (1925). na, 1991. 1-193
  6. Gale, Cengage Learning. A Study Guide for Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Gale, Cengage Learning, 2015. (1)
  7. Hansberry, Lorraine. Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Samuel French, Inc., 1984. 1-156
  8. Hauhart, Robert C. ‘Religious Language and Symbolism in The Great Gatsby’s Valley of Ashes.’ ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 26.3 (2013): 200-204.
  9. Kafka, Franz. The metamorphosis. Modern Library, 2013. 1-77
  10. Kim, Yeon-Soo. ‘Reading reality into the fantasy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.’ Trans-Humanities Journal 9.1 (2016): 171-201.
  11. Kottman, Paul A. ‘Defying the stars: Tragic love as the struggle for freedom in Romeo and Juliet.’ Shakespeare Quarterly 63.1 (2012): 1-38.
  12. Samkanashvili, Maya. ‘Uses of symbols and colors in The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.’ Journal of Education 2.1 (2013): 31-39.
  13. Shakespeare, William. romeo and juliet. Cambridge University Press, 2003. 1-44
  14. Sørensen, Ninna Nyberg. ‘Narrating Identity Across Dominican Worlds 1.’ Transnationalism from below. Routledge, 2017. 241-269.
  15. Zhang, Haibing. ‘Symbolic Meanings of Colors in The Great Gatsby.’ Studies in Literature and Language 10.6 (2015): 38-44.

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