On Symbols and Motifs

by James Scott Bell

Happy Easter. Happy Passover. Happy Sunday. Whether you worship, play, or simply lounge around, may you feel renewed and refreshed this day.

We’ll be having a family feed with the grandboys, complete with Easter egg hunt. Which invites the question: What’s the deal with eggs and bunnies? How did those things become symbols of the season?

It’s a fascinating inquiry. In the pre-Christian era, eggs were part of the fertility lore of the Indo-European races. In Persia, eggs were presented at the spring equinox, which represented the start of a new year.

At some point in the Middle Ages, the egg was incorporated into the Christian observance of Easter as a symbol of new birth. Added to it was the practice of coloring the shells. As one tongue-tangled minister put it to his congregation some years ago, “In honor of Easter, Edna Johnson will step forward and lay an egg on the altar.”

What about the Easter bunny? Well, bunnies are certainly fertile. That symbolism goes all the way back to the ancient Egyptians. But that’s probably not why they’re associated with Easter.

It seems it was German Protestants who came up with the Osterhase (“Easter Hare”), a friendly rabbit who brought sweets to good little boys and girls. The kiddies would prepare “nests” for the Osterhase out of straw inside hats—thus, the Easter basket. When the Germans came to the American Colonies, they brought this tradition with them, and it eventually caught on. In the 19th century, the Easter egg hunt, leading to a basket of goodies, became a motif—a repeated pattern.

So let’s talk symbolism and motifs because, when well executed, they deepen the reading experience in a powerful yet subliminal way. It’s something the readers feel (it’s for the lit professors to analyze).

Two of the most famous literary symbols come from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. First is a billboard:

But above the grey land and the spasms of bleak dust which drift endlessly over it, you perceive, after a moment, the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg. The eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.  

This is a symbol of divine omniscience, keeping watch over the questionable morality of the characters. Does Dr. Eckleburg watch us, too? The reader feels the question.

The other symbol is the green light on Daisy’s dock. The first time the narrator, Nick Carraway, sees Jay Gatsby it is at night and from a distance.

But I didn’t call to him, for he gave a sudden intimation that he was content to be alone—he stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away, that might have been the end of a dock. When I looked once more for Gatsby he had vanished, and I was alone again in the unquiet darkness.

Gatsby is longing for Daisy. The Daisy of his past, to be exact, and a Daisy that will forever elude him. After Gatsby’s death, Nick reflects:

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

A motif is a repeated image or phrase. Norman MacLean’s A River Runs Through It is a novella in which water is a central motif. It begins: In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing. We lived at the junction of great trout rivers in western Montana . . .

From the start we have a connection between water and religion and family (not to mention the symbolic significance of fishing). The river becomes the central image repeated throughout the story. When the narrator watches his brother fly fishing from a boulder, he reflects “the whole world turned to water.”

At the end, the narrator tells us “all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time . . . .I am haunted by waters.” The motif was literal at the beginning, symbolic at the end. It frames and defines the story.

Janet Fitch weaves symbols and motifs into White Oleander. The oleander plant—tough, attractive, poisonous—represents Astrid’s mother. The tomato plant “groping for a little light” signifies Astrid herself as she faces various trials. These elevate the story from a collection of plot incidents to a commentary on life, love, and human resiliency.

So why not work a little symbolism or motif into your fiction? You can come at it from different directions. If you’re a planner, you can spend some time brainstorming possibilities. If you pants your way through a draft, you can go back and look at what you’ve got, searching for symbols your muse may have fed you.

If you write with rich, sensory details (as Reavis demonstrated yesterday), you have a lot of possibilities.

Try this: Make three columns on a sheet of paper. In the first column, record the details that stand out in your scenes. In the middle list your main characters. In the last, catalogue the significant settings.

Now look for connections within the columns. Connect a detail with a character and place. Or work the other way, from place to character to detail. Pick the strongest two or three connections, and see if you can weave them into your plot.

Have you considered using symbolism or motif in your books? You should try it. All it takes is a little extra thought, and the ROE (Return on Energy) is entirely worth it for the one who matters most—the reader.

Note: Part of this post is adapted from Write Great Fiction: Plot & Structure (Writer’s Digest Books) and is used by the kind permission of the author.

26 thoughts on “On Symbols and Motifs

  1. Nicely explained, Sir…

    I haven’t purposefully worked with motifs, but looking back I’m sure I’ll find some that the muse, the boys in the basement, the crazy cousin in the attic, found ways to slip in…

    As to symbolism, I try to be careful with it and not so obvious. There’s not much worse than being hit about the head and shoulders by things that say, “Look – a symbol!” – that assume you’re not intelligent enough to pick up on it… It shouldn’t be one of what you call a “speed bump” to the reader’s immersion in the story. If they get it, fine, but it’s not the reason for the story after all, to show how clever you are…

    My best use of symbolism, I think, came in an early NaNo. I had three brothers going off to fight in the War Between the States – each to a different theater of conflict, and each returning home in one of the three ways one returns from war: physically wounded, psychologically wounded, or mortally wounded (something I picked up on in the movie, “The Deer Hunter”).

    And of course the right title can imply the symbolism running under the surface (as well as the irony – the GREAT Gatsby?) – and even set the reader up to have the “aha” moment if the title is intriguing and/or somewhat cryptic (a river runs through it – through what? The land, yeah, but then it dawned on me that it runs through the characters’ lives, their family story, it has opposing banks, it isn’t straight, it moves ever onward… etc. etc. – I guess those college lit classes paid off better than the calculus ones did – or didn’t…)

    Thanks for (obviously), getting the motor started this morning, and allowing an outlet for too much caffeine too early in the day…

    And a happy Easter, Passover, Sunday to all…

  2. A recurring image in Mouth of the Lion is double doors: a pair into the 400′ tunnel leading into Kehlsteinhaus, a pair into Hitler’s study in the Reich Chancellery, and a pair into Geil’s room on Prinzregentenstraße, all symbolizing Hitler’s dual nature: fundamentally an actor, a monster portraying a charming Austrian; his grandiose 1938 Parteitag propping up the abysmally low self-esteem of a man Carl Jung likened to “a sort of scaffolding of wood covered with cloth, an automaton with a mask, like a robot or a mask of a robot.”

  3. Thanks for the history of Easter symbolism. Great post.

    Fantasy is a genre ripe with opportunity for symbolism. In my teen fantasy series every alternate world, antagonist, ally, and major conflict are symbolic. Recurring secondary characters, such as the Wizard and his book of knowledge, Omni and his omniscience and omnipresence, are motifs.

    It’s fun to watch beta readers gradually discover the meaning behind the story. It’s even more fun to engineer the story, intertwining the story and the symbolism.

    Have a wonderful Easter with family.

  4. Fascinating history of Easter eggs. I always include symbolism in my stories. Love when readers go back to read the book a second time to catch the symbolism they missed on the first read-through. I heard from one reader who read one of my books six times! And each time she caught something new.

    May you and yours have a wonderful Easter, Jim.

    • Wow, Sue, what a great testimonial from that reader. Shows how symbolism deepens the reading experience. I love that you’re intentional about it, too. Nicely done.

  5. Thanks for the extremely interesting and informative post, Jim. If I might add…dentists have their own symbol of Easter, known as the Ether Bunny…

    Have a Happy Easter and a great weekend, Jim!

  6. My cozy mysteries all orbit around a motif of watches, clocks, and time. It wasn’t intentional, but when I made a watch the central object in the first book, I became intrigued with the notion of time in general, and that carried through to the other novels. The tagline of that first book, “A Watch That Tells More Than The Time,” also implies that things are not what they seem. A good premise for mystery.

    I don’t know how long I can carry this motif on, but I love the idea of symbolism in stories, so I’ll keep at it for a while.

    Happy Easter and Passover to everyone!

  7. Thanks for the history of Easter eggs and the Easter Bunny. I’d wondered about where the latter had come from–now I know!

    Symbolism is not something I consciously put into my stories and novels–this is a great primer on how and why to do that. BTW, I first read “The Great Gatsby” back in high school, along with “Tender Is the Night” and a number of other stories by Fitzgerald. I remember how evocative that distant green light on Daisy’s dock was to teenaged me reading it. I didn’t consciously catch the symbolism, but did feel a strong sense of wistful melancholy that I can still recall in a moment. That book swept me up.

    Have a very Happy Easter, Jim!

    • but did feel a strong sense of wistful melancholy

      Exactly how it’s supposed to work, Dale. I’ve been pretty hard on Gatsby over the years (advocating replacing it on HS reading lists with The Maltese Falcon), but there’s no question Fitzgerald could write beautiful passages.

      Speaking of TMF, what a perfect symbol is the black bird. A predatory falcon…as each of the characters is prey to the others.

  8. In the first book in my thriller series, the protagonist struggles with a frustrating new smartphone that she dubs “Lucifer”. She doesn’t know a terrorist hacked into it to set her up as the scapegoat for his crimes. The theme is the dangerous invasion of privacy b/c of technology. Hence, the smartphone is the INSTRUMENT OF THE DEVIL.

    I thought the title was nicely symbolic until someone said she didn’t buy the book b/c she thought it was satanic. So much for symbolism.

    Happy Easter, Happy Passover, and Happy Sunday to Jim and TKZ’s community.

    • I LOVE it that your MC calls her phone Lucifer. We can all relate!

      And your title, it seems to me, works much better than SMARTPHONE OF THE DEVIL or INSTRUMENT OF THE HACKERS.

    • Bjarne Stroustrup, the developer of the C++ programming language, once said, “I have often wished that my computer was as easy to use as my telephone. My wish has been granted. I no longer know how to use my telephone.”

  9. THE GREAT GATSBY is literary fiction with its grandstanding imagery and language. What works for Fitzgerald doesn’t really suit most popular genre, and those structured symbols will be reader-eye-roll worthy or look like an Easter egg dropped from a tall building onto your text.

    My writing was thick with structured images and symbols I weaved through my whole novel in my paranormal fiction and supernatural suspense because that’s what these novels are about at their heart. The romance and the science fiction, absolutely not, because that kind of layering of the conscious and unconscious isn’t suitable for the market or the audience. And, unless you write like James Lee Burke, it probably won’t work very well in most mystery.

    That’s not to say you don’t go for the symbolic or archetypal jugular vein in your descriptions because you should in an atmospheric or emotional moment for your viewpoint character. Add Stephen King worthy images and language to your heart’s content. Just don’t spread sheet them through your whole novel.

    • A little tough on ol’ Scott there, Marilynn. I don’t see his style as “grandstanding.” It fit his purpose, literary as it was.

      As for genre, John D. MacDonald has many lyrical passages that work out of the mouth of McGee. It’s what he called “unobtrusive poetry.” Which is the key to not “spread sheeting” it. All imagery must fit the voice of the character, whether writing in 1st or 3d.

      • Lyrical passages are fine in popular genre, but they should not be part of a structured collection of metaphors and images through a whole work in most popular novels.

        ALL literary fiction is grandstanding. Fitzgerald was doing his job as a literary writer. For anyone interested, here’s my comparison between literary and popular fiction.

        The simplest comparison between literary fiction and popular/genre fiction is that literary fiction is about the telling of the story, popular fiction is about the story itself.

        In literary fiction, the author is always evident through the flashy style and the use of complex structure. Plot isn’t important. A common technique found in literary fiction is the frame story where someone in the present is looking into the past, or the end of the novel is revealed at the beginning. In other words, time in most stories isn’t linear, and the reader doesn’t read primarily to know what happens next and how it turns out in the end. This technique emphasizes character over plot.

        In genre fiction, the writer should be invisible, and the reader should be part of the story and not really aware of the writer and the way he’s putting the story together. Anything that breaks this “dream state” is a failure on the writer’s part.

        In literary fiction, the opposite is true. The language draws attention to itself, and the reader pauses to think, “My, what an excellent use of metaphor and language! I think I’ll reread that again.” This is what the literary writer aims for.

  10. Speaking of eggs…And then we have the symbolism of East Egg and West Egg in the story. One was old money (Daisy) the other new (Jay).

    I always thought it was interesting that the light at the end of the dock was green. Seems like a normal color to warn of a dock would be white or maybe red.

    But the light is green. It symbolized, for Gatsby, all his hopes and dreams about Daisy and that moneyed life across the huge bay. I remember a teacher telling us stoplights were introduced in the 1910s-20s, so maybe it was a literal signal for Jay to GO, to act on his desire.

    What’s interesting to me about the green light is that it changes for the narrator Nick. I had to go look this up in my copy:

    Early in the book, he first sees Gatsby staring (and reaching even) toward the green light. Nick says that he “supposed” it was a dock light but doesn’t seem to know it’s Daisy’s house. It’s just something mysterious in the mist, like Gatsby himself. But by the end of the book, Gatsby is dead, and Nick mentions the green light again.

    The last graphs:

    “And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

    “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter–tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…And one fine morning—-

    “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

    So is the green light hope? Or is it futility and the death of dreams? I’ve never figured it out. It’s ambiguous. Which is why I love the book.

    • Yeah, sometimes it’s enough just to feel it, and forget about Sparks Notes.

      I have really tried to love Gatsby. But alas, my heart belongs to the black bird.

    • From a site on dock lighting: “Set up green lights on the side of the dock where you should enter, and red on the other. Even if you don’t use colored lights, be sure to set up groupings that make it clear where boats are supposed to go. And always be sure to illuminate the end of the dock.”

      Maybe the green light symbolized that the end of the dock was where to tie up your boat and disembark, as well as “don’t run into this dock.”

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