Monday, August 30, 2010

Symbolism in Story

Duke! Meet Mia
Years ago I read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt and fell in love with Savannah, Georgia. Good novels do that—take you to a place and leave you wanting to live there, or at least drop in for an extended stay.

This summer my family took a detour from our usual Gulf beach vacation and instead visited the Atlantic. Fear of finding the beach slick with oil had us looking for other options, and we chose Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. En route we spent one night in Savannah and then took a day trip to Beaufort, South Carolina.

Pat Conroy's Home
Each of the kids chose a tour: Ben selected the nighttime ghost tour of Savannah and then Jacob had us on the Black History Tour the following day. During both we learned a lot about the history of Savannah and the traditions that remain to this day. Later that week, Mia chose the horse-drawn carriage tour of Beaufort, home to Pat Conroy and the backdrop to many movies including The Big Chill, The Prince of Tides and Forrest Gump.

Spanish moss on live oaks
In both towns I found myself immediately taken in by the trees—amazing, centuries-old oaks clothed in creepy shawls of Spanish moss. Of course, one town square in Savannah was devoid of moss. An indentured servant had been hung there for murdering her abusive master. Pregnant when tried and convicted, she was allowed to give birth before they hung her. Legend holds that she haunts the square, searching for her baby. Therefore, no Spanish moss grows.

We also learned that during the Yellow Fever epidemic, people who were thought to be dead were actually only comatose. Not sure how it was discovered (and can only imagine), but people were buried alive. Someone decided the most humane thing to do was to bury people with a string around their hands, and that string would be attached to a bell near the headstone. Someone would be hired to sit in the graveyard (thus the term “graveyard shift") to listen for the ringing of the bells. I’m assuming he also had a shovel!

If you passed someone in town whose funeral you’d attended, you might say, “Hey, didn’t we bury you last week?” To which he’d reply, “Yes, but I was a dead ringer and was saved by the bell.” More familiar phrases we still use today.

The Black History Tour included a tour of the oldest Black Baptist church still in existence. (No photography allowed, unfortunately, but the interior was spectacular in its tradition and simplicity.) In the Black cemetery, slashes in the bark from the beatings the slaves endured while tied to the trees brought tears to my eyes.
We also learned that a slave, who was typically never given a last name until freed, would often take on the name of his master or make one up of his own. Therefore many chose colors—White, Black, Greene or Browne—with an e sometimes added to stand for “emancipation.” Washington, Jackson and Jefferson—notable men of history—also inspired last names but curiously, few if any Lincolns.

Black ceiling porch and his-n-her steps
We learned more about the Underground Railroad, and the symbolic diamond shape patterns in architecture meant a safe haven for slaves or servants on the move. Other architectural symbols included: A red door meant the mortgage was paid; a porch with a black ceiling meant the house was haunted by someone who either died or was murdered there; a green porch ceiling meant someone died inside but the owner didn’t believe the house to be haunted.

All this reminds me of how much symbolism means to story. Some are quite subtle—almost unintentional at times. Others tend to be more deliberate clues as though the writer is desperate to make sure we don’t miss them. I’m reminded of the female character in a movie who starts out with her hair pulled back, wearing conservative clothing and, by the end of the story, she’s tousled and darn near falling out of her shirt. (Think Sandra Bullock’s character in The Proposal.)

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the mockingbird symbolizes innocence, and the killing of a childlike bird relates to the pain and hurt innocent people endure in the story. In The Red Badge of Courage, the “red badge” is the blood from a bullet and therefore wounds received in battle—both physical and emotional—represent bravery and a loss of innocence.

Colors are often used as symbolism—red for blood, white for purity, green for nature or money, purple for royalty. Animals and insects too—wolves for danger or violence, dogs for loyalty, spiders for craftiness, rats and roaches for poverty and filth. A redheaded character is typically fiery and headstrong; a blonde often ditsy.

In my own manuscripts I’ve found I have a thing for motorcycles. Yes, I understand their danger—I was raised with a brother who raced them and I had my own trail bike. But in my stories they represent both an escape from the ordinary and a way to show a character moving out of her comfort zone.

Symbols play important roles in storytelling. The trick is to not fall back on the clichéd and create your own to make your story unique. Do you have any you’d like to share?


  1. A fascinating and evocative post, Pam. Before we had our house built in Garland, Fred and I owned a condo in the Charleston area. So much of what you wrote took me back there and to the long weekend we spent in Savannah. I,too, fell in love with that beautiful historical town via Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. What you wrote about symbolism triggered some memories, helping me see how my mother's childhood China doll will play a much bigger role in my memoir. Thank you!

  2. Most definitely food for thought. I find I'm too close to my own work to see the symbolism, which tends to occur naturally.

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  4. I spent ten years living in Alabama where many life changing events happened to me, so I feel as though I'm a southerner at heart. To take this trip felt like going back home.

    And Cat, I can relate. It's only after rereading and editing do I find literary elements such as foreshadowing and symbolism that make me smile and say to myself, "You almost seem to know what you're doing." :)


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