Tag Archives: Mary Shelley

Symbolism in “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was a selection for the book club to which I belong. The friend who suggested the book only said it was about collective memory. Since that is a subject I find interesting, I was eager to read it.

The tale is set in post-Arthurian Britain and depicts a country suffering from a form of mass amnesia, where a strange mist has caused everyone to forget much of their collective past. The story follows the quest of five individuals seeking to restore memory by slaying a dragon responsible for causing the collective forgetting.

What I love the most about this book is the abundance of symbols that Ishiguro uses to explore memory. Hence, I figured I would focus this post on some of the more prominent symbolic representations of memory.

The first memory symbol I would like to explore is a village. The specific village is described as labyrinthine, and reminded me of the city of Siena in Italy, which had strange streets that were confusing to walk.

Axl was puzzled that a village which from a distance looked to be two orderly rings of houses could turn out to be such a chaotic labyrinth now they were walking through its narrow lanes. Admittedly the light was fading, but as he followed Beatrice, he could discern no logic or pattern to the place. Buildings would loom unexpectedly in front of them, blocking their way and forcing them down baffling side alleys. They were obliged, moreover, to walk with even more caution than out on the roads: not only was the ground pitted and full of puddles from the earlier storm, the Saxons seemed to find it acceptable to leave random objects, even pieces of rubble, lying in the middle of the path.

(pp. 49 – 50)

In this passage, the city represents the way memories are stored in the mind and how one struggles in the search for forgotten memories. When trying to remember something that has been forgotten, it feels like you are wandering aimlessly through streets, trying to recognize patterns which will spark and illuminate the fragment of memory which the mind is trying to bring to the surface. As is often the case, the longer we wander the streets of the mind, the more difficult it becomes to find the lost fragment of memory. Other fragments seem to jut out from nowhere, adding to the frustration.

Trees are often used as symbols for memory, and Ishiguro makes use of that symbol also.

For a moment Wistan appeared lost in thought, following with his eyes one of the gnarled roots stretching from the oak’s trunk and past where he stood, before burrowing itself into the earth.

(p. 110)

Here, the oak tree represents the conscious mind, the part of the psyche that is readily accessible. But below the earth lies the subconscious mind, and the collective consciousness. The roots represent the mind’s attempt to reach into the subconscious and tap into the hidden regions of memory.

The tree symbol segues nicely into the next symbol, which is that of tunnels underground.

They all paused to recover their breaths and look around at their new surroundings. After the long walk with the earth brushing their heads, it was a relief to see the ceiling not only so high above them, but composed of more solid material. Once Sir Gawain had lit the candle again, Axl realised they were in some sort of mausoleum, surrounded by walls bearing traces of murals and Roman letters. Before them a pair of substantial pillars formed a gateway into a further chamber of comparable proportions, and falling across the threshold was an intense pool of moonlight. Its source was not so obvious: perhaps somewhere behind the high arch crossing the two pillars there was an opening which at the moment, by sheer chance, was aligned to receive the moon. The light illuminated much of the moss and fungus on the pillars, as well as a section of the next chamber, whose floor appeared to be covered in rubble, but which Axl soon realised was comprised of a vast layer of bones. Only then did it occur to him that under his feet were more broken skeletons, and that this strange floor extended for the entirety of both chambers.

(p. 170)

The tunnels and underground chambers symbolize the portals into the subconscious. Additionally, the bone fragments represent fragments of memory, pieces of ourselves and of those who lived before us that comprise the collective consciousness. I also interpret the moonbeams entering the chamber as an individual’s glimpse into the hidden regions of the psyche.

The last memory symbol I want to mention is the river.

It was bitingly cold on the river. Broken ice drifted here and there in sheets, but their baskets moved past them with ease, sometimes bumping gently one against the other. The baskets were shaped almost like boats, with a low bow and stern, but had a tendency to rotate, so at times Axl found himself gazing back up the river to the boathouse still visible on the bank.

(p. 226)

The river, or stream, is a common metaphor for consciousness and memory, but what I like about Ishguro’s use here is his inclusion of ice fragments, which conjures similar symbolism from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These ice fragments are shards of memory that are formed from the collective consciousness, yet also melt back into the collective stream of memory and thought. It is the fluid made solid. The random bumping into the fragments suggest that the memories that move into our conscious mind are also random. We really do not have control over the memories which come to the surface. We move along the stream of consciousness, occasionally coming into contact with the shards of memory that also float along the surface.

There is a wealth of other symbols in this book, all woven together in a beautifully written and engaging story. I don’t want to give too much away. I highly recommend this book. It’s both thought provoking and a pleasurable read.


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“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley: Creating Our Own Gods and Demons

This was my third reading of Mary Shelley’s masterpiece. What struck me on this reading was just how rich this text is and how many layers of symbolism and metaphor is woven in to the story. As pages of my journal filled with notes, I realized that I faced the daunting task of narrowing down all my thoughts to a short blog post. After some deliberation, I decided to focus on the concept of humanity creating gods and demons.

The first thing to point out is how Shelley uses the term “creature.” It is specifically the product of the creative process, particularly from the mind. A creature, therefore can be anything which we as creative beings consciously create.

It was on a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally at the panes, and the candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.

(p. 34)

Throughout the text, I noticed that the creature is depicted as both godlike and demonic. That is because the things that our minds create can be both positive and negative, and often a combination of both. The issue becomes whether we allow the creatures of our minds to elevate us spiritually or drag us down to our lesser natures.

I will first provide an example of the creature as godlike, as a being described as both omnipotent, invincible, and in control of the future.

But to me the remembrance of the threat returned: not can you wonder, that, omnipotent as the fiend had yet been in his deeds of blood, I should almost regard him as invincible; and that when he pronounced the words, “I shall be with you on your wedding-night,” I should regard the threatened fate as unavoidable.

((p. 132)

The other thing I would like to point out regarding this passage is the tone of the creature’s proclamation. It almost sounds like how God speaks in biblical text. God speaks, and what he says comes into being.

Next we will look at a passage where the creature is depicted as demonic, particularly associated with Satan. Here the creature embodies Lucifer’s characteristics of persuasion and eloquence.

He is eloquent and persuasive; and once his words had even power over my heart: but trust him not. His soul is as hellish as his form, full of treachery and fiend-like malice.

(p. 145)

Near the end of the tale, Victor Frankenstein warns Walton about the dangers of creation, about how when we use the power of our minds to create our gods, we inevitably also end up creating our own personal demons.

Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation; but on this point he was impenetrable.

“Are you mad, my friend?” said he, “or whither does your senseless curiosity lead you? Would you create for yourself and the world a demoniacal enemy? Or to what do your questions tend? Peace, peace! learn from my miseries, and seek not to increase your own.”

(p. 146)

This parable in Frankenstein is an important one and pertinent to our times. Many of us allow the news, social media, and the plethora of mental distractions to create imagined threats, monsters, and demons that plague our minds. What we imagine ultimately becomes our reality. We should learn from Frankenstein’s mistake and not let ourselves create our own demons which will inevitably destroy ourselves and our world.


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“The Witching Hour” by Anne Rice

WitchingHourI recently went on vacation to New Orleans with my family and as I was planning the trip, I thought about what might be a good book to read to get me into the New Orleans’ mood. Then I remembered I had a hardcover copy of The Witching Hour by Anne Rice on my bookshelf. Someone had given it to me as a gift years ago and I had never gotten around to reading it. I knew it was set in New Orleans, so I figured I’d give it a go. I had read several of Rice’s vampire novels and enjoyed them, and I had also met Ms. Rice at a book signing where she signed my copy of Tale of the Body Thief. Needless to say, I had fairly high expectations.

There are things about the book that I enjoyed and found interesting, and there are things that just did not work for me. To begin with, the book is long (weighing in around 1000 pages), and the pace was dreadfully slow at times. I kept finding myself wondering why it was taking so long to tell this story. I genuinely feel that this could have been told in 600 pages, that much of what is there was superfluous. Then, when I finally finished, the ending left me hanging. Come to find out this is only the first book of a trilogy (Lasher and Taltos are the two subsequent books). I have to say that I am personally getting tired of trilogies. I’m beginning to think it is a ploy by the publishers to sell more books. To back up my argument, Nook offers a free e-book every Friday through Facebook. Guess what. Usually these freebies are the first books in a series.

Alright, let me climb down from the soapbox and talk about what I liked about the book. First off, the descriptions of the Garden District were amazing. While I was in New Orleans, I stayed in an old bed and breakfast in the Garden District and Rice’s depiction of the area is magnificent. She perfectly captures the unique blend of southern grandeur and decay which is evident in the area. The scenes that are set in the Lafayette Cemetery stirred vivid recollections of what it was like to walk among the crumbling above-ground tombs.

The deepest connection that I felt while reading the book was with the Talamasca, an ancient order that dedicated themselves to the study of the supernatural and who maintained historical records of people and events. As a bibliophile with a particular love for old books, I could not help fantasizing about spending my days surrounded by aged leather books, carefully turning and reading the brittle pages.

We who live in a world of books and crumbling parchment, of flickering candles and eyes sore and squinting in the shadows, have always our hands on history. (P. 259)

Prominent throughout the book is the theme that science and the occult are closely related. I found this interesting, particularly when you consider that early scientists were labeled as practitioners of mystical arts and persecuted, and also that recent discoveries in the area of theoretical physics support certain occult beliefs and practices, particularly the discovery of how consciousness and human thought affects subatomic particles.

Science has always been the key. Witches were nothing but scientists, always. Black magic was striving to be science. Mary Shelley saw the future. Poets always see the future. And the kids in the third row of the theater know it when they watch Dr. Frankenstein piece the monster together, and raise the body into the electrical storm. (P. 889)

So, to sum up, while I didn’t hate the book and there were certainly things about the book that I enjoyed and found fascinating, I can’t say that I loved it. It definitely did not impress me enough to make me want to read two more books to complete the trilogy. For now, I’m going to say that I am done with the Mayfair Witches. I am curious, though, whether any of you have read the subsequent books and what your thoughts are regarding them. Let me know. I may be swayed.


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Macabre Inspiration

As writers, we constantly seek new sources of inspiration, and for me, I am fascinated by the events that sparked ideas leading to the creation of masterpieces in art and literature. Nothing lends to an understanding of a work of art more than knowledge of what inspired and influenced the artist. For this reason, I was intrigued by an article on the Huffington Post about events that influenced Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein.

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

The article tells the tale of George Foster, who was convicted of murdering his wife and child and thereby sentenced to death by hanging. But that was only part of the punishment. According to the Murder Act of 1752, the bodies of convicted murders were given to medical study where they were dismembered and dissected. This was designed to provide an additional deterrent for individuals contemplating murder.

After the execution, Foster’s body would be  given to an Italian scientist named Giovanni Aldini. Aldini intended to use electric shock in an attempt to reanimate the body. His idea came from recent experiments that demonstrated that electrical shock caused the limbs of dead animals to twitch and react.

When Aldini performed his experiment, Foster’s “jaw began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted and the left eye opened.” News of the experiment made its rounds through the salons in England and was eventually discussed in a gathering at the home of William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father. It is believed that young Mary overheard the story, and the rest is literary history.

There is no shortage of inspiration for writers and artists. One need only watch the news or look closer at events in our past. It makes me wonder what is happening right now that could spark the next great masterpiece.

Click here to read the article online.

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