Tag Archives: short stories

Symbolism in “Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemingway

“It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,” the man said. “It’s not really an operation at all.”

“You’ve got to realize,” he said, “that I don’t want you to do it if you don’t want to. I’m perfectly willing to go through with it if it means anything to you.”

Over the years, I’ve read Hemingway’s classic short story several times, each time in awe of how he masterfully uses conversation to drive the narrative. The subtlety of the text allows the man and woman to dance around the topic of abortion, without ever mentioning the proverbial elephant in the room.

For years, I have seen the hills like white elephants as a symbol for a pregnant woman’s body, while also representing that elephant in the room which the couple does not want to mention out loud. But recently, I realized there is a third level of symbolism that I had not been aware of.

During the past holiday season, I went to a holiday gathering that has a white elephant gift exchange. This prompted me to wonder why these gift exchange events were named after white elephants. A quick online search provided the answer.

The term white elephant refers to an extravagant but ineffectual gift that cannot be easily disposed of, based on the legend of the King of Siam giving rare albino elephants to courtiers who had displeased him, so that they might be ruined by the animals’ upkeep costs. While the first use of this term remains a matter of contention among historians, one theory suggests that Ezra Cornell brought the term into the popular lexicon through his frequent social gatherings as early as 1828.

(Source: Wikipedia)

As soon as I read this, I immediately thought of Hemingway’s story. The pregnancy is a gift, albeit one that was not actually wanted and one that “cannot be easily disposed of.” Despite the talk of it just being a simple operation, it really was not that simple. In addition to the emotional and psychological considerations, the procedure was risky in 1927 when the story was written.

I love uncovering new layers of symbolism in literature. It is why I reread certain pieces, because each time I do, I bring more knowledge and life experience to the story. And who knows, maybe next time I read this masterpiece in short fiction, I will discover yet another layer of meaning.

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Thoughts on “Rappaccini’s Daughter” by Nathaniel Hawthorn

My friend Sonia recommended this short story to me as something I might want to consider as part of my Halloween reading list. I love Hawthorn and it has been a while since I read any of his works, so I took her suggestion.

The story is a somewhat eerie tale about a young man who falls in love with a young woman who has a strange attachment to her father’s garden, and in particular one plant that is highly poisonous. It is discovered that the father, a scientist, had been giving her doses of the plant’s poison to make her immune and also instill her with a kind of built in defense against unwanted male advances.

Having read this right after finishing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, I was very aware of Hawthorn’s criticism of the tendency of scientific men to want to usurp the power that was traditionally assigned to the divine. And it almost seems like Hawthorn predicted the age of genetically modified organisms that have become the norm in our world of factory farming.

The aspect of one and all of them dissatisfied him; their gorgeousness seemed fierce, passionate, and even unnatural. There was hardly an individual shrub which a wanderer, straying by himself through a forest, would not have been startled to find growing wild, as if an unearthly face had glared at him out of the thicket. Several, also, would have shocked a delicate instinct by an appearance of artificialness, indicating that there had been such commixture, and, as it were, adultery of various vegetable species, that the production was no longer of God’s making, but the monstrous offspring of man’s depraved fancy, glowing with only an evil mockery of beauty. They were probably the result of experiment, which, in one or two cases, had succeeded in mingling plants individually lovely into a compound possessing the questionable and ominous character that distinguished the whole growth of the garden.

What I respect about Hawthorn is that he is critical in all areas. Often, people who are critical of science embrace religion, but Hawthorn is just as critical in this tale about religion as he is science. When Baglioni points out that Rappaccini offered his daughter as a sacrifice to science, it also symbolically parallels Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac to God. Hawthorn is equally appalled at the sacrifice of humanity for any of our gods, whether they be religion or science.

“Her father,” continued Baglioni, “was not restrained by natural affection from offering up his child, in this horrible manner, as the victim of his insane zeal for science. For — let us do him justice — he is as true a man of science as ever distilled his own heart in an alembic. What, then, will be your fate? Beyond a doubt, you are selected as the material of some new experiment. Perhaps the result is to be death — perhaps a fate more awful still! Rappaccini, with what he calls the interest of science before his eyes, will hesitate at nothing.”

There is a lot of other cool symbolism woven into this tale, and I encourage you to read it if you have not yet done so. It’s a great tale with a nice twist at the end. Creepy enough for an evening Halloween season read, but also a thought-provoking parable that forces us to examine our human tendencies toward fanaticism and the desire to manipulate and control Nature.

Thanks for stopping by, and enjoy your reading!

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Thoughts on “The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allan Poe

It had been many years since I read this tale, so reading it again felt fresh and exciting. I had never realized how much of a surreal vibe this story has. The strangeness of the scenes, the bizarre coloring of the various rooms, all instill a dreamlike quality to this story that really places it ahead of its time. Additionally, Poe employs brilliant symbolism and metaphors to create a rich work of art in very few pages.

The first thing that struck me while reading this again was the parallels between the Red Death and Ebola. It is almost like Poe had a prophetic vision of the Ebola outbreak.

The “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal –the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men.

One of the key symbols in this story is the clock. Amid the partying and the revelry, whenever the clock chimes, the revelers pause and become somber, then resume their festivities when the chiming is done.

It was in this apartment, also, that there stood against the western wall, a gigantic clock of ebony. Its pendulum swung to and fro with a dull, heavy, monotonous clang; and when the minute-hand made the circuit of the face, and the hour was to be stricken, there came from the brazen lungs of the clock a sound which was clear and loud and deep and exceedingly musical, but of so peculiar a note and emphasis that, at each lapse of an hour, the musicians of the orchestra were constrained to pause, momentarily, in their performance, to hearken to the sound; and thus the waltzers perforce ceased their evolutions; and there was a brief disconcert of the whole gay company; and, while the chimes of the clock yet rang, it was observed that the giddiest grew pale, and the more aged and sedate passed their hands over their brows as if in confused reverie or meditation. But when the echoes had fully ceased, a light laughter at once pervaded the assembly;

The clock serves as a symbol for mortality. We have a limited amount of time in this life, and we will all eventually die. The clock is a reminder to the revelers that death is imminent. They can hide behind Prince Prospero’s walls and attempt to ignore the reality of death that is rampant outside, but the clock reminds them, regularly, that they too will eventually die, and each chime brings them closer to death.

As the night and the masquerade move on, the clock eventually strikes midnight, symbolizing the threshold between life and death. At this moment, a stranger appears wearing a mask that mimics the effects of the Red Death.

The figure was tall and gaunt, and shrouded from head to foot in the habiliments of the grave. The mask which concealed the visage was made so nearly to resemble the countenance of a stiffened corpse that the closest scrutiny must have had difficulty in detecting the cheat. And yet all this might have been endured, if not approved, by the mad revellers around. But the mummer had gone so far as to assume the type of the Red Death. His vesture was dabbled in blood –and his broad brow, with all the features of the face, was besprinkled with the scarlet horror.

This brings us to the other key symbol, the mask (or masque). While masque implies the masquerade party, it also refers to the masks that the participants wear. So what Poe is trying to convey here is that the revelers are entertaining themselves to hide, or mask, the fact that they are going to die. They dance and party and float through a bizarre dreamlike fantasy imagining that they are somehow safe from death, trying to mask their fear of death through distraction. Occasionally, the clock chimes and they are reminded, but then the masque resumes and they again mask their mortality, pretending all is well as death takes another step closer.

In the past few years, I have known many people who have died, and this is making me very aware of my own mortality. While I feel healthy and I hope to live a good many more years, I know that with each chime my time is lessened. But there is no need to obsess. Instead, I will put on my masque and proceed with the dance which is life.

Thanks for stopping by and sharing in my musings.

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“The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P. Lovecraft

Illustration by Andrew Brosnatch

This short story is unique in its subtle creepiness and explores the way that art, especially music, can directly affect a person’s psyche. Hence, it is way more psychologically unsettling than a straight-out horror story. There is also some great symbolism used here, which we will examine.

The tale is narrated in first person by a student of metaphysics in an unnamed city, but which appears to possibly be Paris. He describes the area and the prominence of the river.

The Rue d’Auseil lay across a dark river bordered by precipitous brick blear-windowed warehouses and spanned by a ponderous bridge of dark stone. It was always shadowy along the river, as if the smoke form the neighboring factories shut out the sun perpetually. The river was also odorous with evil stenches which I have never smelled elsewhere, and which may some day help me find it, since I should recognise them at once. Beyond the bridge were narrow cobbled streets with rails; and then came the ascent, at first gradual, but incredibly steep as the Rue d’Auseil was reached.

Here Lovecraft is setting up the river as a symbol for the threshold between the two states of consciousness. The crossing over the river, moving through the shadows, represents the shift from normal consciousness to the darker subconscious regions of the psyche.

The protagonist rents a room in this shadowy liminal area and soon hears strange music coming from one of the rooms above.

Thereafter I heard Zann every night, and although he kept me awake, I was haunted by the weirdness of his music. Knowing little of the art myself, I was yet certain that none of his harmonies had any relation to music I had heard before; and concluded that he was a composer of highly original genius. The longer I listened, the more I was fascinated, until after a week I resolved to make the old man’s acquaintance.

The distant strains of the weird music cause the student to experience momentary subtle shifts in his consciousness. He is not able to identify what is happening to him, because his conscious mind is still dominant, but he is beginning to open ever so slightly to the possibility of other states of awareness.

Finally, the student is in the room with Zann, when Zann slips into a reverie and begins to play the strange music, which ultimately leads to the student’s complete shift in awareness.

It would be useless to describe the playing of Erich Zann on that dreadful night. It was more horrible than anything I had ever overheard, because I could now see the expression of his face, and could realise that this time the motive was stark fear. He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out—what, I could not imagine, awesome though I felt it must be. The playing grew fantastic, delirious, and hysterical, yet kept to the last the qualities of supreme genius which I knew this strange old man possessed. I recognised the air—it was a wild Hungarian dance popular in the theatres, and I reflected for a moment that this was the first time I had ever heard Zann play the work of another composer.

Louder and louder, wilder and wilder, mounted the shrieking and whining of that desperate viol. The player was dripping with an uncanny perspiration and twisted like a monkey, always looking frantically at the curtained window. In his frenzied strains I could almost see shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely through seething abysses of clouds and smoke and lightning. And then I thought I heard a shriller, steadier note that was not from the viol; a calm, deliberate, purposeful, mocking note from far away in the west.

At the point in which the student finally experiences his shift to the subconscious, he looks out of the window, which here is another symbol for the separation between the conscious mind and the subconscious. As he peers out, he is actually peering deep into his psyche and becoming aware of the primal darkness that lurks within.

Then I remembered my old wish to gaze from this window, the only window in the Rue d’Auseil from which one might see the slope beyond the wall, and the city outspread beneath. It was very dark, but the city’s lights always burned, and I expected to see them there amidst the rain and wind. Yet when I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleaming from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the daemon madness of that night-baying viol behind me.

As a musician, I am keenly aware of the power of music to communicate directly to the psyche. Sounds and tones evoke emotional states in a way that is difficult to explain. For that reason, as well as the superb crafting of language, this tale has earned its place among my favorite Lovecraft tales.

Thanks for stopping by, and feel free to share your comments below.

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“The Devil in the Belfry” by Edgar Allan Poe – Time, Chaos, and the Disruption of Order

devilbelfry

I was not sure what to expect from this tale, having neither read it before nor heard of it until I happened across it in my anthology. It is a very short parable about deviation and disruption of order, and the chaos that ensues as a result.

The story is set in a town called Vondervotteimittiss. Very early in the tale, the narrator explains that he does not know the history of the town’s name, which implies there is some significance to the name.

Touching the derivation of the name Vondervotteimittiss, I confess myself, with sorrow, equally at fault. Among a multitude of opinions upon this delicate point—some acute, some learned, some sufficiently the reverse—I am able to select nothing which ought to be considered satisfactory.

The name of the town is a sort of Germanic transliteration and play on words, so the town should be pronounced “wonder what time it is.” The key then to understanding this story is the importance of time as a constant.

The town of Vondervotteimittiss is built in a circle, symbolizing a clock and the eternal cycle of time, which is a constant. The town is comprised of “sixty little houses” which represent the sixty minutes and sixty seconds which are the foundations of time. In addition, the steeple in the center of town, which houses the great clock, has seven sides with seven clock faces, symbolizing the seven days of the week, another important symbol of time and structure.

The great clock has seven faces—one on each of the seven sides of the steeple—so that it can be readily seen from all quarters.

The final number to keep in mind is twelve, which are the numbers on the clock face and the number of months in a year.

So one day, a stranger comes into town, and the way he is described conjures the image of the devil, or possibly the trickster archetype. He commandeers the clock tower, and as the clock strikes twelve noon, he causes the clock to chime once more, making it 13 o’clock.

“Twelve!” said the bell.

“Dvelf!” they replied, perfectly satisfied and dropping their voices.

“Und dvelf it iss!” said all the little old gentlemen, putting up their watches. But the big bell had not done with them yet.

Thirteen!” said he.

Thirteen is considered an unlucky number and portends evil and disruption. What Poe is expressing here is that deviation from the norm, disruption of the perfect order of things which is symbolized by the steadiness of time, results in chaos, which is exactly what happens in the town of Vondervotteimittiss.

Meantime the cabbages all turned very red in the face, and it seemed as if old Nick himself had taken possession of every thing in the shape of a timepiece. The clocks carved upon the furniture took to dancing as if bewitched, while those upon the mantel-pieces could scarcely contain themselves for fury, and kept such a continual striking of thirteen, and such a frisking and wriggling of their pendulums as was really horrible to see.

We now accept time as something relative, but for millennia, time was the constant, so the thought of what we view as stable crumbling is a sign of chaos and collapse. I look around us and we have created an illusion of stability, but I cannot help but see the potential for chaos at the slightest deviation.

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“The Oblong Box” by Edgar Allan Poe

OblongBox

I generally avoid spoilers in my posts, but this is such a compact story, it is impossible to write about it without discussing the end. Having said that, now is your chance to stop reading if you need to. If you are interested in reading the text online, you can do so here: Edgar Allan Poe Society.

For me, this tale is an allegory of the return to the source, or the Godhead, which is symbolized by the sea. Mr. Wyatt and his deceased wife, whose body is hidden within the oblong box, represent our dual nature: masculine/feminine, body/spirit, anima/animus, and conscious/subconscious. One cannot exist without the other, which is why at night, when Mr. Wyatt is in his cabin alone, he opens the box so that he can attempt to reconnect with his other half.

In this manner, I fancied that I could distinguish the precise moment when he fairly disengaged the lid — also that I could determine when he removed it altogether, and when he deposited it upon the lower berth in his room; — this latter point I knew, for example, by certain slight taps which the lid made in striking against the wooden edges of the berth, as he endeavoured to lay it down very gently — there being no room for it on the floor. After this there was a dead stillness, and I heard nothing more, upon either occasion, until nearly daybreak; unless, perhaps, I may mention a low sobbing or murmuring sound, so very much suppressed as to be nearly inaudible — if, indeed, the whole of this latter noise were not rather produced by my own imagination. I say it seemed to resemble sobbing or sighing — but, of course, it could not have been either. I rather think it was a ringing in my own ears. Mr. Wyatt, no doubt, according to custom, was merely giving the rein to one of his hobbies — indulging in one of his fits of artistic enthusiasm. He had opened his oblong box, in order to feast his eyes upon the pictorial treasure within. There was nothing in this, however, to make him sob. I repeat, therefore, that it must have been, simply, a freak of my own fancy, distempered by good Captain Hardy’s green tea. Just before dawn, on each of the two nights of which I speak, I distinctly heard Mr. Wyatt replace the lid upon the oblong box, and force the nails into their old places, by means of the muffled mallet.

As the ship is sinking, the result of the hurricane, Wyatt realizes he left the box onboard. He panics, instinctively knowing that part of him is being returned to the divine source and he cannot tolerate that split within his psyche.

“The box!” vociferated Mr. Wyatt, still standing — “the box, I say! Captain Hardy, you cannot, you will not refuse me. Its weight will be but a trifle — it is nothing — mere nothing. By the mother who bore you — for the love of Heaven — by your hope of salvation, I implore you to put back for the box!”

Wyatt jumps from the lifeboat to retrieve the box and the body of his wife, and they are both pulled down into the depths of the ocean, symbolizing their reunion with each other before ultimately returning to the divine source, or the Godhead.

As our distance from the wreck rapidly increased, the madman (for as such only could we regard him) was seen to emerge from the companion-way, up which, by dint of a strength that appeared superhuman, he dragged, bodily, the oblong box. While we gazed in extremity of astonishment, he passed, rapidly, several turns of a three-inch rope, first around the box and then around his body. In another instant both body and box were in the sea — disappearing suddenly, at once and forever.

I really enjoyed this tale, both because of the symbolism contained within, but also because the writing is so exquisitely crafted. In addition, the story works without the symbolism. You could look at it as the story of a passionate artist who loved his wife so much, the thought of spending the rest of his life without her was just too much to bear. Either way you want to look at this, a great story and one I am sure I will read again.

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Symbolism in “The Lurking Fear” by H. P. Lovecraft

LurkingFear

This is a tale that is terrifying and disturbing on various levels. It has insanity, cannibalism, inbreeding, and psychological terror, all cast against a dire setting that includes a decrepit mansion in the Catskill Mountains. There is also some dark symbolism woven into the story that adds another level to the horror evoked by this piece. Rather than summarizing the story, though, I am just going to point out some of the symbolism.

Shadows appear frequently throughout this tale, and my interpretation is Jungian, that the shadows which the protagonist sees are the dark, shadow aspect of his own psyche.

As I shivered and brooded on the casting of that brain-blasting shadow, I knew that I had at last pried out one of earth’s supreme horrors—one of those nameless blights of outer voids whose faint daemon scratching we sometimes hear on the farthest rim of space, yet from which our own finite vision has given us merciful immunity. The shadow I had seen, I hardly dared to analyse or identify.

As I mentioned, inbreeding is a theme in this story. The inbreeding is symbolized by tree roots, particularly in the graveyard, where the roots connect the present to the dead ancestors.

The scene of my excavations would alone have been enough to unnerve any ordinary man. Baleful primal trees of unholy size, age, and grotesqueness leered above me like the pillars of some hellish Druidic temple; muffling the thunder, hushing the clawing wind, and admitting but little rain. Beyond the scarred trunks in the background, illumined by faint flashes of filtered lightning, rose the damp ivied stones of the deserted mansion, while somewhat nearer was the abandoned Dutch garden whose walks and beds were polluted by a white, fungous, foetid, over-nourished vegetation that never saw full daylight. And nearest of all was the graveyard, where deformed trees tossed insane branches as their roots displaced unhallowed slabs and sucked venom from what lay below. Now and then, beneath the brown pall of leaves that rotted and festered in the antediluvian forest darkness, I could trace the sinister outlines of some of those low mounds which characterized the lightning-pierced region.

The mansion also figures prominently in this story and is the scene of much of what occurs. The house represents psychological decay, where reason gives way to insanity, the result of inbreeding among the previous inhabitants of the house.

Meanwhile there grew up about the mansion and the mountain a body of diabolic legendry. The place was avoided with doubled assiduousness, and invested with every whispered myth tradition could supply. It remained unvisited till 1816, when the continued absence of lights was noticed by the squatters. At that time a party made investigations, finding the house deserted and partly in ruins.

There were no skeletons about, so that departure rather than death was inferred. The clan seemed to have left several years before, and improvised penthouses showed how numerous it had grown prior to its migration. Its cultural level had fallen very low, as proved by decaying furniture and scattered silverware which must have been long abandoned when its owners left. But though the dreaded Martenses were gone, the fear of the haunted house continued; and grew very acute when new and strange stories arose among the mountain decadents. There it stood; deserted, feared, and linked with the vengeful ghost of Jan Martense. There it still stood on the night I dug in Jan Martense’s grave.

Finally, there is a great scene where the protagonist discovers tunnels beneath a grave, into which he enters and crawls, in search of the daemon. This is symbolic of the protagonist entering into the subconscious mind, burrowing deep into his primordial psyche to the place of his most base animal instincts.

What language can describe the spectacle of a man lost in infinitely abysmal earth; pawing, twisting, wheezing; scrambling madly through sunken -convolutions of immemorial blackness without an idea of time, safety, direction, or definite object? There is something hideous in it, but that is what I did. I did it for so long that life faded to a far memory, and I became one with the moles and grubs of nighted depths. Indeed, it was only by accident that after interminable writhings I jarred my forgotten electric lamp alight, so that it shone eerily along the burrow of caked loam that stretched and curved ahead.

Lovecraft’s genius is that he was able to craft truly scary stories and weave in complex psychological symbolism. This is a great example of his literary prowess and definitely worthy of reading on a dark, October night.

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