Symbols and Motifs and Themes. Oh my!


So theme is the theme of today’s blog. Themes and symbols and all that English Lit 101 stuff. Except English Literature courses are usually designed to enhance the reading experience; to make the student a more discerning bibliophile. Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my Shakespeare and my Joyce and all the (mostly male, mostly white) fellows I’ve studied over the years. A great big whoppee  and razzmatazz! to them all.


Studying literature because you want to learn how to be a better writer is a bit like studying the history of magic when all you really want to do is pull a rabbit from a hat.

While there’s a direct and obvious link between the act of reading and the act of writing, but only a dunderhead would assume if you’re good at the former you must also be good at the latter. Think about it: Would anyone assume that because they can distinguish The Beatles from Brahams they would be wonderful composers? So why do they make such a silly assumption about writing?

Now, obviously, if you want to write you really do need to be widely- and deeply-read. Widely, because you can learn so much from many different styles of writing. Try reading a play. It doesn’t have to be Shakespeare (she said, stifling a sob); it can be Tennessee Williams or Tom Stoppard. Look at the dialogue. Look at the way playwrights handle exposition. Try reading a poem. Better, try reading a hundred poems. Find out who your favourite poet is. Ask yourself why you like them. Look at the way they handle language.

Read westerns. Read classics. Read mysteries. (Did I mention I have a book out?) Read short stories.  Read rubbish. Yes.

Now and then I gird my loins (seriously, there are pictures) and delve into really badly written books. This serves two purposes: It gives me a sense of relief that at least my writing is better than that rubbish. Secondly, I learn a huge amount by studying how NOT to do something. One of my favourites was a horror story about a demonic house in which several murders had occurred. I read it about thirty years ago and I’ve never forgotten this line: “John’s face was white with diarrhoea…” I remember thinking: I didn’t know diarrhoea was white. And why did John have it on his face?

So yes, study books. Read widely. Make notes in the margin. In pencil, naturally; you’re not an animal. Analyse the text with all the zeal of a pumped-up Stephen Greenblatt. But proceed with care. Just because great teachers can find all sorts of symbols and themes in great literature it doesn’t mean you, as a writer, need to approach your craft with the ghosts of future literature students exhaling their fetid, ghostly breaths on the back of your neck.

Themes are the province of the literature student, not the writer.

In response to the question, “Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?” Writers gave the following replies:

Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Joseph Heller: “Yes, I do intentionally rely on symbolism in my writing, but not to the extent that many people have stated…No, I do not subconsciously place symbolism in my writing, although there are inevitably many occasions when events acquire a meaning additional to the one originally intended.”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”

Norman Mailer: “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for a working novelist to concern himself too much with the technical aspects of the matter. Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.”

Ralph Ellison: “Symbolism arises out of action…Once a writer is conscious of the implicit symbolism which arises in the course of a narrative, he may take advantage of them and manipulate them consciously as a further resource of his art. Symbols which are imposed upon fiction from the outside tend to leave the reader dissatisfied by making him aware that something extraneous is added.”

Saul Bellow: “A ‘symbol’ grows in its own way, out of the facts.”

There are more examples here, in addition to related questions and responses. Well worth you checking it out if you’re interested:

My own experience is similar. It often surprises me that what I think a story is about becomes something quite different in the eyes of the reader.

Last year I had a short story anthologised in River Poets Journal:  The story is called Daffodils in an Irish Garden. It opens, “The only good thing my brother Paul ever did was to plant daffodils in the front garden.”

When I was writing it, I assumed the story was an homage to my youngest brother (though the story contains a great deal of truth, the actual events of the story never happened.) So I was very surprised when the editor decided to include it in their anthology about mothers. Mothers? I didn’t know I was writing about mothers. How did that happen?

The point — I do have one, honest! — is that no matter how clever you are, how insightful or self-aware, once a piece of writing leaves your hands it becomes something else entirely. Readers, like voters, have their own way of deciding what’s relevant.

Of course, it’s helpful if you do have some idea about the theme of the story you’re writing but you shouldn’t fret about it. Get the piece written, let it sit and fester for a month or so, then see what hits you when you return to it. Sometimes a theme sits between the lines and can be hard to spot. Sometimes the writer is so close the theme becomes invisible. The same is true of symbols.

Now, I could fob you off with some grand words about how it’s not your job as a writer to worry about what later generations may have to say about your work. But just so you get your money’s worth, I’ll briefly examine what I mean by theme, symbol and motif. Just keep in mind that these things are far more important to the writing of lesson plans than they are to the writing of books.

I’m going to limit my analysis to one book: Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952).  It’s a pretty well-known story and most of us studied it in school. If you haven’t read it, you might want to give it a try. Hemingway’s prose is almost surgical in its exactness and the story is exquisite.

Let’s start by clarifying what we mean by these three murky terms, theme, symbol and motif:


The universal truth the author wants to explore. In The Old Man and the Sea Hemingway wants to examine man’s refusal to admit defeat and his heroic struggle for survival. The story is also a celebration of honour, courage and pride. As Santiago, the old man of the title, says, “Man can be destroyed but not defeated.”

Death is another theme of the story. More accurately, the idea that death is not an end for man but only a transition.

If you do decide on a theme or one emerges while you’re working, be aware that some are so revisited in books, television and film that I’m stifling a yawn just thinking about them. For instance:

Man versus Nature. (NOTE: That’s not what Hemingway was doing. Just in case you missed that day in Literary Analysis 101.) But it is what the authors / film-makers of the following were thinking: Dante’s Peak (1997) (volcanoes); The Poseidon Adventure (1972) (sea); Jaws (1975) (shark); Twister (1996) (tornado)… You get the drift. Oh, speaking of drifting, can’t forget Lifeboat (1944).

Loss of Innocence, or Coming of Age. 16 Candles (1984); Juno (2007)…

War is Hell. MASH (1970); Platoon (1986); Apocalypse Now (1979)…

Others include the individual vs society; boy meets girl; and good vs evil… Zzz…

Sorry, I nodded off there for a minute. Where was I?

Chances are your story is likely to fall into a fairly standard theme. If it does, well, as long as you handle it well you should be fine. There’s a reason these themes have endured so long: people can’t get enough of them. But please don’t spend an anguished half-hour trying to figure out what your theme ought to be before you start writing. In this instance, theme is the caboose, not the engine.


We all know the obvious ones: a heart means love, a bird in flight means freedom, waves crashing on the shore… Well, I’ll let you figure that one out.

But in literature, good literature anyway, symbols are objects, characters, and colours that serve to represent abstract ideas.

In Hemingway, symbols include the marlin and the shovel-nosed shark. The marlin, which Santiago is trying to catch, is in a way his equal partner in the struggle. Santiago feels lucky to have so strong, brave and noble an opponent because it suggests he must also possess those qualities if he is to remain undefeated. (And I write all that knowing what a literary essay that sounds like. Which should tell you something…)

In contrast, the shovel-nosed sharks are the destructive force of nature. They have no part in Santiago’s struggle with the marlin.

In terms of movies and TV, M. Night Shyamalan said the colour red is significant in The Sixth Sense (1999). It represents life and the main character cannot touch it.


These are structural devices that support the theme. They are recurring images and contrasts. In Hemingway’s novella, there are repeated images of crucifixion. The old man, Santiago, is a Christ-figure. When Santiago’s hands are cut the reader can connect that image to the crucifixion. Later, with the arrival of the sharks we are told that the sound is like the hammering of nails through hands.

There are other motifs too, death being the most obvious. Then there is the recurrent image of lions, suggesting Santiago’s youth.

In the film The Exorcist (1973), director William Friedkin pointed out that almost every time we see Father Karras he is going down — a hill, steps, and so on — echoing his ultimate fate.

Putting it all together:

You’re setting out to write a story, right? Not some tome for future generations to breathe your name in dire tones over. Most writers just want to tell a story. Well, except, maybe for Joyce. I can just picture him working on Finnegan’s Wake (1939)and cackling, “They’ll never figure out this bit!”

Just write your story.

Stop worrying if your vision is new. / Let others make that decision, they usually do…                          Stephen Sondheim


About Geri Schear

Geri Schear is an award-winning novelist, author of three Sherlock Holmes and Lady Beatrice books published by MX Publishing. Her short stories have appeared in a number of journals. For further information, see her page at Amazon:
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