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The Importance Of Symbolism In Three Short Stories sample essay

Symbolism is an integral part of literature. It allows the writer to create for the reader multiple layers of meaning in an indirect manner, almost at an unconscious level. At its most basic, this representation can be an almost one-for-one transposition, but the most skilful and enthralling literature allows for multiple possible readings, making it possible for every reader to take away their own personal interpretation, a message that can seem tailor-made for that person alone.

These three short stories are famous pieces of literature, and rightly so: they have rich symbolic imagery that has captivated readers ever since their first publication. That they are famous works is indisputable, but the reason for this enduring fame seems to be that each story’s symbolism speaks to a fundamental and enduring critique of humankind’s most elemental darker impulses, and the outcome of each reflects an uglier side of human nature than we prefer to own. For this reason, these short stories have endured, and added both their message and the writer who composed it to the annals of literature.

In Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” (268-273), a village assembles in the town center for the drawing of their annual lottery. At first, the reader can be forgiven for believing that this is a festive rite in the life of the town, but as the tale moves along, a darker, more sinister shadow is cast over the proceedings, culminating in the ritual murder of the ostensible winner of the lottery by the whole village, including her family.

The lottery itself seems to be a symbolic representation of the dangers of blindly following ‘traditional’ customs once the original meaning and purpose of the ritual has been forgotten, and only the ritual itself remains. In this case, custom dictates that a member of the community be selected by lottery to be ritually stoned to death each year, and though no-one can remember why this must be so, they adhere to the custom, despite the fact that they know that other villages have abandoned the practice, and many of their own community are uncomfortable with continuing it.

There are, however, other layers to the story. It was once said that, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” The acquiescence of the community to the practice of ritual murder is disquieting, all the more so because not all the villagers are convinced of the necessity or the morality of the lottery.

Those who are uneasy with the practice murmur their disquiet, but are quickly silenced by the voices of those who uphold the established custom as an integral part of their community and its identity, with no moral or practical justification provided. Despite the fact that they do not seem any more convinced of the necessity or the morality of the lottery than they had before they spoke, the dissenters quickly fall silent, and do nothing as the inevitable outcome takes place. Nay, they take their crime one step further; not only do they do nothing to prevent the murder, they actively participate in it.

More conventional tales, such as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, show a similar dilemma for a moral character, and the conventional ending is that the moral character takes a stand against the evil, whatever the personal cost. In The Crucible, the character John Proctor has a choice: to stay silent about his extra-marital affair that has left his scorned lover with a motive when a witch hunt gives her the opportunity to call for the death of his wife, or to own his misdeed, own his dishonor, and save the reputation and life of his innocent wife. He heroically chooses the righteous path, and dies to expose the injustice of the witch hunt.

In “The Lottery”, however, those who have the ability to see the injustice see it, and do nothing, overthrowing both the conventional ending of such tales and the conventional belief that people have an intrinsic tendency to good over evil. Even if this conventional belief is unjustified, we are accustomed to our fiction providing us with this more psychologically comfortable outcome, and people were enraged at the subversion of this convention in this particular short story. It exposes an ugly side of human nature, the unwillingness to risk self even in the cause of justice, and people were, and are, uncomfortable with this reflection of themselves.

In Guy De Maupassant’s “The Necklace” (4-11), once again, we are confronted with a darker side of the human psyche. Written in the tone of a parable, the story recounts the tale of a vain and proud young wife who believes herself born for better things.

Her selfish ambition leads her to borrow a necklace from a rich friend in order to feign the appearance of a woman of higher affluence and social standing than she in fact possesses at a high society event. She loses the necklace, and she and her husband work in abject poverty for 10 years in order to replace the necklace without revealing the wife’s folly to the friend. At the end of the 10 years, the vain and foolish wife has lost her coveted beauty, and upon meeting the former friend by chance, learns that the necklace she worked so hard to replace had been an imitation, and the labors that had robbed her of her youth and beauty had been for nothing.

This tale is almost Biblical in its ‘pride goes before a fall’ message. The necklace symbolizes the wife’s pride, vanity and imprudence. It can also be taken to represent the belief that the social success that the wife covets and yearns for is as false a worthy aspiration as the gems in the necklace. Reading audiences can be satisfied with the conventional ending, but it is an almost vengeful outcome for the character, with no chance of her redemption or salvation. It too is a reflection of the darker side of human nature, and almost as troubling as the ugly side of the character that is revealed is the ugly side of the reader’s own grim satisfaction with her poetic justice.

In Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” (636-646), a family sets off on vacation. The seemingly innocuous beginning leads to murder and mayhem when they have a car accident, and are waylaid in this predicament by an escaped murderer, who kills them all. This dark little short story uses the journey to symbolize the path that the family is on in their lives. The car wreck is a pretty accurate representation of where their lives were headed: the individual flaws and pettinesses of each member of the family are illustrated along the way.

The children are rude, unruly and unmanageable; the parents do not lead by virtuous example, not bothering to discipline their misbehaving children; and the grandmother is manipulative and self-righteous. Along the way, they stop for lunch, and the grandmother commiserates with the owner of the rest stop over their belief that good people are becoming scarce. The irony of this is that the grandmother and the owner blame others for their own folly, and refuse to take responsibility for others taking advantage of that folly. It is also ironic that not a single character in the story demonstrates any morality or compassion, it is their frailties that they betray.

It is a combination of their follies that causes the accident, the abrupt end of the journey (symbolizing the end of their lives), and once the murderer arrives on the scene, he kills them, one by one, subverting the conventional salvation ending with their symbolic damnation.

It is a very strongly religious message from a self-professed Catholic writer. Whether the killer (The Misfit) represents God or Satan (one could argue either way), he symbolically represents judge, jury and executioner, and even the grandmother (who we are led to believe has made some kind of connection with The Misfit, and may therefore survive the incident) betrays her self-serving motives, and is killed. The moral of the story seems to be that we all have a dark side, though there may be degrees of evil, but all evil will eventually be discovered and punished.

Each of these three short stories’ use of symbolism is extremely evocative and effective. This rich symbolism, combined with subversive plot outcomes, has made for a fascinating insight into humankind’s inherent darker impulses, and the outcome of each of these stories reflects the ugly side of human nature with an unsettling degree of accuracy.


Jackson, Shirley. “The Lottery.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Eds. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry Jacobs. Sixth edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2001. 268-273.

Maupassant, Guy De. “The Necklace.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading
and Writing. Eds. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry Jacobs. Sixth edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2001. 4-11.

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” Literature: An Introduction to Reading and Writing. Eds. Edgar V. Roberts and Henry Jacobs. Sixth edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 2001. 636-646.

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