Symbolism In Literature Essay Questions

  • 1

    How does the symbolism provide a dream/surrealist interpretation of Act without Words?

    The carafe, desert, tree, and light represent hope and hopelessness. Hands, rope, lasso, and the number three represent others. The shadow, trunk, reflection, and the number three represent the self. Scissors, nails, “palms like a parasol” represent the idea to control and defend. Rope, tree, cube, and carafe represent tantalizing. Tree of life, rope, “three”, hands, desert, reflection, light, and fall are religious and God references. References to error include the whistle, fall, and dust. We are left with hope, hopelessness, others, self, control and defend, God and religion, and error. The man (self) is abandoned by others because of error and still has hope but God and religion control him and cause him to defend himself against further error—his desire—so he represses everything, then acknowledges it in hopelessness.

  • 2

    What is the existential/absurdist interpretative analysis of Act without Words?

    Man has a free will to think and make his own choices and give meaning to his life, and purpose, to find the carafe, but it is useless to get the carafe and climb the branch, and once he acknowledges, and he gives up, does it come to him.

  • 3

    How does Samuel Beckett use a single character who does not speak to his advantage in this piece?

    It is the struggle of one man, the everyman, and it is governed by physical, base actions that are universal. Actions are universal, words are not. Words are meaningless, and practically absurd. Actions carry greater meaning.

  • 4

    Does this play have atheistic implications? Or is it not?

    On the one hand, the play is about the Gods tormenting the character. On the other hand, it is about us making free chances in the face of a dark fate. One would best argue that this is indeed an atheistic text.

  • 5

    What Greek mythological figure besides Sisyphus is portrayed in this play and how so?

    Tantalus, who stole ambrosia from the Gods and spilled the secrets was punished. He was tied up and a branch hung over him and water was at his feet. However, he couldn’t reach either. The tree and the carafe of water make an appearance in this play as the man struggles to get his “desire” but lacks the will to get it.

  • 6

    How does this text apply to the Myth of Sisyphus and how is it different?

    In Myth of Sisyphus, Sisyphus rolled a giant rock up a mountain only to be crushed by it. Here, the man, akin to Tantalus, wants a drink of water but is being tormented to get it. Both myths argue they choose to do their repetitive tasks, but unlike Sisyphus, Tantalus gives up (a “suicide”).

  • 7

    What is a psychoanalytical/sexual view of this play?

    The branch of the tree of life and the carafe represent sexual objects in this play. The man’s desire to “get” them is fueled by an uncanny sex drive that eventually fails and gives up when it is denied its satisfaction.

  • 8

    How are stage directions important in this play?

    Most of the stage directions apply to things the director needs to do for the play. The actor has less stage directions and no dialogue, but is left with an intensely physically demanding role and one that is very reactive. Therefore, the director based on the stage directions must give the actor both leeway and instruction to act and react to what is happening on set.

  • Introduction

    Humor columnist Dave Barry says that college students who major in English are likely to “say that Moby Dick is really the Republic of Ireland.” He refers to this sort of insight as a “lunatic interpretation,” or symbol hunting gone awry. But the ability to discover symbolism in a piece literature ultimately expands the scope and importance of that literature. Symbolism is the author’s way of illustrating a situation, either in the story or in the world, and understanding the symbols allows the reader to appreciate and identify with the text. And it certainly doesn’t take a lunatic to do it! Follow these 8 easy steps to analyze symbolism in literature.

    1) Take notes. Keep track of objects, characters, and ideas. This is the only way to ensure you can connect the description of a lonely tree in a field on page 12 with the divorced man on the court steps on page 513.

    2) Learn what a symbol is. According to most definitions, a symbol is an object/person/idea that represents another idea through association or resemblance. Consider these examples:  

    • The U.S. flag represents freedom. This is because the United States, with its Bill of Rights, is associated with freedom, and the flag is the emblem of the country.
    • The sunrise has become a symbol of rebirth or new beginning. This is a symbol of resemblance: the sunrise starts a new day and thus can represent the larger idea of new beginnings.

    3) Look for detailed descriptions. When reading, pay attention to any items, locations, or people that are described with extended details. The author is using these descriptions as big neon signs! Make note of an object’s details. For example, if a flower is being described, what is the color, type, or size? Keep this list of details and look for anything else in the reading that seems to resemble the list.  

    4) Look for “big idea” names.
    These are names that may or may not be conventional names. For example, it could be something that is obviously representational, such as “Young Goodman Brown.” This name alerts readers to the fact that the character is a symbol of youth and goodness. The name can also be a bit trickier, though. Consider the character “Godfrey St. Peter” from Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. It is a seemingly conventional name, but “St. Peter” could be interpreted as a symbol of the heavenly figure. In that case, the first name—pronounced “God-free”—becomes part of a highly symbolic idea.

    5) Look for repetition. If the author repeats the object or idea, then there is significance to it. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses rhyme repeatedly. However, a careful reader will notice that the rhyme always accompanies some discussion of evil deeds.

    6) Do research. Do not hesitate to research the list of objects, numbers, and so on that you have made. Look for historically symbolic meanings associated with the image. As mentioned before, the sunrise is symbolic of new birth. The number 13 is symbolically unlucky. Black typically symbolizes death, and red generally represents either love or passion.  

    7) List the characteristics. If no historical symbolism can be found, make a list of the characteristics of the item. Draw connections between those characteristics and other things in the story or in life. Consider the following example:


    Stapler                      Heavy                                      Romantic relationship

                                    Holds things together                Keeps people together

                                    Puts holes in things                   Can be hard to handle (heavy)

                                                                                   Can cause emotional holes

    8) Draw conclusions. Look at all the details and make connections between the objects and the characters, the characters and the plot, the descriptions and the themes, and so on. Readers may draw different conclusions, and it is often that more than one conclusion is correct. The accuracy lies in the supporting details you can produce.

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