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Contextual Symbols

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1306
  • Category: Symbolism

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            Literature is unique from other compositions in that it has an ability to provide the reader with a deeper, and often different, understanding each time it is accessed.  The reader brings with him- or herself a background and interest solely individualized and then transfers that background within their reading of the text.  Yet, this transference does not so much change the meaning of the text, but rather dictates what ideas and characters stand out to the reader.  The means through which this occurs is generally through contextual symbols.  As opposed to universal symbols, such as a dove indicative of peace, these symbols are almost solely defined by the context in which they are used.  The deeper, symbolic meanings of Trifles and A Raisin in the Sun, can be found through a close inspection of the authors’ uses of contextual symbols ranging from quilts to rotting fruit.

            From the very onslaught of the play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry engulfs the reader with many early contextual symbols that are expanded upon throughout the rest of the text.  For instance, she often uses furniture and other household items to symbolize a feeling within the household, which can be seen from the introduction of the first act.  She describes the carpet as having “fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface” (Hansberry 1.1).  The themes provided by the carpet description are seen throughout the rest of the play, as well.  Even the title, A Raisin in the Sun, “comes from Langston Hughes’s poem, [Harlem], which compares a dream deferred too long to a raisin rotting in the sun” (Ardolino 181).

            Hansberry also seemingly used her characters names as symbolic features within her writing as well.  An important inference can be drawn from the names George and Beneatha, and their purpose as characters within the play.  George can be related to George Washington, the first white elected president, to represent the desire of many African Americans beginning to assimilate within the white culture.  On the surface, blacks were to strip away as much of their distinctiveness as possible, which meant wearing their hair straight, as well as dressing in a conforming manner to those around them.  In the play, Hansberry, also plays on this whiteness by stipulating that he wears white shoes (Hansberry 2.1).  His wearing of white shoes can also be seen to contextually symbolize walking in the paths laid by whites, rather than making their own path.

            Beaneatha, on the other hand, can be viewed as the polar opposite of who and what George symbolizes.  Just the name Beneatha itself can be seen as representing a more African American dialect, as it can be separated out as “Beneath ‘a,” possibly “beneath ya” or “beneath her.”  The symbolism is made a bit more obvious when directly after pointing out that George’s shoes are white, Hansberry specifies that Beneatha is wearing black socks.  Taking this even further, the reader can ascertain that Hansberry is making a point that while there are black socks beneath, white shoes are worn over them.  The symbolism can be carried even further to represent the idea of the man and women’s traditional roles as head and subordinate, which seems to be explored somewhat within the text as well.

            Hansberry’s use of contextual symbolism is extraordinary in its ability to pull the reader along, dictating the reality, and using every bit of the characters to do so (Wilkerson 11).  When Beneatha cuts her hair, for example, the reader is forewarned that the characters are going to begin struggling against assimilation, especially as it pertains to the surface.  Her hair proves to be actually quite symbolic itself, as it is a distinctive feature to African Americans and when Asagai relates to Beneatha’s search for her identity he mentions her hair (Hansberry 1.2).  The reader is forced to look at as if in mutilating the rawness out of her curly locks, she is simultaneously mutilating with it the true nature of who she is.

            Just as Beneatha struggles to find and understand her place in the world and come to terms with what freedom means in her reality, so does Mrs. Wright in Susan Glaspell’s Trifles.  One of the most potent examples of contextual symbolism that is used to represent her struggle is that of the caged-bird.  Throughout the play, Mrs. Peters and Mrs. Hale continually refer to Mrs. Wright’s singing ability and how she used to be “fluttery,” and then once she got married, those characteristics changed in her.  The fact that Glaspell chose to have the characters discover the bird in a red box is symbolic as well.  For red, within the context of the play, can be seen to represent womanhood, lack of innocence, shame, blood, guilt, and even seduction—all characteristics opposing to her virginal joy and purity before her marriage.

            Furthermore, a closer look at the name Mr. Wright, shows an investigation into the traditional usage of calling a man “Mr. Right.”  Within the play, the other women refer to Mrs. Wrights adolescent desire for an apron, which can be seen as symbolic of her desire to marry.  Yet, when the investigators originally show up at the scene, after the apparent murder, Mrs. Wright is described as nervously “pleading” the apron, possibly as if she is reflecting on the hopes it once represented.  Moreover, some would suggest that the reference to the speculation of a cat having killed the bird may be “an oblique reference to the to the women’s silence, and the old question, ‘has the cat got your toungue?’” (Holstein 285).

When the symbolism of the apron and that of the bird-cage are taken as a whole, one can see a parallel symbolism to the use of the rope, as well.  The rope is almost an anti-freedom device, as is the cage, and yet, like marriage, it can be seen as only gradually constricting.  Granted, in reality, death by strangulation would be all but slow, metaphorically one can see the significance between it and a marriage gone cold.  For, as with many strangulations, when it comes to marriage, it is not a sudden, single snap that kills the victim, but rather it happens after they fall asleep.

As the investigation moves on, the reader becomes aware that the women are slowly putting together the tiny pieces and clues one by one, while the men continue to look for the proof of the “sudden snap,” which the author has already shown through symbolism they will not find.  The women’s investigation is done, ironically, in the same manner as a quilt, piece by piece, and then they symbolically and literally find the last piece of the puzzle, which happens to be a piece of the quilt.

Just as the quilt, “people are linked together through fragile, sometimes imperceptible strands” (287).  This undeniable principle is struggled to be seen within both Trifles and A Raisin in the Sun, though both under different circumstances.  The contextual symbols sprinkled throughout these plays develop this truth in separate, but equally poignant fashions.  Both plays use these symbols, within their given context, to give the reader a deeper, more meaningful experience of the stories.  In both plays, they function to create a feeling unique to each reader and offer limitless possibilities for further readings.

Works Cited

Ardolino, Frank.  “Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun.”  The Explicator 63.3 (Spring 2005): 181(3).

Glaspell, Susan.  “Trifles.”

Hansberry, Lorraine.  “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Holstein, Suzy Clarkson.  “Silent justice in a different key:  Glaspell’s ‘Trifles.’”  The Midwest Quarterly 44.3 (Spring 2003): 282(11).

Wilkerson, Margaret B.  “The Sighted Eyes and Feeling Heart of Lorraine Hansberry.”  Black American Literature Forum 17.1 (Spring 1983):  8(6).

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