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I am a HUGE fan of symbolism in every artistic medium. I always look for it in literature and movies specifically, and I always include it in my writing, no matter how short the piece is.  Symbolism is an essential part of my work, and the great thing about it is that a reader can choose to look for it and find it, or they can ignore it and still enjoy the piece.
I’ve had lots of people ask me how to layer stories with symbolism, some obvious symbols while others may not be so obvious. It might be best to answer this question through examples in both literature and film that I can show you through a series of blog posts. I’m going to start with an easy one: Harriet Craig.

The movie Harriet Craig (1950) with Joan Crawford and Wendell Corey is a prime example of good symbolism that doesn’t have to be noticed but adds to the enjoyment of the film. Quick synopsis: Harriet Craig is a cold, manipulative control freak wife who will lie to her husband, Walter, about anything in order to keep him all to herself and following her rules. She has no boundaries as to how far she’ll go to make sure her marriage stays in tact – and she covers her tracks well. Her husband is a trusting, loving man who doesn’t catch on to her scheming ways, though his friends and others see her for what she is.
That being said, Harriet has a lot of rules about her house and how it should be kept: make sure the blinds are closed by 11 a.m. every day so the sun doesn’t fade the furniture, keep the expensive vase away from the edge of the mantle, don’t sit on the arm of the chair, never throw anything (like a newspaper) down but instead place it neatly. She treats her husband more like a son and constantly chastises him. A couple of people mention that the house is cold and lifeless “like a thing that died and has been laid out”.
There’s a particular chair in the house that looks ornamental although it’s meant for sitting, but even more importantly it’s stiff and hard. If you watch
harrietcraigchaircarefully, you’ll see that Walter can’t get comfortable on that chair, even with a pillow. Harriet, however, feels perfectly comfortable on it. This is representative of their differences in personality. Walter is a warm person and can’t stand sitting in the stiff chair, but Harriet is a cold person and feels right at home on it. The only time Walter is able to sit on the chair is towards the end of the movie when he rearranges the pillows and lies down on it once he has decided to take back control of his house. He takes control of his comfort in the chair just as he is about to take control of Harriet.
Little things like this are easy to put into your story as light but still important symbolism. Think about what your characters have in common or their differences. Now think about their environments, even their work. How can you implement this same tactic to insert a layer of depth in your story? The good thing about this type of symbolism is that it can be stated relatively outright and still not seem out of place. You don’t have to worry too much about presenting it artistically if you don’t want to; the point of it is to be more towards the surface of the story instead of buried deep inside.


    • MM Jaye

    • 8 years ago

    Great post! I haven’t seen the film but your portrayal of the characters makes me feel as if I’ve watched it. Great idea to invest an object with a lot more than its obvious purpose.

    1. Thanks, MM Jaye! I think it’s always worth it to add some deeper symbols to your writing. Those insights into the characters can help bring your reader deeper into the story. Glad you liked the post!

  1. This is one of my favorite movies, and I did notice the symbolism of both the couch and the expensive vase. You chose the perfect picture of Walter lying on the couch and holding the vase haphazardly, both of which things Harriet would find irresponsible, disrespectful, and reprehensible. Even though I recognized those symbolic parts of the movie (I’ve watched it several times!), I found your post stimulating, and I’m excited about going back through my manuscript and seeing if I can add another layer of symbolism. 🙂

    1. That scene always makes me nervous even though I know what’s going to happen. Harriet is the perfect character to study if you want to write a control freak or someone who is manipulative in every way to everyone around them. What’s more, she’s good at it. I hope you’re able to find some spots to insert even a little symbolism. I think even small things make books all the more interesting!

    • Laura Netherton

    • 1 year ago

    I love Harriet Craig but I always wonder about the significance of the grotto. It is seen but the area is never used or addressed in the film.

    1. I wonder about that too! It seems to me to be a decorative area that nobody is allowed to use, pretty much off limits to everyone, which I think continues to add to the stiffness of the house. That’s the only thing I think it adds to the house and symbolism. I’d love to know the truth behind it!

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