Logo Home Writing News About Contact Links

Site Map

Home >

Writing >

Books >

Symbolism of Place >

3. Cultural Places

[ < Previous | Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next > ]

5. Park

Parks symbolize islands of the pastoral image preserved by man. City parks are islands in manmade places and national parks are islands in natural places. Both are types of preservations.

Sigmund Freud compares parks with the mental realm of fantasy which is a reservation from the encroachments of the reality principle. In his General Introduction To Psychoanalysis Freud writes:

"The creation of the mental domain of phantasy has a complete counterpart in the establishment of 'reservations' and 'nature-parks' in places where the inroads of agriculture, traffic, or industry threaten to change...the earth rapidly into something unrecognizable. The 'reservation' is to maintain the old condition of things which has been regretfully sacrificed to necessity everywhere else; there everything may grow and spread as it pleases, including what is useless and even what is harmful. The mental realm of phantasy is also such a reservation reclaimed from the encroaches of the reality principle."

The fact urban parks are surrounded by the city offers the greatest place contrast between natural and man made environments. They offer weekend retreats for the inhabitants of cities but as retreats the constant reminder of city is always in them. They are high places of crime and are often the home for roving bands of gangs or the habitation place for homeless people seeking a refuge from the streets of the cities.

6. Garden

A garden is similar to a park but is associated more with the individual than with the public. Most often, gardens are attached to the yards of houses rather than the yards of cities. In this sense, they are created and nourished by the inhabitant of a house.

Jung notes in Psychology And Alchemy that a garden is a place where Nature is subdued, ordered, selected and enclosed. Hence it is a symbol of the consciousness as opposed to the forest, which is a symbol of the unconsciousness, in the same way as the island is opposed to the ocean. At the same time, it is a feminine attribute because of its character as a precinct.

In The Role of Place in Literature, Leonard Lutwack expands on Jung's distinction between a garden and a forest. Both, he notes are associated with the feminine but a forest symbolizes "unruly sexuality" while a garden symbolizes a certain passive state:

"Enclosure automatically bestows special value on places and things, and the island, valley and garden are readily conceived as earthly paradises. But there is a price to pay for their worth...The garden is the body of a woman in a passive condition, waiting to be enjoyed, while the dense vegetation of the forest may portend the active entrapment of the male in the unseen, mysterious reproductive process that leads to revelation or to death."

Like the garden, Lutwack observes, the forest is a fertile place. But the vegetation of the forest is "wilder than the well-cared-for and well-contained plants of the garden." This signifies to Lutwack an "unruly sexuality that threatens tragedy for those who become involved with it."

Gardens possess a long and direct relationship to symbolism and mythology. From ancient times, the symbol of the garden has represented a primal, pristine state where nothing is lacking - neither food nor drink, companionship, bird song, water nor the company of angels.

There is the Biblical association of garden as an original paradise related in the Garden of Eden story. This early association with the original, unspoiled place of paradise is discussed by J.C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols:

"The Gardener is the Creator and in the center of the garden grows the life-giving Tree, fruit, or flower, the reward of him who finds the center. The garden is also the symbol of the soul and the qualities cultivated in it and of tamed and ordered nature. Enclosed gardens are the feminine, protective principle; they also represent virginity."

In fact in Christian symbolism, the enclosed garden is a symbol of the Virgin Mary.

The virgin garden image has played an important part in the American cultural symbolism of pastoralism. America was once a virgin continent untouched by the vestiges of European civilization. Much of the garden myth derives from a withdrawal from the "Old World" and starting life over again in the new, fresh, green "garden" of America. All of America, the "New World", represented this natural world at one time to many of America's original poets and novelists, a time not too long ago. The symbolism of America as a garden is associated with the literary concept of pastoralism. It was developed largely in the nature notebooks of Hawthorne and Thoreau and in the stories of Washington Irving.

It was this virgin nature of the American garden that Fitzgerald evoked at the end of The Great Gatsby when Nick Carraway says at the end of the book "I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eye - a fresh, green breast of the new world." This green breast is the virginal continent of America.

One of the first American books to apply the virginal garden concept to America was Robert Beverley's History and Present State of Virginia. Written in 1705, the book reveals the affinity between the conditions of life in America and the pastoral ideal.

A Virginia planter by occupation, Beverley was motivated to attempt the book by inferior accounts he heard of Virginia while on a business trip to London. His research took him two years and led to reviews of the early explorers of Virginia. The country, Beverley says, impressed the earlier voyagers as:

"so delightful, desirable; so pleasant, and plentiful; the Climate, and Air, so temperate, sweet, and wholesome; the Woods, and Soil, so charming, and fruitful; and all other Things so agreeable, that Paradise itself seem'd to be there, in its first Native Lustre."

Leo Marx writes in The Machine In The Garden that "the opening pages of the History might serve as a showcase of ideas embraced by the image of America as a new Eden." Even the name of the colony, Beverley notes, was selected as a tribute to the landscape, as well as the Queen. "Virginia," he writes, refers to a land that "did still seem to retain the Virgin Purity and Plenty of the first Creation, and the People their Primitive Innocence..." If there is a close connection between garden symbolism and America the state of Virginia offered the original model for this symbolism.

7. Roads, Paths & Trails

Streets are part of the city but roads are part of the country. Roads both connect and serve as boundaries. They connect cities and towns and they also mark the boundaries of the country, the boundaries of the farms, counties or townships.

In a strict sense a road is not a place but rather something that connects places, a land bridge between two places. But in the true sense, roads are a place for there is a certain place called "on the road" that all Americans understand.

The urge for exploration, to travel over roads, has been the subject of numerous television commercials and popular culture and literature. One of the most successful television programs of the 1960s was Route 66 which was about being on the road.

Although roads have their practical purposes of connecting cities and towns together and marking country boundaries, they also have their mythical purpose of providing passageways into the heart of the country. Roads are modern rivers which all of us can navigate and explore to the isolated little towns they lead to, the lonely little lakes, the canyons far away from civilization. They connect us between towns and cities but they can also lead us away from them.

Roads are created for automobiles but paths are created by and for pedestrians. They often connect with roads and run through wilderness. The word path also has a connotation of one's course through life as in the expression that he is following the "straight and narrow path." It also has religious symbolism and has been used in terms such as he is "on the path to enlightenment."

Trails have a symbolism attached to the settlement of the west. Trails such as the Oregon Trail were the first roads of America used by wagon trains of settlers moving west. The word trail also symbolizes evidence that one leaves behind as in the expression he "left a wide trail" behind him.

8. Gates, Thresholds & Doors

Gates, thresholds and doors are all symbolic entrances into new worlds. These entrances can be into a new life or they might represent communication between one world and another world, between the living and the dead. The symbolism between gate and threshold is very similar. The symbolism of a gate, though, suggests more of a protecting and guarding aspect while that of threshold suggests simply a passage from one realm to another realm.

In the book An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J.C. Cooper notes this guarding and protecting nature of gates. They are the "protective, sheltering aspect of the Great Mother." Usually they "are guarded by symbolic animals such as lions, dragons, bulls, dogs or fabulous beasts." Symbolism of gates is wide throughout history and mythology. Some of the symbols of gates Cooper observes are:

"The Gates of the East and West are the doors of the World Temple through which the sun passes morning and night. The 'strait gate' is the central point of communication between the lower and higher; the passage, in 'spiritual poverty' for initiates or at death, leading to new life. Like the eye of the needle, it symbolizes the spacelessness of the soul in passing through. The gate is associated with wisdom (Proverbs 8,3); kings sat in judgment at gates, probably as sacred places of divine power."

Certainly a well-known use of the word "gate" is as the threshold into heaven and the passage through the "pearly gates".Thresholds symbolize unguarded or protected passages between the profane and the sacred. As J.C. Cooper points out, they symbolize a passage "from an outer profane space to an inner sacred space." A certain boundary line is represented by a threshold and often this boundary is the boundary between the natural world and the supernatural world. Some of the better known threshold symbols noted by Cooper are the symbol of sinking in water, entering a dark forest or a going through a door in a wall. They all represent a passage from the known into the unknown.

Doors are feminine symbols. In Psychology and Alchemy, Jung noted that doors contain all the implications of the symbolic hole. The significance of the door, therefore, is the antithesis of the wall. In A Dictionary of Symbols, J.E. Cirlot makes an interesting observation about doors in discussing temple doors and altars:

"There is the same relationship between the temple-door and the altar as between the circumference and the centre; even though in each case the two component elements are the farthest apart, they are nonetheless, in a way, the closest since the one determines and reflects the other."

Cirlot notes that this is well illustrated in the architectural ornamentation of cathedrals where the facade is nearly always treated as an altar-piece. An interesting symbolism of doors is associated with Zodiacal signs. The summer solstice in Cancer is the "door of men" and symbolizes the dying power and descent of the sun, the Janua inferni. On the other hand, the winter solstice, in Capricorn, the "door of the gods", symbolizes the ascent and rising power of the sun, the Janua coeli.

The appearance of gates, thresholds and doors is a commonality to all story genres. Usually the hero passes through them to symbolically mark the beginning of his journey. In this sense they are places of departure symbolically similar to coastal ports next to great oceans from which voyages have ventured from throughout history. But these symbolic gateways seldom have the physical characteristics of objective doors or gates.

One important example of the symbolism of passageways is contained in Joseph Conrad's famous story Heart of Darkness and Marlow's trip to the trading company to receive his appointment. It is worth taking some time to examine this symbolism for it serves as one of the best examples of threshold symbolism in all of literature.

The beginning of his voyage up the Congo is the obvious place to look on as the beginning of his voyage to the symbolic "heart of darkness." However, Marlow's real voyage actually begins with the trading company for it is the trading company which possess the authority to send Marlow on this voyage in the first place. It is the true "gate" or "doorway" into the "heart of darkness."

Symbolic gates, thresholds and doors in stories are more often than not hidden within a subtle unobtrusive context as if the author is reminding us that although they are always part of our world it is not everyone who can see them. This is the position that Conrad takes for Marlow's voyage which really departs when Marlow walks down a hidden street on his way for his appointment with the trading company which runs the outpost up the Congo River. As Marlow relates to us in Heart of Darkness:

"A narrow and deserted street in deep shadow, high houses, innumerable windows with venetian blinds, a dead silence, grass sprouting between the stones, imposing carriage archways right and left, immense double doors standing ponderously ajar, I slipped through one of these cracks, went up a swept and ungarnished staircase, as arid as a desert, and opened the first door I came to."

Within this context there appear two symbolic "gatekeepers" or guards to the world Marlow is about to enter. Like the subtleness of the gate itself which is hidden down a "deserted street" the guardians are not one's idea of the traditional guards as large, strong and masculine. Rather these guardians are two women:

"Two women, one fat and the other slim, sat on straw-bottomed chairs, knitting black wool. The slim one got up and walked straight at me - still knitting with down-cast eyes - and only just as I begin to think of getting out of her way, as you would for a somnambulist, stood still, and looked up. Her dress was as plain as an umbrella-cover, and she turned around without a word and preceded me into a waiting room. I gave my name, and looked about."

It is significant that the two women are preoccupied with knitting a common activity with great symbolic associations through its relationship to the creating of knots.

As Cirlot observes in A Dictionary of Symbols, the knot is a complex symbol embracing several important meanings all related to the idea of a tightly closed link. This link might represent a continuity, a connection, a covenant. It might also represent Fate or that which binds man to his destiny. J.C. Cooper in An Illustrated Encyclopaedia reminds us that a knot is an ambivalent symbol since the powers of binding also imply those of loosening, of restraining but also of uniting. Paradoxically, the harder a knot is pulled the firmer it becomes and the greater the binding or the union.

Many knots may also create a net or a web. In fact the two women may be seen as symbolically creating a net, or like spiders, weaving a web to catch prey. Marlow might be viewed as this prey who is about to get caught in their web.

[ < Previous | Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | Next > ]

^ To Top

Home | Writing | News | About | Contact | Links

Copyright © 2001 John Fraim