By Michael T. Pizzolato
In the previous post on symbolism in writing, we covered the topic of symbols in westerns. We found examples of how rocks and mountains can represent obstacles and how sunsets can depict endings of a life or of a story.
Symbols vary from culture to culture, but in the western, they are usually American or Native American. Symbols are objects in stories that represent something else, such as a concept or value that emotionally enhances a scene or story and makes a subconscious connection with the reader.
Often a single symbol can carry many different meanings, so you can use tried and true meanings of symbols or you can make your own interpretation. Consequently, if the reader really is all in and along for the ride in your writing, you can make an emotional connection to the reader with the image or symbol. Moreover, depending on the mood of a scene or story, you can at times use symbols as a contrast to depict the opposite of what you want to represent, but do this with some caution in mind as it is harder to make a reader connection this way.
Nature is full of symbols that can have multiple meanings. The writer’s overall message is what generally narrows down a symbol’s meaning, and keep in mind symbols work subconsciously. A sky can portray limitless possibilities, especially a clear sky. If a sky is gray or stormy, it can represent foreboding threat or danger. Fire can show a sense of safety even romance if it’s in a campfire, for example, or it can symbolize danger, destruction or even purification if it is widespread. A tree can mean strength and stability. An old tree can represent wisdom. A willow tree bending in the wind can lend a sense of compromise to a scene. Butterflies can be symbolic of freedom or even fragility, change or metamorphosis. Flowers, real or otherwise, can also mean love, new life or new beginnings. In Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, for example, the doctor marries Sully while on her wedding veil and dress are laced patterns of flowers, representing the new beginning and the new life they will share together.
The moon can be cold and void of emotion as it reflects the sun and has no light of its own. In our western culture inherited from the Greeks, the moon is considered feminine and associated with the Greek goddess Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo the sun god.
Calm water can represent peace as in the scene in Lonesome Dove where Gus takes a playful creek bath with Lorena nearby, peaceful moments at least until moments later when the villain Blue Duck makes a threatening appearance. Crashing waves or churning water can alert the reader to danger or emotional turmoil as when the cowboys in Lonesome Dove were crossing the thick currents of the churning river where one of the characters is bitten to death by snakes in the water. Crossing a river can also represent maturity, as it was Newt’s new best friend who had suffered the horrific snakebites, with young Newt left to learn a hard lesson about death on the other side of the river. The old man in westerns often represents wisdom, and old Gus offered much life wisdom to his friend Call, especially on the subject of women, a topic on which Gus was well versed.
The heart is the body’s major organ, but it can mean love or courage. In westerns, we often see the sheriff or marshal pinning his badge over his heart, symbolic of his bravery but maybe also of his love of upholding the law. And getting shot in the heart, as happens often to the villain, surely carries symbolic significance in the western story.
The cross can represent the Christian faith that was prevalent on the frontier, and it can also represent redemption, sacrifice or suffering. We’ve all seen in western movies and novels the church topped with a cross at the end of the corrupt town representing its’ isolation from a corrupt society, and we’ve also seen in Pale Rider the forceful Christian symbolism of the main character that Eastwood himself has called “a ghost.”
A flag is but a section of cloth, but its’ meaning can transcend a scene and evoke feelings of courage and longing for freedom. In Two Flags West, with Joseph Cotton and Linda Darnell, the Union and Confederate flags represent the division in the country at the time of the movie’s setting.
A baby can represent innocence, vulnerability or new life. A president, a lawman, a soldier, a pearl, even types of clothing are symbols that trigger inner responses from your reader of which you should be aware.
Symbols are so important to westerns that western movies like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Outlaw Josey Wales and The Searchers (in particular its iconic ending) would not be the same without them. Sergio Leone, John Ford and Clint Eastwood are probably the best directors at bringing symbolism from the printed script page to live action film, and we’ve looked at how writers like Bret Hart and Meg Mims used mountains as symbols in The Outcasts of Poker Flats and Double Crossing. We’ve also seen how mountains can mean something different in Native American culture where mountains can mean a connection to the spirit above. This Indian aspect of mountains as a spiritual plane, however, can have similar meaning in both American and Native American cultures. In Christianity, the primary religion of the frontier, Christ went up into a mountain and ascended to heaven so that the mountain, in addition to be a symbol of an arduous journey in American culture, can sometimes have a spiritual plane meaning akin to the Native American meaning. Narrowing down the meaning just depends on where you are with your reader and what you are portraying in the story.
The next time you write, read or watch a western, be alert to symbols. And as a benefit to you the writer, they will not only enhance the emotional impact of your story but also better connect you to your reader.
Mike Pizzolato is the Associate Editor, Art Director and Facebook Coordinator of The Western Online.