By Michael T. Pizzolato
A symbol is an object in a story that represents itself along with a thought or emotion that we may sense or feel when we see the object. In any story, symbols are important because they can lend subconscious sentiment or emotion to a scene or story.
Symbols vary from culture to culture, but in the Old West story, symbolism is American as well as Native American.
Here are some symbols and their meanings along with some examples from western stories, which you may find helpful in your short story, novel or screenplay:
Rocks and mountains in a story can represent obstacles and difficulties. Set in Gold Rush California, the short story The Outcasts of Poker Flats by Bret Harte is about so-called “undesirables” who have been expelled from an Old West town and must make a journey over the mountains that represent the arduous tasks ahead replete with danger.
In the novel Double Crossing by Meg Mims, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierras symbolize the sizeable trials and difficulties ahead that will include the heroine being pushed off a railroad trestle, nearly pushed from a train as well as fighting for her life on mining hillside as she tracks down her father’s murderer.
In the movie Shane, as the young boy cries out to the severely wounded main character, Shane heads off into the mountains that represent the final obstacle of Shane’s own eventual death.
In Native American culture, however, the mountain can represent a journey or a spiritual connection with nature. In The Outlaw Josey Wales, as Josey talks with Chief Ten Bears, notice the mountain range behind Wales as he speaks spiritual truths to the chief. The domestic scene of the Indian village behind the chief symbolizes the land as the Indians home. Blood exchanged by knife cuts on each man’s hand represents not only brotherhood but blood as a powerful symbol of purification and redemption, perhaps a foreshadowing of the movie’s ending when the wounded Josey bleeds onto his own boot before saying to the forgiving and reluctant villain Fletcher, “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.” Again, the mountain, this time larger and closer, is behind Josey in the ending as he converses with Fletcher and then rides off into those mountains and into the sunset, another symbol we’ll discuss shortly.
The sun can be a symbol of giving or taking life, depending on how it’s portrayed. The sun can break through and show brighter days, or it can be boiling hot and deadly if lost in the desert as in the western movie Seraphim Falls.
The sunset is a symbol for death and often for story endings. Though it has been used countless times in western movies and novels, readers never seem to tire of the age-old symbol of the sun setting on the cowboy riding or walking off into the sunset.
In The Searchers, the sunset symbol is both an ending as well as a death, as Ethan turns from the closing door and walks off into the sunset, estranged to a spiritual death away from the family he worked so hard to unify.
Animals can also be symbols. In Dances with Wolves, the wolf is analogous to a dog, and a dog in American culture (Fido=Fidelity/Faith) represents faith. When the wolf is killed, it demonstrates how Dunbar’s faith is now tested and will be shaken by the events to come. But the same symbol can mean something different in another culture. To the Indian culture, the wolf represents a medicine of courage, strength and loyalty, and so they name Dunbar “Dances with Wolves” who will courageously leave his American culture for the Native American way of life.
Symbols are important to any story. There are many more than presented here, and symbols are not universal, that is, they are different for each culture. However, in western stories, symbols will generally represent American and Native American values.
More importantly, symbolism can add subconscious emotional power, not only to a scene but also to the story itself.
-More on symbolism in a future post.
Mike Pizzolato is the Associate Editor, Art Director and Facebook Coordinator of The Western Online.