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While the meanings of symbols do change with the passage of time or from culture to culture as, for instance, the peace sign and symbol of the twentieth century that meant Nuclear Disarmament and protest against the Vietman War has now become the symbol of a utopian hope for a world of global peace, there are yet literary symbols that have retained fairly constant connotations.
One such symbol is the color yellow/gold which usually symbolizes, evil, as well as corruption and decadence associated with wealth. In Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the character of Augustus Carmichael is described by another character, Mr. Ramsey, as having "yellow cat's eyes." Then, at the end of the novel as Lilly wonders if the lighthouse has been reached, he "shades his eyes" as he stands there, "looking like an old pagan god, shaggy, with weeds in his hair."
In F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Daisy Buchanan, whose voice "sounds like money" is named after a yellow-centered flower. When asked about the wealthy Buchanans, Gatsby replies that they both have yellow hair.Of course, as the narrative unfolds, the moral corruption of Daisy becomes flagrant as she allows Gatsby to take the blame for the murder of Myrtle Wilson when she, in fact, is the one who hit her with Gatsby's "yellow car," the death/evil car, as Mr. Wilson alludes to it. Later, Nick Carraway, the narrator refers to the yellow-haired Buchanans as "careless people" who, in their insensitivity, destroy lives.
...Tom and Saisy--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clen up the mess they had made.
They, like the equally corrupt Jordan Baker, are "bad drivers," amoral people who do not consider the effects of their actions upon others.
There are no "universal" symbols in literature, but ones we could say are quite common in western literature. One is the horizon; it often represents the future toward which a character will journey, or the end of life. A famous example of the horizon as symbol ocurs in the first paragraph of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God; it is also present in Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, where the protagonist contemplates her future. Another common symbol is the blooming flower, which often represents sexuality. We see this in descriptions of Caddy Compson in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury and in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.
As an example of how a symbol has different meanings in different cultures, red in western culture might represent love. Red in China represents luck. According to the previous post, the horizon might represent the future in Western Culture. In China, it might represent the color, white, or the direction, east.
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