Why do writers use symbols in their stories? Please answer by responding to "A Christmas Memory."

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accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One of the chief objections of some of my students concerning symbols and their significance is that writers should just write what they mean rather than leaving it up to us to have to go through the bother of trying to establish what objects, actions and characters could be symbols and then in addition trying to work out what they could be symbols of. I respond by saying a story would be no fun to read if the writer gives us all the answers, and it would be somewhat boring. Symbols allow writers to suggest many different layers of meaning that force us to become active readers as we try to work out what those layers are and how the writer is using the various symbols employed in their work. A symbol has been likened to throwing a pebble into a calm pond: the ripples that keep on moving outward can be related to the meaning of the symbol.

In "A Christmas Memory," for example, you might like to consider the powerful symbol of the kites in the story. This of course relates to Christmas day when Buddy and his friend go and fly their kites:

There, plunging through the healthy, waist-high grass, we unreel our kites, feel them twitching at the string like sky fish as they swim into the wind. Satisfied, sun-warmed, we sprawl in the grass and peel satsumas and watch our kites cavort... I'm as happy as if we'd already won the fifty-thousand-dollar Grand Prize in that coffee-naming contest.

Clearly the kites represent an image of happiness and of childhood innocence, as Buddy remembers the joy and wonder of Christmas from his childhood. The symbolic significance of the kites is highlighted by the way in which they are referred to again at the end of the story, when Buddy hears that his friend has died:

...I keep searching the sky. As if I expected to see, rather like hearts, a lost pair of kites hurrying toward heaven.

Clearly the way that the kites are related to hearts show how the kites act as powerful symbols of nostalgia of former, happier and less complicated times, of a child-like joy that threatens to be lost when we grow up and become adults.

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