Open City

by Teju Cole

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Analyze chapter 13 of Open City and discuss the symbolism within the chapter.

There are many symbols in chapter 13 of Open City, most of which represent Julius’s concerns about getting old. For example, his gray hairs and the gray hair of the older women in the park represent the physical aging process that makes Julius feel vulnerable and fragile. In addition, the beautiful, controlled movements of the dancers in the park contrast with Julius’s inability to control his mental decline.

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In chapter 13, Julius is unable to pay his accountant, Parrish, because he forgets his check and his ATM number. Julius’s actions and thoughts in this chapter represent how he is aging, as well as the apprehensive feelings he has about his mortality. There are many symbols throughout this chapter that represent this theme. I will discuss a few to help you get started.

One significant symbol in this chapter is hair. When Julius sits down with Parrish to apologize about not having the money, he thinks of the white hairs that have recently appeared on his head. He thinks about their inevitable growth, saying:

I knew also that the entire head of hair would someday change color, that the white strands would multiply, and would eventually, that if I lived to old age, like Mama, there would be hardly any of the black ones left (162).

On one hand, the above quote is a realistic reflection on the inevitable changes to hair that come with old age. On another hand, it is a symbolic contemplation of the unavoidable decay of the human body. Julius thinks this right after forgetting his ATM number, an experience that points to his weakening mind. He has noticed the white hairs before, but after the ATM experience, he views the changing hairs as a representation of his mortality. It is interesting to note that he thinks of his mother here. It is as if the hairs represent the cyclical nature of life, that he will inevitably be just like his mother one day.

Another symbol that furthers reflection on old age comes up when Julius notices women dancing in the park. He notes that all of the women are old and have “gray hair” (note the continued relevance of the previous symbol), except for one. The young one

was graceful and beautiful. But when the music stopped and the dancers paused, she did not look beautiful. The beauty had all been in her movement (164).

The connection here between movement and beauty seems to speak to Julius’s concerns about the fragility and stagnation that comes with old age. Later he notices a woman with a child and says

her deliberate movements were like a delayed shadow of the dancers (165).

The word “deliberate” here suggests Julius’s appreciation of controlled action, the kind of actions he feels he is losing the ability to do. When he forgets his ATM pin, he can no longer plan deliberate acts like going to pay his accountant. Now he is at the mercy of the uncontrollable aging process, and he is nostalgic for the ability to control and express himself like he did when he was young.

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