How does a particular symbol or motif help to develop a main idea?

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"For a tough kid I had a bad habit of getting attached to people."

Literary scholar M.H. Abrams defines a symbol as "anything which signifies something; in this sense all words are symbols" (206). Abrams defines motif as "a conspicuous element, such as a type of incident, device, reference, or formula, which occurs frequently in a work of literature" (121). With these in mind, let's look at Hinton's 1975 novel, Rumble Fish.

The story is narrated by the protagonist, Rusty-James, a tough teenager living with his father. He looks up to, even idolizes, his older brother Motorcycle Boy, something of a local legend. If I had to pick one main theme for the book, I'd go with freedom, which is admittedly a bit nebulous.

Motorcycle Boy is strongly individualistic and comes and goes as he pleases. While he is spoken about with reverence, he doesn't fit in and doesn't seem to have any direction. As his father says about him "He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river, with the ability to do anything and finding nothing he wants to do" (116). He, more than any other character, embodies freedom, although he never achieves it and is gunned down in the end. Rusty-James wants to be just like him and spends much of the book trying to be like him: "He was the coolest person in the whole world. . .And I was going to be just like him" (35).

Rusty-James, too, fails to achieve freedom, and when me meet him in the opening chapter, he's just returned from reform school. As far as the motifs that Hinton uses, many of them are classic examples of juvenile delinquency. The characters fight, play pool, drink, smoke, and fool around with girls. All these are examples of the characters, especially Rusty-James, are trying to be tough and act older than they are. Conversely, they also show how they are trapped in their lives and don't have much hope or direction. A final important symbol, which gives the book its title, is the Siamese fighting fish or rumble fish. In the book's climax, Rusty-James and Motorcycle Boy break into a pet shop, and Motorcycle Boy sets the fish free, but he fails: "the little rumble fish were flipping and dying around him, still too far from the river" (118). Both Motorcycle Boy and Rusty-James are the rumble fish. The book was made into a movie in 1983 by Francis Ford Coppola.

Note: I'm using Laurel-Leaf paperback edition (1983).

M.H. Abrams. A Glossary of Literary Terms (Sixth Edition)

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