How does symbolism work in "A Wall of Fire Rising"?

Edwidge Danticat's "A Wall of Fire Rising" uses symbols to tie together the story's themes of aspiration and desperation.

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There are several examples of symbolism in Edwidge Danticat's "A Wall of Fire Rising" which work to tie together the story's overall themes of aspiration and desperation.

The hot air balloon plays a key symbolic role, symbolizing Guy's aspirations for a better life for himself. Although Guy wants to be someone his wife and son can look up to, he doesn't know how to go about being that person, just as he doesn't know how to fly the hot air balloon or where he would go if he did. Nonetheless, Guy feels that it is vital to be more inspiring to his family than he currently is:

"You know that question I asked you before," he said, "how a man is remembered after he's gone? I know the answer now. I know because I remember my father, who was a very poor struggling man all his life. I remember him as a man that I would never want to be."

This image of how he'll be remembered after he's gone appears to spur Guy to attempt to fly the hot air balloon. During the flight, he jumps out of the balloon and falls to his death.

The "wall of fire rising" also operates as a symbol of desperation and grief. The story first introduces it as part of the lines Guy's son, Little Guy, is learning for his role in a school play: "A wall of fire is rising and in the ashes, I see the bones of my people," Little Guy recites at the start of the story, impressing his parents. Later, Guy lights a piece of paper and shows his wife, Lili, how the ashes float on the air, saying that the hot air balloon works by the same principle.

Little Guy and Lili witness Guy's fall from the balloon. Little Guy responds by reciting his lines again, starting with "A wall of fire is rising." Meanwhile, Lili is asked whether she wants her husband's eyes closed, but she replies, "My husband, he likes to look at the sky."

Here, the "wall of fire rising" points to the sky, as the hot air balloon did, as a symbol of Guy's climbing aspirations. Within the context of Little Guy's lines for the play, however, the "wall of fire rising" is also a source of death and loss, a call "that we may either live freely or we should die." Together, these symbols point to a sense that dreams are not enough: although Guy had big dreams, in the end he leaves his wife and son with nothing.

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