Miss Brill Symbolism

What are all the symbols in "Miss Brill"?

The symbols in "Miss Brill" include the fur wrap, the ermine toque, fashion, autumn, and the author's use of color. The symbols help show how Miss Brill is out of touch with the other townspeople.

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The fur Miss Brill wears is the most loaded symbol of the short story. On one level, it represents Miss Brill's individuality and sense of pride. She loves the little fur, and she wears it when she especially feels like looking her best. She is excited when she takes it out of its box.

The fur is also evocative of her desire to have a friend. Miss Brill lives a lonely life. Deep down, she seeks connection with other people. By focusing on details such as the fur's eyes and referring to it as "[d]ear little thing" or "little rogue" she is ascribing a personality to this object. That she refers to the fur as a "rogue" is telling. Like a rogue, Miss Brill lives on the edges of society with neither family nor friends. When she puts it away at the end of the story, she even thinks she hears it crying. However, this could be Miss Brill herself weeping, and projecting her sorrow onto the fur.

When the young couple insult Miss Brill's fur, they are doing more to her than saying she has poor taste in fashion. They are unknowingly insulting her sense of self and making her feel more alone. When Miss Brill weeps and puts the fur away at the end of the story, she is symbolically showing that she now feels deep shame about who she is. Her fantasized connection with the other people in the park is revealed as nothing more than a comforting illusion.

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A literary device that enriches a narrative because it adds a depth of meaning as it connects to the theme, symbolism is often quite valuable. In "Miss Brill," both meaning and poignancy are enriched by certain symbols:

  • the little fur piece  
    When she pulls the old fur piece out in order to wear it to the park for the outdoor concert, Miss Brill thinks of it as alive, calling it "little rogue." Ironically, a rogue is an animal that lives apart or has been driven away by others; for, Miss Brill will later be "driven" away because of the young couple's ridicule of her appearance. Further in the narrative, Miss Brill puts the fur away in its little box, and her gesture is symbolic of her own fate as she finds herself "outdated" and isolated, as well. 
  • the ermine toque
    This little hat, worn by an older woman whose face and hands are yellowed like the toque, is given personality by Miss Brill, just as her fur piece is. Observing this woman, whom she thinks of as the toque, Miss Brill notices her react with pleasure when she sees a certain gentleman. However, as Miss Brill hears her say that she "rather thought they were going to meet this afternoon," the man disinterestedly lights a cigarette and flicks his match away and "walked on." Much as Miss Brill will later experience loneliness, so does the "ermine toque" in this scene. She, too, is an anachronism, as symbolized by the ermine toque.

The ermine toque was alone; she smiled more brightly than ever. But even the band seemed to know what she was feeling and played more softly, played tenderly, and the drum beat, "The Brute! The Brute!" over and over.

  • the cupboard
    Miss Brill notices that many of the people at the park who sit on the benches and the green chairs are nearly all the same with something "funny about nearly all of them." These people are strange, silent, and staring forward. They appear as though "they'd just come from dark little rooms or even—even cupboards!" It is as though they have been put away during the week and brought out on Sundays.
    Ironically again, Miss Brill later returns home, her enjoyment of the concert and her delight in the music ruined by the cruel remarks of a young couple at the other end of a bench where she has sat. As she heads homeward, she bypasses the bakery where she usually stops on Sunday for a slice of cake and returns to her little empty room that is "like a cupboard." There she sits for a long time before she unhooks the fur necklet and places it into its box, thinking she has heard it crying.
    Miss Brill is antiquated and no longer vibrant and a part of society. She is but an old woman living a lonely life in a small room, a room not unlike the cupboard that symbolizes her limited life.
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Fur - the tatty state of the fur wrap represents the tatty state of Miss Brill, despiteher beliefs to the contrary.

Clothing - these are seen by Miss Brill as status symbols throughout the story. She concentrates on what others are wearing and makes judgement based on this. She is devestated when she hears the young couple make the same assumptions about her.

Old people - the old people throughout the story seem to be disposable. They are shown in a less than respectable way and this symbolises how Miss Brill is also superfluous to the younger people in the story.

Autum (Fall) -symbolises that Miss Brill is past her prime and about to enter the final stages of her life. She is discoloured and withered like the leaves.

Another symbol you could look at are the number of colours that are mentioned throughout the story. These are mentioned in relation to other characters and not Miss Brill as she is colourless.This shows how she bases her personality on what others think; her arrogance makes her drab and lifeless.

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