What are some examples of symbolism used in T. Boyle's short story "Greasy Lake?"

Expert Answers
Jacob Christiansen eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are three symbols that seem to illustrate the theme of the story (the fraud of being "bad") handily: 

  1. The Lake.
  2. The Keys.
  3. The Car.

Let's examine each of these symbols in greater detail. 

First, the lake. Setting is often an overlooked symbol when considering the theme of a story. But the place where a story happens can tell us much about its content. 

Greasy Lake is "fetid and murky, the mud banks glittering with broken glass and strewn with beer cans." This is a bad place; the kind of place where rough folk hang out. It's a place to "smoke pot" and "watch a girl take off her clothes." Simply being in a place like this sets up the kind of plot that can occur. We're not going to be reading about any tea parties taking place at Greasy Lake. 

But, like everything else in the story, the things that seem bad about it turn out to be totally inconsequential in the face of true horror. Sure, the water is murky. Sure, drugs are exchanged and used on its shores. But all of that cannot compare to the dead body our narrator finds soaking in the water.

In fact, the discovery of the dead body makes even the horrible evening the narrator has experienced seem small--"my car was wrecked; he was dead." 

In this way, the lake serves as a symbol of stark juxtaposition. Its very presence and nature compares what seems bad with actual, true bad. 

Second, the keys. Our narrator thinks himself a bad boy. "We were all dangerous characters then," he says, repeating the phrase "we were bad" as a sort of mantra throughout the text. 

"We wore torn-up leather jackets, slouched around with toothpicks in our mouths, sniffed glue and ether and what somebody claimed was cocaine." 

The boys dress and act as they think a bad person should act. 

And yet, the narrator is very clear that the events of the horrific evening are only the result of an accident...well, two accidents: the dropping of the keys and the misidentification of the car. 

The plot of the story is very much what one would expect from real "bad" people. The three boys get in a fight, they nearly rape a girl, they discover a dead body, their car gets beat up, etc. But our three protagonists are not really all that bad. They are frauds. They only get into this mess because a prank on a friend goes wrong. 

Thus, the boys themselves are a symbol. They highlight the falsity of pretending to be bad. 

Finally, the car. The car is a similar symbol. Late in the story, after the car has been destroyed and the scary men have left, the three boys are alone in their wreck of a car. Two strangers come upon them and see the state of the car. One says, "Hey, you guys look like some bad characters--been fightin', huh?" 

This, of course, is a total mistake. The state of the car is a result of the three boys hiding in the woods. Because they are hiding, the scary men beat the car up instead of the boys. The tragic state of the car actually proves that the boys are cowards at heart, not that they are "bad characters."


The car is another symbol of the fraud present in calling oneself "bad."