What are some of the symbols in the short story "The Sin Eater" by Margaret Atwood?

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Flowers appear at frequent intervals in the story and are important symbols. Joseph grows calla lilies in his basement. He also gets very angry as a child when another child picks the one stunted sunflower he is able to grow near the slum he lives in. He wants, an unusual desire for him, to kill that child.

The flowers are symbols of Joseph's patients. Joseph is a nurturer who gets plants and people to grow and blossom in unlikely places. His response to the sunflower shows how deeply he cares about his work.

Yellow is an important symbol as well and associated with Joseph. He wears an "off yellow" cardigan. He grows sunflowers. He is associated with the sun: the sun is needed to shine on flowers and make them grow, just as Joseph shines his light on people and helps them grow.

The sin eater Joseph talks about is a symbol of himself.

Joseph falling out the tree limb from far up the tree symbolizes how Joseph goes out on a limb too far to help his patients.

You might think too about how Joseph is like the Old Testament Joseph.

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The very premise of this story lies on a symbolic principle.  In fact, the story is almost held together by symbolism, so you can probably analyze any object (or character) of importance in the story and assume that a symbolic meaning exists there.

To get you started consider the symbolism involved in the act of "sin-eating" itself:

  • "The sin-eater": a person who performs a spiritual ritual of "eating" the sins of a dead person so that his soul can go to heaven.
  • the bread the sin-eater eats: symbolic of sin

Other elements in the story that could be considered symbolic are:

  • Joseph's name: possibly symbolically linked to the Joseph of the Bible - Jesus' earthly father.  In this way, the religious allusion here is a symbolic effort to show the vast differences between this character and the Biblical figure.
  • Joseph's profession of psychiatry: though Joseph is opposed to the idea of "sin-eating," his profession is very similar in that he listens to and takes on his patients problems (sins) while they are still alive.
  • flower symbolism: the calla-lillies that Joseph grows are symbolic of his desire for positive change; the stolen-sunflower could be symbolic of the "stealing" of Joseph's ability to maintain fidelity

There are several other symbols throughout the story that you could add to this list.  Many of the objects have symbolic meaning outside of the story's context that could be applied to further understand the meaning of the story.

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