The use of symbols in short stories is used to deliver crucial ideas to the reader, without making the story too long. The two short stories, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and Ambrose Bierce’s An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge are the examples of how symbols turn a short story into the conjunction of images and literary meanings. The use of symbols in literature is often very confusing. “A symbol is a sign which has further layers of meaning. In other words, a symbol means more than it literally says” (Greenspan & Worthen 2003, p. 7).
Symbolism is the integral element of a short story; the use of symbols in the discussed works of fiction is aimed at delivering hidden messages and literary implications to the reader. Symbolism is called for showing that the story means more than one may see at its surface. Symbolism in short stories reveals the meaning surplus, and generates unique associations between the reader and the plot of the story. It is interesting to note, that Gilman and Bierce used literary symbols in completely different literary manners.
Moreover, as Gilman’s yellow wallpaper was central symbol of the story, Bierce has turned the story itself into the one integral symbol of a person close to death. The yellow wallpaper serves the conjunction of numerous associations, thoughts, and ideas of an ill person. Simultaneously, Bierce’s narration comprises numerous small elements, and turns them into one large symbol of the human desire to survive. It seems that the two authors took the two opposite starting points in their writing: the development of symbolism in The Yellow Wallpaper is gradual, leading the reader to the culmination at the end of the story.
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge keeps the reader in the constant near-culmination state, preventing him from the immediate recognition of the appropriate symbols in the story. “You think you have mastered it, but just as you get well underway in following, it turns a back somersault and there you are. It slaps you in the face, knocks you down, and tramples upon you. It is like a bad dream” (Gilman 1997, p. 262). There is one essential symbolic peculiarity in both stories. It appears that the use of symbols in short stories can be either evident, or hidden.
The yellow wallpaper is the evident symbol of the woman’s weakness in fighting her nervous disease, and the superiority of her husband-physician. The reader is completely aware of the fact that the woman is obsessed with hallucinations, and that she experiences serious mental health problems. “At night in any kind of light, in twilight, candlelight, lamplight, and worst of all by moonlight, it becomes bars! The outside pattern I mean, and the woman behind it is as plain as can be” (Gilman 1997, p. 263).
Gilman’s story makes it possible to easily distinguish reality from symbolism, as this symbolism is invariably linked to the yellow wallpaper. The reader does not face the ambiguity of interpreting these symbols. On the contrary, Bierce’s symbolism makes the reader think, and creates dubious associations with the reality, as it is described by the author. Until the very end of the story, the symbolism of narration can hardly be revealed by the reader. “The hunted man saw all this over his shoulder, he was now swimming vigorously with the current.
His brain was as energetic as his arms and legs; he thought with the rapidity of lightning” (Bierce 1997, 205). The rapidity of mind comes here as the symbol of the life coming to an end, but the reader takes these descriptions for real until the end of the story. Bierce keeps the reader at a distance and uses the power of symbolism at the very end of the story: “a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon – then all is darkness and silence! ” (Bierce 1997, p. 207). By the moment when Peyton Farquhar reached his home in his imagination, his body was already dead.
Conclusion The power of symbolism in short stories is determined by how writers use this literary device. The two analyzed stories represent the two different symbolic patterns in writing. As one single object can serve the central symbol of a short story, the whole story can serve a symbol, too. Symbols are crucial for the reader to develop proper associations with the plot of a short story. Symbolism can be either evident or hidden, but in both cases it is aimed at delivering the meaning surplus to the reader, making the short story full, bright, and remarkable.