Symbolism in Langston Hughes 'On the Road'

Published: 2021-06-29
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Sewanee University of the South
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Book review
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Symbolism is a common device in literary forms such as poems, plays, novels and short stories. Symbolism refers to the deliberate use of objects, events, actions, characters or any aspect that stands for an entirely different idea that has a deeper meaning (El-Deftar, Wafaa 125). Symbolism is the attachment of symbolic meanings to items. Such a meaning is usually completely different from the literal meaning of the item although this meaning may shift depending on the context of usage. A chain, for instance, may symbolise imprisonment in one context but a union in another. In literature, symbolism can be used by a writer to represent a certain theme. In the story, On the Road' by Langston Hughes, symbolism is used to reflect the theme of racism which is one of the main ideas in the story. Hughes, a versatile and prolific black writer in the twentieth century, attaches symbolic significance to the snow and darkness, the church, and the prison so as to mirror the strong will to survive in the context of a harsh community where racial discrimination reigns supreme.

To begin with, Langston Hughes reflects on the theme of racial discrimination by giving symbolic significance to snow and night. The story is set during the Depression, quite a difficult economic time. As Sargeant gets off the freight one snowy evening, he is said not to have seen the snow, not even under the bright lights of the main street, falling white and flaky against the night. He was too hungry, too sleepy, too tired" (Hughes). Symbolically, the snow signifies the whites while the night signifies the blacks. Essentially, Hughes wants to demonstrate that all the main character, Sargeant, was thinking of, at the time, was his basic needs, and that is why he could not notice the whites even in the main streets bright lights (Leary, John Patrick 213). Being black and broke works against Sargeant as a human. This is further compounded by the Reverend Mr. Dorset who only views him as a big black man and a human piece of night (Hughes). Due to his racist nature, Mr. Dorset shuts the door on Sargeant even before he asks for the assistance that he badly needs. However, Sargeant is willing to survive despite such harsh treatment. Hughes has only used the symbolism of the night and snow to bring out the theme of racial discrimination.

Sargeant is not willing to give up. He has already tried to seek help from the relief shelter with no success, and that is why he had approached the parsonage, only to be told off by Mr. Dorset. Fortunately for him, he notices a church and his hope is renewed. At last, he has a place to sleep. However, when he tries the door, he realises that is locked, and anger gets the better of him. So angry does he become that he is said to have pushed the door With loud rhythmic grunts, like the grunts in a chaingang song (Hughes) because he badly needs a place to sleep. Despite warnings from some white people, Sargeant goes on pushing until the door gives way and finally, the whole building fell down, covering the cops and the people with bricks and stones and debris. The whole church fell down in the snow (Hughes). This demonstrates that although the church had symbolised hope for Sargeant, the struggle becomes even more serious as he now walks along carrying the church stone pillar on his shoulder, and Christ, whom he has just liberated, by his side (Walker, Carolyn 745). Nevertheless, Hughes uses the church and its collapse to symbolise the despondency of the black population in a predominantly white environment. Just like the economy, the church has come tumbling down with all its values. The struggle continues despite the hope that it purports to offer. Even the Christ that walks and communicates with Sargeant disappears when Sargeant gets in trouble.

Additionally, the jail that Sargeant finds himself in is a symbol of the struggle to break from the shackles of racial discrimination. At first, Sargeant thinks that he is catching a train but suddenly realises that he is in jail, holding the bars of his cell. He is in bad shape too: The blood of the night before had dried on his face, his head hurt terribly, and a cop outside in the corridor was hitting him across the knuckles for holding onto the door, yelling and shaking the cell door (Hughes). Sargeants actions in prison are symbolic of his willingness to survive and break the barriers of equity. He vows: Im gonna break down this door (Hughes). The threat to break down the prison door symbolises the ultimate struggle to survive in a racist society. The jail symbolises the prison that the white community has condemned the black community into (El-Deftar 129). As soon as Sargeant can break from this prison of life, he will have succeeded in overcoming racial discrimination.

In conclusion, it is clear that symbolism is one of the most effective devices used by writers to reinforce certain themes. In particular, Langston Hughes has utilised this device so effectively that the theme of racial discrimination has been well reflected. Hughes has used the snow and darkness, the church and prison to evaluate the tactics of survival that people struggle with in the face of racial discrimination. Because the story is set during a harsh economic period, there is no device that could mirror the theme of discrimination and struggle for liberation more explicitly than symbolism (El-Deftar 130). The main character, Sargeant, faces a lot of challenges but has a strong will to survive. The combination of the three symbols clearly demonstrates the willingness and power to survive in a harsh economy and intolerant society. It, therefore, edges towards the hope of liberation from difficult circumstances.

Works Cited

El-Deftar, Wafaa M. "Symbolism of time in the work of Langston Hughes". International Journal of Language and Literature 2.4 (2014): 123-132. doi:10.15640/ijll.v2n4a7

Hughes, Langston. The short stories of Langston Hughes. Macmillan, 1997.

Leary, John Patrick. "The worlds of Langston Hughes: modernism and translation in the Americas by Vera Kutzinski". African American Review 47.1 (2014): 211-215. doi:10.1353/afa.2014.0006.

Walker, Carolyn P. "Liberating Christ: sargeant's metamorphosis in Langston Hughes's "On The Road"". Black American Literature Forum 25.4 (1991): 745. doi:10.2307/3041720

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