Imagery and Symbolism

You know the drill by now. I like being opinionated about things, and I like analysing stories. This is yet another blog post about how I like to do it.

This is minorly relevant to a whole series of rants I’m about to post up about a game that I recently played, loved, and now can’t get out of my head. That game (it was Little Nightmares, I’ll say that now. Yes I’m extremely late to that particular party) is extremely dense with motifs, symbolism and imagery.

I realised while I was talking about it, I’m going to be talking a lot about those, and that I should lay down some ground rules for how I’m going to be talking about those, and what exactly I mean by them. Because I … honestly it’s been so long since I was last in a study environment that I’ve probably given all these words some distinctions that make sense to me but that maybe don’t exist for other people. I’ve also discussed this before in other blog posts, and I don’t think I’ve ever really bothered to explain what I mean. So consider this a reference post for the rest of the blog. These may not be the dictionary definitions, and I’m not saying “this is the way these words ought to be used forever”. This is just me saying “Hey, here’s how I use them, just in case it helps what I say make more sense”.

First off, motif. This I use pretty much in the dictionary definition. A motif is a commonly recurring image, theme or idea. It’s used to develop the underlying ideas of the story, or to create an easy way to create connections between scenes and dialogues. For example, a motif might be a ‘playing cards’ theme, where you have a character representing King, Queen, Jack, and Jester, which could help foreshadow particular events (for example, the King taking command of something, or the Jester betraying the rest of the group). A motif can also be like a character’s motif in the score of a movie, which associates scenes and decisions with a particular character, and highlights when scenes represent important character development moments. Another way that musical motifs are used is when a scene goes badly for the characters, it might be accompanied or followed by a minor key or acoustic version of the main theme song, implying a reversal of fortune from the more hopeful or triumphant main theme.

Motifs are, by definition, recurring, and they don’t have to be visual. They also usually don’t mean anything by themselves, but are more about highlighting the relationship between scenes or people, so that there is a consistent anchor for the reader to use to interpret characters and scenes.

Second, I want to discuss imagery and symbolism together because often I feel they get equated, and it’s between these two that I particularly want to draw a distinction.

Conceptually, I don’t think imagery and symbolism necessarily have to be visual in nature, personally, but I do think that often that’s what tends to get talked about.

Symbolism, as I tend to think of the term, is the use of cues to support a metaphorical interpretation of events. For example, the motif of the playing cards above might be supported with symbolism like the Jester character always wearing two-tone clothes, or being associated with bells. The King might have an object that resembles (or just literally have) a sceptre or crown.

Imagery, on the other hand, is the use of cues in order to set an emotional association. For example, a character might be described as “hawk-eyed”  which uses the image of the hawk in order to encourage the audience to make an assumption about the character’s abilities.

For me, symbolism is more about the interpretation, whereas imagery is more about service to a single scene or emotional point. Here’s an example of where I think the difference lies.

When Star Wards gives the Empire uniforms reminiscent of Nazi Germany, it is symbolism. It creates a metaphor: The Empire is a fascist regime just like the Nazis, and should be regarded as this world’s equivalent of them. It also has them goose-stepping, and the Empire is very similar in terms of how its hierarchy works to an actual country with a military, and all of these parallels come together to form the symbolism.

However, a particular scene of them goose-stepping in their  uniforms is imagery, because it is usually intending to produce a response in those watching. The reader is supposed to feel dread, or like the scene is “chilling”. It’s used to emphasise that rule by the Empire is bad and should be fought against, because the viewer is subtly reminded of the atrocities that might be visited on the galaxy if someone so like the Nazis were to take control.

Imagery can feed into symbolism, as above, using images to create a whole symbolic interpretation. However, they can also stand alone as well. For example, again in Star Wars, Luke wears white, while Han Solo wears black. That’s not symbolic of anything, but the viewers associates Luke with the ‘pure goodness’ of white (the more idealistic, less cynical goodness), whereas Han is associated more with evil (which makes the viewers more likely to believe that he is going to betray Luke and the Rebels when he decides to leave instead of fighting against the Death Star with them. The fact that he wears black creates an image consistent with his comparative lack of morality and shady dealings.

These are both distinct from ‘iconography’, which is the specific association of an image or logo with a particular unified group (like a company’s logo on their employee uniform, or the Ichthus, or Jesus Fish, symbol with the Church and Jesus Christ).

I hope this makes at least a little bit of sense, and that this wasn’t too useless. I’ll get into that blog series next week, and hopefully that’s interesting, too.

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