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Symbolism in Everyday Life, Culture, and Literature

Prewriting: Clustering

Prewriting: Clustering

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Symbolism surrounds people in everyday life: it can be seen in certain colors like red for passion or aggression, culturally meaningful items such as rose as a symbol of love, etc. Symbols, as representations of certain ideas, exist to influence people’s opinions and directly or indirectly communicate a particular message. While the symbolism is widespread on multiple levels of human activity like marketing, painting, and design, the most meaning is found in the literature. In literary works, symbols can act as objects, events, people, and places to communicate an underlying, hidden agenda. While some symbols might appear obvious, others need deciphering and an in-depth analysis from the reader’s side. This essay will examine the use of symbolism in two novels, “A&P” and “The Hunger Artist,” and showcase how this literary device contributes to the development of the themes.

The Hunger Artist: Cage and Clock

As per “The Hunger Artist” by Frantz Kafka, the novel greatly relies on symbolism to communicate the philosophical meaning. The main character is a professional of a fictional art of fasting. Kafka describes the craft of the artist and the way he experiences the rises and falls of his career due to fluctuating interest in the art form of hunger. The three prominent symbols present in “The Hunger Artist” are the cage and the clock.

The first symbol, the cage, represents the bodily restrictions of the artist that he strives to overcome to achieve the ultimate freedom of expression. Kafka describes it as “the small barred cage” that provides the artist with the metaphorical canvas for his craft, allowing other people to see his physical suffering and starvation (1). Instead of fasting in private, he voluntarily puts himself in a cage, on public display, to feed off of the audience’s interest (Kafka 1). He also “never yet—that people had to concede—left his cage of his own free will” (Kafka 4). When the popularity of the performance was on the rise, the cage was decorated and “the flower-garlanded cage was thrown open” (Kafka 3). As an embodiment of his art, the cage serves as the necessary part of the character’s life and encompasses his success or failure.

However, the cage also serves as a symbol of the physical restraints of his body that the character desperately tries to escape from. As the investment in the hunger artist’s craft diminishes throughout Europe, the character dedicates himself to the performance further by fasting for more than forty days. The cage, along with the mental state of the artist, continues to regress: instead of “flowery arrangements” on bars, it remains forgotten, dirty, and dusty in the corner of the circus (Kafka 3). The fasting day count written beside the cage is static since everyone forgot about the artists who continued to fast out of desperation for attention. Therefore, the cage can be considered a symbol of the artist’s physical and mental strive for recognition and freedom, as well as his dying and forgotten body.

The symbol of a clock appears briefly in the novel, yet embodies the meaning of death and foreshadows the finale of the short story. Kafka explains that the main character did not pay attention to anything, “not even to what was so important to him, the striking of the clock, which was the single furnishing in the cage” (1). Although the character lives a life without any material possessions, denying his body all the pleasures, the clock is the only thing that he keeps. This symbol represents the fact that regardless of how hard the hunger artist tries to ignore his needs for art, his time to die will eventually come.

Symbols of a cage and a clock contribute to the overall conflict between art and body and elevate the themes of art and death of the novel to a deeper level of understanding. Without a cage, an artist’s craft would not be restricted, and his struggles with life and death would be illusory. As per the clock, the small and briefly mentioned symbol hints at the fact that the artist is not a machine but a living and breathing human being who has its limits. McCranor suggests that in this fictional world, the hunger artist of Kafka is not unique in his craft since there are other similar performers (72). However, what separates him from others is the motivation to push the limits of profitability for purer intentions of achieving ultimate art at the expense of his life (McCranor 73). Thus, the two central symbols of the novel represent the theme of the dual nature of the hunger artist’s strive for recognition: a cage as a symbol of his physical bounds, body, and a clock as a theme of mortality that awaits even the most inspired artists.

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A&P: Sheep and Bathing Suits

The novel by John Updike, “A&P,” reveals several symbols that further perpetuate the themes of non-conformity and normalcy. Sammy, the main character of the narrative, works as a cashier at the local grocery store and experiences a normal, routine life until two girls in bathing suits enter the shop and become the center of attention. Unlike a manager who asks girls to leave, Sammy defends them, gets fired as a result, and realizes that a transition to an independent life began for him. The overarching theme of the novel is the dual nature of American society: the sheep who follow the routine and the disobedient girls and a cashier who are against standards. Two symbols that play a role in portraying normality versus deviance dynamic are so-called sheep and the girl’s bathing suits.

Firstly, the sheep, or regular customers of the store that Sammy identifies as lifeless and ambitionless creatures, serve as symbols of redundant routine that depresses the main character. Updike describes Sammy’s impression of sheep “as if you could set off dynamite and they would keep checking oatmeal off their lists” (4). Sammy continues to identify casual customers as sheep when he sees how vividly they contrast with the girls, “The customers had been showing up with their carts but, you know, sheep” (Updike 5). When the main character gets fired and leaves the store, he looks back and can “see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through” (Updike 7). Similar to sheep, people with a conventional life do not care about others, which represents the vast majority of Updike’s reality.

The girls who acted as a disturbance to the peaceful life of the mall or, more specifically, their bathing suits play the role of a symbol that represent the rebellious nature of young people. Sammy notices that in addition to not being dressed as other customers, the girls deny the rules of the shopping center by going in the wrong direction. Updike writes, “The sheep pushing their carts down the aisle – the girls were walking against the usual traffic (not that we have one-way signs or anything) – were pretty hilarious” (3). This peculiarity highlights their otherworldliness and reinforces the idea of them portraying the opposing force to what normalcy is for this mall.

Both symbols together constitute a bigger picture of the “A&P” as a novel and make a statement about the American society. According to Zhao, many of Updike’s works explore the theme of middle-class America, and the setting of the “A&P” can be a representation of the U.S. as a whole (2). Following that assumption, sheep are the people who live an extremely common, socially accepted life with no risks, while the girls who wear bathing suits abandon the concept of normalcy. In that sense, the two opposing forces contribute and shape the dual theme of conservative and free-minded people. Sammy was one of the sheep but rejected that life full of obedience and silence in favor of risking his well-being for a moral stance. Thus, the symbols are essential for creating the central theme of “A&P”, which is a conflict between routine and uniqueness, conformity and deviance.


In conclusion, as it is evident from both “A&P” by John Updike and “The Hunger Artist” by Franz Kafka, symbols are crucial for communicating complex ideas and opinions in literary works. As per “The Hunger Artist,” Kafka explored the themes of life, death, physical restrictions of body, and art through symbols of a cage and a clock. Though trivial when examined separately, in a bigger context, both items play a more prominent role in representing the character’s struggles. As it concerns “A&P,” the dual nature of American society and the conflict between normalcy and deviance is communicated through the symbols of bathing suits for non-conforming individuals and sheep for ambitionless followers of societal standards. Therefore, it can be concluded that symbolism adds moral depth and allows authors to explore philosophical questions for the reader to discover.

Works Cited

Kafka, Franz. Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka. The Modern Library, 1993.

McCranor, Timothy. “All the World’s A Cage.” Short Stories and Political Philosophy: Power, Prose, and Persuasion, edited by Kimberly Hurd Hale and Bruce Peabody, Lexington Books, 2019, pp. 69-75.

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Updike, John. A&P. Redpath Press, 1986.

Zhao, Yang. “American Middle-Class Life in John Updike’s Novels.” UGC CARE Journal, vol. 19, no. 6, 2019, pp. 1-16. Tapathi, Web.

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