2009 ap® English Literature Sample Essays Question #3: Symbol

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2009 AP® English Literature Sample Essays
Question #3: Symbol


Atonement, a novel by Ian McEwan, describes the lifespan relationship between Robbie Turner, Cecilia Tallis, and Briony Tallis. At the beginning of the novel, Robbie accidentally breaks the Tallis family’s vase that had been handed down to them and put on display in the guest room. This vase, and more specifically the breaking of the vase, symbolizes the loss of innocence throughout the play. The breaking of the vase has an impact on the main characters, and also reveals the theme of the loss of innocence in this novel.

After Robbie initially breaks the vase, the vase never appears in a monumental way again. The vase does, however, have a direct impact on Cecilia and Briony Tallis. Immediately after the vase shatters into hundreds of pieces, some of which went into the fountain, Cecila removes some of her clothes in Robbie’s presence, to retrieve them. This alone indicates Cecilia’s partial loss of innocence to Robbie. Robbie sees Cecilia, and as a result, begins to have deeper feelings for her. This is further portrayed later on in the library scene when Robbie and Cecilia have their sexual encounter. It is revealed to the reader that it is the first time for both of them, signaling a loss of innocence. Cecilia’s life, overall, takes a turn for the worse after the vase breaks. She gets too deeply involved with Robbie, which eventually leads to his downfall, and their eventual failure to become a steady couple.

Briony also changes and loses a piece of her innocence when Robbie breaks the vase. She, however, is affected more indirectly than Cecelia by the event. It can be assumed that the effect this event had on Cecilia, has an effect on Briony’s loss of innocence. When Robbie and Cecilia begin to have deeper feelings for each other, it is Briony who intercepts and reads Robbie’s inappropriate note to Cecilia. This note shocks Briony, and alerts her to things that she did not know in the past. A large portion of Briony’s innocence is lost when she sees them in the library in the midst of their sexual encounter. She has never seen this being done before, and changes her opinion on Robbie completely. Briony is changed as a character, and directly causes the downfall of Robbie and Robbie and Cecilia’s future relationship. Briony, as a result of the vase breaking, loses her innocence and changes in the way she views certain people.

What seems like a small event, when the vase breaks, turns into a significant event. It symbolizes the loss of innocence of the main characters, and changes the ways and views of Cecilia and Briony. Cecilia loses her innocence in how she acts with Robbie, which is also her character change. Briony, more indirectly affected loses her innocence when she walks in on Robbie and Cecilia in the library; this event also changes how she thinks of Robbie, which impacts the outcome of the novel. When Robbie breaks the vase, both Cecilia and Briony lose their innocence, and change how they think and act.


In As I Lay Dying, the dead grandmother represents a symbol of love. Anse takes the whole family to make sure Grandma is buried in the cemetery. Anse takes huge risks to get her there and this reenforces the symbol of love they had.

Grandma asks to be placed in a far off cemetery and Anse does it. The family follows Anse lead. This shows the deep love the had and also the importance of granting people’s last wishes was back then. This symbol causes the family many problems and the loss of valuable resources yet they keep on moving ahead. This reveals the determination Anse has.

In the end, Grandma becomes a symbol for both the journey and the idea that love triumphs all and doing so can bring a family together.


In The Glass Menagerie, the family goes through a difficult time financially. The sister in the family is frail and delicate, just like her “glass menagerie”-a collection of little glass toys.

The family is struggling to keep up the relationships, as well as keep up financially. This all requires care in handling, just as the menagerie would. The family doesn’t necessarily get along all the time. The father has passed away, the mother and son does not see eye to eye, and the sister is socially and physically impaired. It needs some polishing, like the menagerie requires.

One day, there is a ray of hope in the household. One of the brother’s coworkers is coming over. The mother hopes to marry her daughter off to him. He happens to be her first love back in high school. All of the excitement brings the family closer together. Unfortunately, it appears that the man has a lover already. Coincidentally enough, just before he breaks the news to the sister, one of her glass figurines break. If something is hyped up too much and not handles correctly, it can shatter-just like the figurine. It can shatter, along with all the excitement and hopes.

The breaking off the figurine also foreshadows the departure of the brother. He leaves the family with no farewell and breaks it apart even more.

The glass menagerie represents a family’s relationship with one another and the hopes it has for one another. It is all fragile and must be handled with care.


The pursuit of power has been the downfall of many characters throughout literature. The appeal of authority, wealth, and political strength has driven and motivated shameful deeds. In Macbeth, by William Shakespeare, the protagonist, Macbeth, murders his king in order to rise in power. The appariation of the bloody dagger that appears to Macbeth before his act functions as the physical representation of Macbeth’s ambition, betrayal and doubt.

Macbeth’s ambition, fueled by the witches’ prophecy that he would be king, allows him to cast aside morals and loyalty in pursuit of his goal. When the dagger appears, the handle points to him, all that is required is that he reach out and use it. The dagger itself seems to be encouraging Macbeth. It’s position is symbolic of his desire to act and his impatience for power. The dagger’s appearance represents the action Macbeth is willing to take to speeding his rise to the position of king instead of passively awaiting the fulfillment of the prophecy. The blood on the dagger is also symbolic of Macbeth’s ambition because it foreshadows the murderous act he will soon commit as a warrior. However, this time Macbeth does not shed blood nobly in battle, as a man of action, but sneakily goes to murder a sleeping ally.

For this reason, the dagger is also representative of Macbeth’s betrayal. The form of the weapon, not a sword, a symbol of strength, but the small dagger, usually hidden on a person for a sneak attack, represents the shame of the use, bereft of dignity. The weapon’s appearance, a manifestation of an act committed, gives insight into Macbeth’s thoughts and ultimate awareness of his betrayal. He knows he shall betray king and country through the murder of his guest and is stung by loyalty to the man that has so recently rewarded him. The bloody dagger causes him to pause, for he does not leap to snatch it as he also realizes that he will be betraying himself as well by giving up his morals and nobility to commit the gruesome sneak attack.

Macbeth’s realization of his betrayal lead to thoughts of doubts, and he hesitates to grab the dagger, a motion that would affirm his acceptance of the act to come. The weapon’s appearance, out of reach and before him, shows his relunctance and represents his nervousness about bearing the consequences of the murder, both politically and emotionally. His hesitation is manifested in the bloody symbol, a weapon not yet in his hand, and though it foreshadows his act, the space between them also represent his choice to withdraw to what is right.

Ambition ultimately overcomes hesitation and Macbeth carries through with his foul mission in pursuit of power. The blood on the dagger also acts as a violent symbol throughout the play. It represents the blood Macbeth has spilt for noble causes, the blood that shall stain his hands marked by betrayal, and the blood to be spilt in retribution for his deeds.


Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad is the story of a man (Marlow) who ventures into the Congo as the captain of a ship to retrieve an ivory hunter named Kurtz-and perderably,m on the company’s end, his ivory as well. In the novel, the Congo, an unknown and primordial mystery to Marlow, the whole place-the African jungle and its inhabitants-is much more than an unexplored continent; it symbolizes primal savagery and disconnection from civilization.

In the story’s plot, as Marlow almost obsessively searches for Kurtz, he end up finding him sickly and depraved, clinging to his status a s a white gold over the worshipping natives. Marlow describes the jungle as having “taken” Kurtz-wholly embraced him to in its savage breast, resulting in the horror of Kurtz’s downfall as he adopts the savagery of the Congo, in its “heart of darkness:, and also its unspeakable rituals and a tribal mistress. Thus the symbol of the jungle becomes something that can also corrupt and insidiously sway, in Kurtz’s lost case, Marlow described him as having no self-restraint and “gave in to his primal lusts”. However, in the story, Marlow himself is not immune to the siren song of the jungle.

Marlow’s journey to the heart of the Congo reflects a less physical one to darkness and primordial being. The closer Marlow draws to Kurtz’s inner station, the close and more attracted he becomes to the jungle. This reveals a facet of his character that was unusual for his day-a rather thorough contempt for his fellow white pilgrims and an increasing acceptance for the black natives. His disgust towards the white pilgrims bureaucratic-climbing, incompetent, and hypocritical ways is evident as he sees hollow men around him “sucking up” to gain political advantage, and backstabbing just to get a leg up on the political ladder. He openly scorns their incompetence as he sees a man trying to put out a fire with a bucket with a hole in it, and mocks the white pilgrims for thinking they shot anything when they were shooting from the hip. In fact, he sees right through the farce that is “white imperialism”, recognizing, even to his aunt, that the white men are simply there to make money and rape the land of its ivory. The jungle brings about these gradual sights and revelations to Marlow, who, in this growing dislike of white “civilization”, begins to view the natives as “real people”.

Yet if white civilization means greedy bastards and the jungle means unspeakable savage evil, then were does Marlow stand? Where is right ground? Why does Marlow still condemn Kurtz for embracing the jungle & giving in to his lusts? The answer was in a vision Kurtz himself had before his corruption; he described a goal of having every white station in the Congo being a beacon of light, trading, and education. Marlow himself, before telling his story, muses on the necessity of a dream, a goal worth bowing down to-not just invading & abusing a country because its people talk differently or have slightly flatter noses. He therefore, like Kurtz, dreams of an imperialism not founded on money but moral reasons. Marlow’s entire voyaging into the jungle led him to see the necessity for this belief, led him to see the differing culture of the jungle and the foolishness of his own inside of it. However, he led himself out of it-away from the pure & unadulterated savagery it implied, with his eyes opened and his view of the world changed.


In a novel by the name of “The Scarlet Letter” written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, it involves the use of a symbol. There is a character named Hester who has to wear a red sweater with a yellow letter A on it. It is done so because she has commited adultery at a young age in a town where that isn’t allowed. With her wearing the sweater everywhere she goes, people look down at her lowering her self-esteem giving her life a bad reputation. She’s not respected nor treated like she’s another human. That’s one symbol I wouldn’t dare represent.


Blood. The symbol of blood in The Tragedy of Macbeth plays a huge role, and Shakespeare uses that to tell and describe the entire play of Macbeth.

From bravery to violence, bloodshed seems to play the biggest role in the turning points in the play. The symbol of blood, first acts as bravery and honor with Macbeth being a hero knight, but the will for power, and the pleasure of killing soon turn that hero knight into a brutal murderer.

The blood symbol not only affect Macbeth, but his wife too. After King Duncans murder, both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are stained with blood and eventually guilt. The blood can be washed doff the hands, but not off the mind. Macbeth’s mind lays a big role not only with the symbol of blood, but in the play as a whole.

The style and structure that Shakespeare writes makes the symbol of blood even more vivid. After each murder that Macbeth makes the blood comes off his body, but not his soul and soon builds up on him to the point where he can not take it any more, and he begins to hallucinate. From Macbeth’s hallucinations, to his wife’s nightmares, the symbol of blood stays with them until their deaths. Lady Macbeth, before her death, reveals the murders during one nightmare, saying that famous quote, “out spot, out…” referring to the blood stained on her life. She wants to rid herself of all the wrong doing, but can not, and does not until her death.

From the meaning of honor to shame, the symbol of blood shifts heavily during Shakespeare’s famous play. The cruel murders, and intense power that Macbeth is given really does make The Tragedy of Macbeth a tragedy.


In the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four there is a re-occuring symbol of Big Brother. In the novel Big Brother is a system which watches over all the citizens in the country. As a symbol it stands for much more than that.

The most prominent thing that most people would say it represents is a threat to freedom. A universal threat to freedom everywhere. What is the point of having rights if you do not have the ability to have private time? It can also symbolize the end of personal thoughts * original ideas. Nowadays, most information is fed to us through universal media & students especially have no time for personal time to just ponder. Also, social networking & technology are essentially a Big Brother, never leaving us to ourselves. In the book, these symbols bring up the thought of a machine or combine. Everyone is watched to make sure they do their part. It is also a symbol which brings feeling that make the characters want to rebel & overthrow the government. When reading this book you cant help but feel like the characters are being cheated out basic rights what we, in real life, enjoy everyday.

The use of such a strong symbol in this book actually conjurs up real life feelings & reactions in people as they read.


Symbolism is a widespread literary device used by many writers in various fields to express a certain aspect of their writing on a larger scale. In the novel Beloved, Toni Morrison uses symbolism repeatedly, often enforced with figurative language to do just that.

One symbol used through the novel is the tin can that Paul D says in in place “where a red heart used to be.” Through his past experiences, Paul D has learned that the only way to keep his heart safe is to lock it somewhere deep down inside of him, so that even if he was tempted to give it away he wouldn’t be able to. He tells Sethe, “Your love is too thick,” revealing his belief that by loving someone, you are asking for heartache. She stubbornly replies “thin love ain’t no love at all,” challenging his words with her own sense of passion. He refuses to accept this, and he continues to pack everything he’s ever wanted to care about-Sethe, the family, Beloved, friends-inside his “tin can,” denying the temptation of ever really loving someone to the fullest extent. With this, the reader is able to more deeply understand Paul D’s actions-primarily when he leaves the house, temporarily abandoning Sethe and her daughters in order to focus on himself. His emotional conflictions justify his behavior to a certain extent, saving him from a classification of a morally evil character.

After he learns about Sethe’s secret, however, his tin box cannot hold anymore unexplored feeling, and it overflows with confusion. Even after listening to Sethe’s explanation, he tells her she has two legs, not four, inferring that her attempt to take the lives of her children in order to save them from a lifetime of hell was inhumane, and no spoken defense could justify her actions. The knowledge that the one person he is trying hardest not to care about has done something so terrible combined with the fear of whether or not she is capable of repeating such an action is too much to handle, and he stops on church steps to finally pry open the lid of his box, allowing everything to come out at once in the only form it can. After his tears have washed away most of his emotional baggage the reader can infer that the tin can is tossed aside, and the red heart breaks free from whence it was kept. Paul D is able to return to Sethe with a newfound understanding and openness, which she accepts readily, allowing her to reconcile the departure of Beloved and live the life she was always supposed to have.

The symbol of the tine can, used throughout the novel, enhances the reader’s understanding of Paul D’s character and Sethe’s personal progression.


Almost universally, images of motherhood and children are symbols of love, contentment, and innocence, particularly the image of the nursing mother and her milk. In Macbeth, this symbol is repeatedly subverted into one of gore and death, which aids in the characterization of Lady Macbeth and contributes to the many reversals of traditional associations and images that occur thoughout the play.

Lady Macbeth is closer to a force of nature than a typical wife and mother, and this is evident almost immediately. After reading a letter from Macbeth aloud, her first lines include already the subversion of the nurturing milk symbol: “I fear thy nature; it is too full of the milk of human kindness.” Ordinarily, being full - of mother’s milk or human kindness - is considered a positve attribute. This is also the first of several times that Lady Macbeth compares her fearsome warrior husband to a child. Moments later, Lady Macbeth gives a speech in which she implores the “spirits who tend on mortal thoughts” to give her the strength to kill Duncan, and here once again the symbol of mother’s milk and the image of nurturing it conjures up is subverted: “Come to my woman’s breasts and take my milk for gall, you murdering ministers,“ Lady Macbeth requests, thus indicating that, in her, all the nurturing aspects associated with motherhood - and traditional womanhood - have been replaced by a hardness and strength that are better as gall, for she cannot use them independently, legitimately, or in a way that is socially acceptable, because she is a woman. Her place in this world of warriors is to be a wife and mother, but she has made it clear that she lacks the nurturing capacity to be a good mother, and she is far more valuable as Macbeth’s “dearest partner in greatness” than as merely the bearer of his children. It is worth noting that no such children are in evidence, despite Lady Macbeth’s claim, in the strongest and most horrifying subversion of the nursing mother symbol, that: “I have given suck and know how tender “tis to love the babe that milks me. I would, while it was smiling in my face, have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums and dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you have done to this!” Lady Macbeth herself is clearly aware of the shock value inherent in the gory reversal of this potent, traditional symbol; she uses it there in order to convince Macbeth once again to kill Duncan, and it is this tactic, the description of murdering an infant, that succeeds in changing his mind (the charge of “baby-killing” is still among the most powerful and violence-inciting that there is). Lady Macbeth’s use of this symbol of life-giving as a vehicle for murder further characterizes her, not only as an untraditional woman, but as an intelligent, calculating, and brilliantly manipulative one. This reversal of traditional associations – mother’s milk with death, rather than love and life- is a trope used with various other associations in Macbeth, particularly peaceful sleep with gruesome murder (Duncan’s death looks nothing at all like Hamlet’s longed-for “Sleep of death”), and the broad reversal of warrior attributes in Macbeth, whose brutal killings on the battlefield are honorable and praise-worthy, but whose murders of Duncan, Banquo, Lady Macduff, and her son are increasingly dishonorable.

The symbol of children as carefree, innocent beings is also reversed - and played upon traditionally - in Macbeth. Lady Macbeth mocks her murderous husband as a child when he regresses to replace the bloody daggers in Duncan’s room, and Macbeth refers to himself as “a baby of a girl” while he is seeing Banquo’s ghost. Rahter than innocent, the association with children here is of seeing and fearing bloodied bodies. The symbol of the innocent child is also used to emphasize Macbeth’s growing depravity when he has Lady Macduff and her young son murdered, and act which seems even to have horrified his steely wife at least in her sleep (the shift of sleep from peace to violence is again evident in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking episode) .

The primary reversed symbol of the nursing mother, used to charactrize Lady Macbeth as its opposite, is also in play in the prophecy which states that Macbeth can be killed by “no man born of woman,” a prophecy fulfilled when he is slain by Macduff, who was “from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.” Macduff, therefore, never nursed, as such a primitive Caesarian section almost undoubtedly killed his mother, lending the life-giving acts of birth and nursing yet another association with death. It is the transmutation of the symbol of the mother from on of life to one of death, and Macbeth’s assumption of the traditional idea of the mother as a universal one (“What of Malcolm? Was he not born of woman?) that ultimately kills him, as it leaves him arrogant and unprepared.

Still the primary effect of the mother symbol is to characterize Lady Macbeth as its opposite, since she seems to reverse it every time she opens her mouth, which characterizes her as strong and callous, brilliant and manipulative – perhaps one of those geniuses of whom it was once said are lost to mankind, in being born women.


Daisy Buchanan, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, serves as both a symbol for Gatsby’s dream and the American dream in general. Gatsby fell in love with Daisy years before and has now gained a fortune and hopes to win back her affections even though she has already married another man. Gatsby’s failure in this regard shows both the unfeasability of his dream as well as the American dream of rising through the ranks of society by hint of hard work.

Gatsby ultimately fails at winning Daisy back. Since he left her with the military years ago, he has been working hard to gain a fortune and impress her. For Gatsby, Daisy symbolized not only love, but weath and power, what he sees as his own happiness. She is the goal he has worked for, and his need for her reveals his own hopefullness and idealism. However, Daisy is too closed off in her upper class world. She stays with her husband, an upper class man and the two together exclude those of lower circles from themselves. Gatsby is unable to obtain Daisy or his dream and is eventually killed in pursuit of both. Though an idealist, as symbolized by his need for Daisy, Gatsby proves his dream of Daisy is unfeasable, and his perfect life impossible.

Daisy, and Gatsby’s desire for her, also functions as a symbol for the greater American dream. Gatsby’s dream, in its most basic form, is the American dream. He hopes to rise through society from a poor boy to a rich man and become involved in high society through Daisy Buchanan. This parallels the American dream of working hard and ultimately improving oneself by hard work.

The flaw in Gatsby’s dream is revealed, the symbolic rich, Daisy and her husband, will not allow others to rise to their level and instead, either consciously or not, destroy the less fortunate than themselves. Through the symbol of Daisy for all the upper class, this failure is extended to the American dream as a whole. Though it may seem feasable, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, the American dream is, in fact impossible.

The validity of Gatsby’s dream and the American dream is tested against the symbol of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Gatsby’s dream of rising through the ranks turns out to be impossible to achieve and leads to his death. This dream and failure is extended to the American dream in general through the use of Daisy as a symbol for not only Gatsby’s dream but for the entire American upper class.

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