Geography Symbols in Literature: What They Mean

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Why is geography important in literature? What do different geographies symbolize?

When an author writes a book, one of the first decisions she needs to make is where it will take place. Geography is a conscious choice and is often used as a plot device. Sometimes, however, the geographical location of a story can tell a reader more about the author than the story.

Continue reading to learn more about geography symbols in literature.

Geography and Symbolism in Literature

Every time an author sits down to write a story, one of the first questions he asks himself is where will this story take place? An intelligent reader will recognize the geography symbols of a novel as a conscious choice on the author’s part to deepen the story’s meaning. 

In literature, geography is not only about the earth’s physical features, like hills, rivers, and seas. Literary geography is about the ways in which a specific place forges the people who live there.

Geography informs a novel’s:

  • Atmosphere
    • Example: In Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the narrator describes the geography of the landscape in detail before ever getting to the house or the characters. By illustrating the dreary geography, he sets the mood of the story before it even begins.
  • Character development
    • Example: In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees, the main character moves from her small hometown to the vast West coast. Her nature is reflected by this move—she opens her mind to new people and experiences and embraces personal growth. 
  • Plot
    • Example: In E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View, the protagonist, Lucy, travels to Florence, where she falls in love and sheds off the societal stiffness she is used to. Forster’s use of geographic change is the prompt for the novel’s plot. 

Symbolism of Traveling South

Characters go traveling in a lot of literary works, and often they travel south. There are a couple of different thematic elements you should look for in a novel when a character goes south

  1. Moving geographically south can be a symbol for going deep into the psyche. In “the south” (meaning any place south of where the character started), characters encounter new political ideas or philosophical viewpoints. Often the author is suggesting that those ideas were there all along, in the character’s subconscious. 
  2. Writers send characters south so that they can get into trouble. Whether the consequences are tragic or comic, the warmer climate and wider horizons associated with “the south” allow characters more room to run amok. 

Hills and Valleys

Hills and valleys are another form of geography that have somewhat specific thematic implications. 

  • Valleys and low land are associated with crowds, shadows, unpleasantness, swamps, and heat. 
  • Hills and high places are used to signify snow, ice, clean air, good views, and isolation. 

As a reader, you should also consider an author’s personal geography when reading their work. For example, poet Theodore Roethke was largely influenced by his background in the Midwest. To truly understand and appreciate his poetry, the reader should understand how that midwesterness influenced his thematic concerns and artistic voice. 

Geography Symbols in Literature: What They Mean

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  • How to get more out of the novels that you read
  • Why you should focus on memory, symbols, and patterns to understand literature better
  • Why sex scenes aren't always about sex

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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