This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "How to Read Literature Like a Professor" by Thomas C. Foster. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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What does it mean when a character in literature takes flight? What are some examples of flight being used symbolically?
More often than not, flight in literature symbolizes either freedom or spirituality. Additionally, the ability to fly can also be used ironically depending on the circumstance.
Keep reading to learn about flight in literature.
The Symbol of Flying
What does flying symbolize in literature? Well, since human beings cannot actually fly, when a character in literature takes flight, it is a symbol of freedom. This could mean freedom from a particular place or circumstance, or freedom from all the general struggles that weigh us down.
- Example: In Steven Spielberg’s movie E.T., the children literally escape from road-blocked streets in their neighborhood when their bikes fly into the air. They also metaphorically escape the conformity, suspicion, and hostility of the people chasing them.
But if the symbol only worked when characters literally took flight, it wouldn’t be very helpful. Instead, these examples of actual flight give us instruction for how we should interpret figurative, imagined, or failed flight in literature.
- Example: In Fay Weldon’s Hearts and Lives of Men, a young girl and her kidnapper find themselves in the rear section of a plane that has exploded in two. Improbably, they glide down to the earth unharmed. This depiction of falling from a great height is an interpretation of flight. Usually, that fall would result in death, so their survival is a symbol of rebirth and second chances. What does it mean to come face to face with death and escape it?
Flight is also used a lot in literature to express spirituality. In the Christian tradition, it is a common notion that the soul can flutter or fly separately from the body.
- Example: In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Claudius attempts to pray. Although his “words fly up,” he admits that his “thoughts remain below.” This is a symbolic way to say that his spirit is weighed down by guilt.
When it comes to common symbols such as flight, irony changes everything. But irony only works because the patterns of symbols are so established that authors can feel free to invert them.
- Example: In Angela Carter’s Night Circus, the heroine, Fevvers, has wings. But she is outcast from society and forced to perform in a circus act. Ironically, she is trapped by the one thing that should be a symbol of freedom. Carter’s use of wings and flight enhances the sense of captivity in the novel by working against what the reader expects flight to symbolize.
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