Why do we feel a need to collect things as we travel through our lives? Alice Walker, Tim O'Brien and Lori Sambol Brody capture the importance of souvenirs in these three short stories.
The French word 'souvenir' means "to remember". In, Souvenir (Object Lessons), Rolf Potts looks at how souvenir-collecting is mostly about the stories we tell ourselves and others of the places we visit and the self-identities we aspire to. He writes: "souvenirs are a metaphor for how lived experience can endow most any object with personal significance." As such, souvenirs have often featured as symbols and motifs in fictional storytelling. This month, we look at three short stories with souvenirs as a theme.
To clarify a point of difference: Symbolism is about implying broader, deeper layers of meaning to plot and/or character through everyday objects, behaviors, or gestures; while motifs are recurring objects or ideas that further the key theme or message in a story.
In psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols, he looked at how the subconscious mind attributes psychic significance to commonplace objects and ideas, and even more powerfully so in the realm of dreams. A classic and well-known example of symbolism in fictional storytelling is the sled, Rosebud, in Orson Welle's Citizen Kane (1941). At key points in the narrative, Rosebud represents the innocence, simplicity, and comfort of Kane's childhood. (Note: there's a second sled, Crusader, which stands for other aspects entirely.)
Short stories, due to their brevity, leverage symbolism more often to hint at complexities of plot and/or character and to help make the abstract observable. That said, if we have to ask what a symbol in a story means, then it has not worked well. Further, a symbol cannot stand in for profound meaning — it can only enrich or improve what already exists in the narrative (whether explicitly or implicitly).
There are two more caveats to bear in mind, as well. First: please be wary of the anti-symbolists (e.g. some extreme proponents within the New Criticism movement) who say all things should simply be what they are and nothing more. This is somewhat naïve, because our brains are always working to make connections between objects and ideas and memories, whether we are fully conscious of this or not. Second: sometimes readers search for symbolism where it's not intended. In a now-famous letter (found in the collection, The Habit of Being) Flannery O'Connor described to a Dr T R Spivey how a young, earnest Wesleyan University teacher asked her about the significance of the Misfit's black hat in her short story, "A Good Man Is Hard to Find". She replied that most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats then and it was just a hat with no additional meaning to it, which apparently left him and a few others disappointed.
"Everyday Use" by Alice Walker
This is a classic from Walker's 1973 collection, In Love and Trouble. 'Mama' is an older, African-American woman living in the deep South with her younger, shy, uneducated daughter, Maggie. Her older, well-educated daughter, Dee (who now goes by Wangero), comes to visit. Seeing two old, handmade patchwork quilts as precious souvenirs of their cultural heritage, Dee asks to take and preserve them rather than let Maggie put them to everyday use. Conflicted throughout the entire visit by Dee and her man-friend about their concepts of culture and heritage, Mama's final decision shows how differently she values, identifies, and connects with those quilts as their collective legacy.
After dinner Dee (Wangero) went to the trunk at the foot of my bed and started rifling through it. Maggie hung back in the kitchen over the dishpan. Out came Wangero with two quilts. They had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them. One was in the Lone Star pattern. The other was Walk Around the Mountain. In both of them were scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago. Bits and pieces of Grandpa Jarrell's paisley shirts. And one teeny faded blue piece, about the size of a penny matchbox, that was from Great Grandpa Ezra's uniform that he wore in the Civil War.
"The Things They Carried", by Tim O'Brien
This short story is from O'Brien's award-winning 1990 collection of the same title. All the linked, semi-autobiographical stories are about American soldiers fighting in Vietnam. In this particular story, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries various items that remind him of his girlfriend, Martha, back home. They are his souvenirs of a time past, a love that was barely his, and desires that he still harbors. The story cuts a wider arc as the objects carried by other soldiers are accounted for. They range from the universal (e.g., ammunition) to the particular (e.g., an illustrated New Testament gifted by a father to a son).
A sudden death occurs and it has a drastic effect on how Cross regards his personal keepsakes. What's particularly beautiful is how O'Brien describes the specific memories and/or fantasies evoked by various objects. Even when the narration sounds like a litany of wartime necessities, a sentence or phrase refers to a past reality or reveals a future hope/fear of survival in a heartbreaking way that makes us feel the full weight of all that is really being carried.
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day's march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was an English major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about her professors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucer and her great affection for Virginia Woolf. She often quoted lines of poetry; she never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letters weighed 10 ounces. They were signed Love, Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant.
"The World Is a Desert", by Lori Sambol Brody
The final story is a newer one, published last year in The Rumpus. " The World Is a Desert", is about a mother and her 16-year-old daughter, who are on a vacation somewhere in Central Asia (probably Uzbekistan). The daughter, who narrates the story, has a lot going on here — her difficult relationship with her mother, her attraction to their tour guide, and her general sense of frustration with her own life. The souvenir is a pair of silver bangles bought at a bazaar. As various events unfold, these bangles that she wears clink, chime and ring at the slightest movement, making the girl feel, alternatingly, in charge or out-manoeuvred.
At the story's end, when she cannot hear them anymore, she realizes she has lost one of them. But that material loss is a symbolic one for her loss of innocence and more. There has been an inexplicable, bittersweet, complex sort of gain too — the kind that, decades later, will continue to be associated with that lone bangle as the trip's souvenir and a part of the narrative of her past.
I hold my shot glass out. My bangles clink together, a clear sound. I like the sound they make: it makes me feel solid, as if I'm not going to disappear.
The vodka he pours into my glass is from another bottle, this one covered in perspiration, with a different label: an image of the Registan. He fills the shot glass almost to the brim.
"The good stuff." He sticks the bottle under the table, away from me. The vodka is chilled thick. It tastes exactly like the bad stuff.
He moves the bracelets up and down my arm so they chime. "These are bracelets brides wear as dowry."
This time when I press my thigh against his, he doesn't move away.
Here is a fitting quote from Potts to end with:
Nobody sits us down and tells us to collect objects when we're young; it's just something we do, as a way of familiarizing ourselves with the world, its possibilities, and our place in it. In general, possessions provide the child with an emerging sense of control and self-effectance over his or her environment. As children grow older, the keepsakes they collect don't just give them a feeling of stability; they help create and interpret a sense of self. Even as adults, the private mythologies we attach to souvenirs are a way of mythologizing our own lives. Like Proustian madeleines, these objects invoke a personalized sense of the past -- a universe of "lost time"—that can be felt in the present moment.