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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Just before her mother’s death, Ellen senses that there is a terrible storm coming, foreshadowing the suffering to come. This image of a storm and of rain appears throughout the book, namely during her mother’s burial, when there is a severe rainstorm. Ellen later wishes that her father will be struck by lightning. These images of storm and rain are symbolic of pain and suffering, as they always appear in conjunction with grief.
The ocean represents an almighty power and control, as is evident when Ellen wonders if her grandmother has ever seen the ocean. Immediately, she knows she has not, as such a self-righteous, controlling woman would be humbled to have witnessed the ocean’s powerful and awful force. Ellen finds the ocean particularly intriguing, as it is so mysterious in its immense depth, and she finds similarity in herself and such a brooding force—she feels as though she is churning inside, as the mighty ocean does.
Unlike her paintings of the brooding ocean, Ellen’s cat painting is symbolic of shallowness and vanity on the part of Dora and Nadine. The painting is not to Ellen’s taste, and, though she knows Dora and Nadine will think the cats are cute, she personally would much rather paint something with significance. The painting of the cats carries no meaning and no emotion, both of which are very important to Ellen, and, thus, it symbolizes the shallowness and importance of pleasant appearances that underlie many of her opponents.