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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The black flag appears in both literal and figurative forms throughout A Gesture Life, each time symbolizing danger. The black flag first appears when Captain Ono decides to use it to signal to Doc Hata when he will come for K. Ono chose the black flag based on Doc Hata’s name. At the time, he went by his full Japanese name, Jiro Kurohata, and kurohata is a Japanese word that translates to “black flag.” Doc Hata’s adoptive family belonged to an ancient lineage of apothecaries who helped villages that had been struck by deadly contagions. The family earned the name Kurohata from the black flag that a village would raise to warn outsiders of the contagion. For this reason, Doc Hata understood Ono’s choice of the flag as a warning of danger—a warning that bore out when soldiers raped and murdered K. In the novel’s present, as Doc Hata witnesses so many people around him suffering, getting injured, and dying, he comes to think of himself as a source of danger, and he imagines raising a figurative black flag to warn others to stay away from him.
Doc Hata’s house, which he has meticulously restored to perfection, symbolizes the high value he places on self-improvement and keeping up appearances. Throughout his thirty years in Bedley Run, Doc Hata has prioritized his own personal and economic development, as well as the establishment of a sterling reputation among his community. Doc Hata made important strides toward both goals when he purchased his Tudor-style home in the fashionable Mountainview neighborhood. For years, he labored until he had restored every inch of the house, and he transformed the grounds by installing an impressive flagstone pool and landscaping every inch of the yard. Through this restoration, Doc Hata showed himself willing to put in effort toward improving his own lot in life. Furthermore, the results of his labor at once elevated the aesthetic of his home and added value to both the property and the neighborhood. Yet Doc Hata’s obsessive maintenance of his house also symbolizes his tendency to displace his negative feelings and guard against hard memories. For instance, when Sunny left his home for the last time, he spackled and painted every surface in her room, as if to erase any trace of her former presence in his life.
Doc Hata has a longstanding fascination with the human heart, which symbolizes for him the place in the material body that houses a person’s immaterial spirit. His curiosity about the heart began during his training as a field medic, when he witnessed a doctor open a man’s chest and massage his heart with bare hands. This experience inspired Doc Hata, both in his philosophy of the heart as a vessel for the human spirit and in his career ambition to become a cardiopulmonary surgeon. Though Doc Hata never pursued more formal medical training, his attachment to the heart persists in his daydreams about saving other people’s lives. When he considers Patrick Hickey’s urgent need for a heart transplant, he imagines performing the operation for himself. And when Renny has a heart attack in Chapter 15, he imagines reaching inside Renny’s chest to massage his heart. In these fantasies, the heart demonstrates Doc Hata’s desire to be someone who can take decisive action and do real good for other people. Ironically, however, such fantasies also remind him of his persistent failure to act decisively according to the dictates of his own heart.