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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Robert and Marie both have birthmarks, which represent the freed slaves’ hopes for family reunification. Since slavery has dislocated their family for nearly a generation, the only knowledge that Iola and Robert have of their more distant relatives is their physical descriptions. Their grandmother’s slave song is the sole memory that Iola and Robert share. Robert recalls the mole on Marie’s cheek, and Iola’s photo of her mother convinces Robert that Marie is his sister. Robert displays “a red spot on his temple” that identifies him as Iola’s uncle. Family is of the utmost importance—Iola even refuses to marry Dr. Gresham because she prioritizes finding her long-lost mother. Birthmarks identify individuality and family legacy and offer hope that families will one day be reunited.
Harper rarely describes setting, but the descriptions of natural imagery that she does include work symbolically to offer unique perspectives on the events taking place. Prior to the Civil War, slaves held their secret prayer meetings in the dismal woods. Harper’s transformation of the post-war North Carolina countryside to a fertile, blossoming setting symbolizes rebirth and optimism—a passage from slavery to freedom. When Dr. Latimer and Iola arrive in North Carolina, their home is shrouded in flowers, which suggests both the South’s renewal and the couple’s crossing of a threshold into married life. Harper also details the natural imagery surrounding two marriage proposal scenes. Dr. Latimer’s proposal to Iola occurs amidst the end of summer on a beautiful day, and the lovely scenery Harper describes suggests contentment and the rightness of the decision to get married, particularly for strong young women such as Iola. Harry proposes to Miss Delany on a carriage ride through a forest, and Miss Delany comments on the “stately pines that remind [her] of a procession of hooded monks.” This metaphor refers to the sanctity and purity of marriage.
The character of Aunt Linda serves as a symbol of optimism, and her visionary capability develops the novel’s theme of vanquishing slavery and foreshadows the novel’s plot. Aunt Linda has premonitions of liberation and transcendence for blacks, and she predicts the North’s victory in the war and the subsequent abolition of slaves. She seems certain of her visions of glory and freedom from captivity and thus exudes positive energy and enthusiasm. From one of her visions, Aunt Linda predicts Iola’s arrival in the South and her success in ameliorating conditions for black women. Aunt Linda sees blacks as uplifted, and, because of her visions, she herself is elevated to a role akin to a Biblical figure or an oracle who predicts the future.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Iola Leroy!