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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
Throughout the book, eyes are critical symbols. They are used as means by which to read people, or as true testaments of how James really sees himself. In the beginning of his stay at the clinic, James makes a concerted effort to look in the mirror and see himself. However, he can’t look himself in the eyes for the longest time. Lilly’s grandmother notices James’s eyes first and says that they are “pretty.” It’s not until after an attempt at running away from the clinic, a soul-baring visit with Lilly, and several weeks at the clinic that he’s able to finally look himself in the eyes—a major achievement.
James’s memories of the Girl with the Arctic Eyes are also built primarily around the way that their eyes met and locked on each other, “pale green against Arctic blue, locked and loaded.” She is entirely identified by her eyes—she never gets a name. In the end, this girl’s eyes reflect the depth of her emotion for him: she is unable to sustain a relationship with him, whereas Lilly, who has, by contrast, “water blue” eyes, is able to sustain a loving relationship with him. When James does his final inventory, he looks into his own pale green eyes, remembering one awful sin that he is not sure he can forgive himself for. In that moment, the pale green seems dark, dirty, and impure. When he has unburdened himself of the sin, however, he can once again look himself in the eyes and see their true color. In fact, he identifies his new, liberated, sober self as the “Pale Green.”
James is more or less homeless in this story, and he even starts out not knowing where he is or how he got there. In the first part of the book, we learn that James “lives in” North Carolina, but we see no real connection to this place. His parents live in Tokyo. They take him to a rarely used summer home in the first chapter, but it’s not referred to as home. In fact, we learn later that his parents have another home in Michigan that James has never even seen. In one of his self-inventories, he mentions having lived in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, and Paris, but he never refers to any of these places as safe, comfortable, or full of good memories.
Not until James decides that he’s going to try to commit suicide by overdosing does he refer to any place as being comfortable and familiar. When he finally does this, he describes someplace dark and dank where he can procure drugs and then lie down to die. When James is searching for Lilly in the Minneapolis bus station, he notes that he is “at ease among . . . the drug dealers, pimps, and homeless.” However, as James nears the end of his stay, we see him using the word and the concept of home more frequently. He speaks of making a home with Lilly when they both get out of rehab. In one of the book’s more critical moments, as he’s holding Lilly at the crack house, trying to bring her back to the clinic, he refers to going back to the clinic as “going Home.” James has found a new definition for home, one that he can equate with feelings of normalcy, comfort, and support.
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