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Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The greenhouse symbolizes the conflict between nature and civilization. At the start of the novel, Valerian civilizes the natural world by making northern flowers grow in a southern climate. His power in the greenhouse represents the power that Valerian enjoys in his relationships with other characters in the early part of the novel. The greenhouse is also Valerian’s sanctuary, a place he can go when he wants to be alone. Over time, ants invade the greenhouse, a sign of nature creeping into civilization. Then Son begins to take over, and the greenhouse comes to be less and less under Valerian’s control, and more and more a place where nature dominates. After Ondine reveals that Margaret abused Michael when he was a boy, the greenhouse reflects Valerian’s decline by descending into wildness. By the end of the novel, Valerian has become an invalid, and there is no longer a clear distinction between the interior and exterior of the greenhouse. Valerian’s defenses and measures of control, like the special climate of the greenhouse, have broken down.
Hair helps define a person’s beauty and personality. One of the first things that the residents of L’Arbe de la Croix notice about Son is the wildness of his hair. His haircut totally changes his image: He goes from being a threatening, menacing presence to an attractive, appealing man. Jadine and Margaret both have extraordinary hair that heightens their beauty. Jadine’s naturally straight hair marks her as different from other black women. Margaret’s red hair also sets her apart from other women. When she was young, people gossiped about Margaret’s hair, as it incited speculation about her parentage. When she was a teenager, her hair, coupled with her white skin, gave her the coloring of a Valerian candy and helped make Valerian fall in love with her. Wild, ungroomed hair shows a person’s connections to nature. Refined, groomed hair is a sign of a character’s association with culture and civilization. Sometimes it also demonstrates a character’s efforts to deny the power of nature, as when Alma Estée tries to change her appearance through a wig.
Jadine’s sealskin coat represents many choices that the novel identifies as questionable, including miscegenation and civilization over nature. Jadine receives the coat from Ryk, her rich, white boyfriend. When she first accepts the gift, Jadine considers whether to marry Ryk; her acceptance of the coat seems to indicate her acceptance of the proposal as well after she boards a plane for Paris at the end of the novel. But the marriage between black Jadine and white Ryk represents an abandonment of Ondine and Sydney, as the marriage will keep Jadine in Europe. And, in marrying Ryk, Jadine eradicates the possibility of marrying a black man and having all black children, and thus the coat signifies Jadine’s decision not to help continue or further the black race. The coat also represents the life of the city, a glamorous, civilized atmosphere. Similarly, the coat represents the triumph of civilization over nature, as people trapped and killed the baby seals to make the coat.