Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

Childhood Homes 

The childhood homes of Theo and Alicia, the sites of their early life trauma, symbolize their respective relationships with the past. As a young woman, Alicia left her childhood home in Cambridge for London, and avoids returning to it. This avoidance, which makes her feel guilty, reflects her broader attempts to repress her painful memories. When Theo visits her childhood home, which he characterizes as “ugly, a Victorian monster,” his narration takes on the gothic cast of a haunted house or ghost story. He personifies the building as “obstinate and imposing,” and notes that it is covered with vines of ivy. The house, overgrown with plant life, prompts Theo to reflect upon the roots of Alicia’s adult life, the traumas and choices that first grew in this house. For Theo, then, the plant-covered house represents the long roots that tie and connect an individual to their past. Theo’s own childhood was marked by violence and abuse, and, like Alicia, he leaves home as soon as he can. At the end of the novel, however, Theo moves back into the home where he experienced so much pain. Though Ruth advises him to break with the past, his return to his childhood home signals his psychological regression. Unable to move forward, he reenacts his trauma and assumes his father’s position as head of an unhappy household.  

The Psychiatrist’s Chair  

In a key scene in the novel, Theo and Alicia return from a walk through the gardens of the facility to his office and Alicia takes his seat, eschewing the lower seat of the patient. In the novel, the psychiatrist’s chair symbolizes the relative power of the psychotherapist in their relationship to a patient, drawing from and inverting the classical image of a therapist taking notes in a chair while a patient sits in a lower, reclined position. By assuming Theo’s chair, she seems to claim authority over their conversation, marking the ongoing shift in power in their relationship. During her first session with Theo, Alicia is heavily medicated and nonresponsive, provoking a paternalistic sense of care in Theo. From this early state of helplessness, she becomes increasingly responsive to his attempts to reach her, at first communicating with him through tiny nonverbal gestures and then, at the end of the novel, speaking. When she takes Theo’s chair, he notes that he should ask her about this “telling gesture,” but he declines to do so as he is impatient to hear the end of her tale. Alicia, sitting in his chair, recognizes the power she now holds as a storyteller who holds the key to unlocking an important mystery.  


Throughout the novel, the seasons serve as an important symbol for memory, connecting characters to the past. In her diary entries, Alicia complains about the sweltering summer, which reminds her of the summer that her mother died. The cyclical nature of the seasons, recurring year after year, establish a persistent connection with the past, and with past summers, winters, etc. The ongoing heatwave of the summer repeatedly pushes Alicia to think about her mother, and the mental illness which Alicia believes she inherited from her. In the moments before she murders Gabriel, she smells the scent of jasmine blossoms, recalling an earlier memory of that same scent. Theo learns in his second conversation with Paul that jasmine was blooming on the warm summer night when Alicia heard her father say that he wished she was dead. Theo’s childhood, conversely, is associated with winter in the novel. In one of his few positive childhood experiences, he walks out on a snowy winter day and catches snowflakes in his hand, which reminds him that there is a large world beyond his home and his abusive father. At the end of the novel, when Theo realizes that the police have evidence of his crimes, he reaches his hand out of the window to catch a snowflake, connecting his present experience to his past through the recurring nature of seasons.