Object Lessons


How strategically placed items can communicate key messages.

I workshop with a wonderful published writer who is structuring her work-in-progress around objects. Each chapter is named after a different object. The object, naturally, makes an appearance in the chapter but also operates symbolically, perhaps relating to the characters’ internal worlds, or alerting us to an aspect of plot.

A lot of good writers do this. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, there are several references to a green light that shines from the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. Jay Gatsby, the protagonist, has been in love with Daisy for years. He buys a house across the water from her and in our first encounter with him, he is gazing across at the green light. The light represents a number of things: Gatsby’s hopes and dreams, the physical and emotional gulf between him and Daisy, the distance between the past and the present, the promises of the future (traffic lights had just begun to be installed in America when Fitzgerald was writing his novel. Green means go, and to Gatsby the light seems to be giving its approval for him to pursue Daisy). Green is also the colour of dollar bills – and Gatsby needs money to attract Daisy. So a seemingly incidental reference becomes a major symbol in the novel.

It’s the same with books – we are told the books in Gatsby’s library are ‘uncut’ (the pages used to be cut by hand after the book was assembled). One of Gatsby’s visitors, known as ‘Owl Eyes’, informs Nick Carraway, the narrator, that the books in the library are ‘absolutely real’ (i.e. they are not just cardboard dummies), assuring us that Gatsby was clever in conveying his authenticity because he, ‘Knew when to stop, too — didn’t cut the pages.’ Although ‘Owl Eyes’ is impressed with Gatsby’s apparent attention to detail, to a discerning reader, the very realism that he claims for his host actually exposes him as a fraud. Someone who fails to cut the pages of his books obviously doesn’t read them – clearly Owl Eyes is as ignorant as Gatsby, and we realise Fitzgerald is alerting us to the sham nature of Gatsby’s world. It is the object, and our understanding of it, that conveys so much in this scene.

So let’s start collecting some useful objects – cleverly used they can tell our readers a great deal.