Exploring Symbolism: The Use of Isthmus in Literature


Symbolism is a powerful tool used by authors in literature to convey deeper meanings and explore themes beyond the surface level. One of the most intriguing symbols used in literature is the isthmus. Derived from the Greek word “isthmós” meaning neck, the isthmus refers to a narrow strip of land connecting two larger landmasses, often surrounded by water on both sides. This geographical feature has been employed by writers throughout history to explore a wide range of themes, from physical and emotional barriers to transitions and self-discovery.

One of the most striking uses of an isthmus can be found in the novel “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte. The protagonist, Jane, embarks on a journey that takes her from the comfort of her home at Gateshead to the dark and mysterious Thornfield Hall. Almost halfway through her journey, she crosses an isthmus, described as a “narrow neck of land that separated the meadow from the moor”. This physical barrier acts as a metaphor for the transition John is about to make, from her turbulent past to an uncertain future. As she crosses the isthmus, she leaves behind the emotional baggage of her childhood and starts heading towards the unknown, thus symbolizing her emotional growth and transformation.

In Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”, the isthmus serves as a representation of the physical and moral journey of the protagonist, Marlow. As Marlow travels up the Congo River towards the heart of darkness, he must pass through an isthmus, which marks the divide between the civilized world and the mysterious and primitive land of the Congo. This isthmus symbolizes the transition from good to evil, as Marlow confronts the horrors of colonialism and the human penchant for violence and destruction. It also acts as a symbol of the thin line between sanity and madness, as Marlow’s journey takes him deeper into the heart of darkness.

Another prominent literary work that utilizes the symbol of an isthmus is T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. In the poem, Prufrock is depicted as a hesitant and indecisive man, paralyzed by his fear of taking risks and leaving his comfort zone. His inability to make a move is symbolized by the “yellow fog” and “yellow smoke” that obscures the narrator’s vision as he approaches an isthmus and is faced with the decision of whether to cross it or not. This isthmus serves as an allegory for the protagonist’s inner turmoil and his perpetual state of indecisiveness, representing the barriers that hinder one from achieving personal growth and fulfilling one’s potential.

In addition to exploring themes of transition and self-discovery, the symbol of an isthmus is also often used to examine the theme of isolation and loneliness. In “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin, protagonist Edna Pontellier is metaphorically “marooned” on an isthmus as she struggles to break free from the constraints of society and her unhappy marriage. This isthmus symbolizes her emotional and physical isolation from the society that she does not fit into and her journey towards self-discovery. Similarly, in “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, the protagonist Santiago is stranded on an isthmus, battered by the elements and fighting for survival. This symbolizes his physical and emotional isolation from the rest of the world, as well as his internal struggle to prove his worth as a fisherman.

In conclusion, the use of an isthmus in literature is a highly effective means of exploring complex themes and ideas. Its symbolic nature allows authors to delve beyond the surface level of a narrative and add layers of depth, bringing forth multiple meanings and interpretations. From serving as a physical barrier to representing emotional growth and self-discovery, the isthmus is a versatile symbol that continues to be used by writers to this day, transcending time and culture. Its impact on literature is a testament to the power of symbolism in art and its ability to convey universal truths and themes that resonate with readers across generations.