Symbolism and Meaning of the Continental Shelf in Literature


Symbolism is a powerful literary device that allows writers to convey deeper meanings and themes through the use of symbols. One of the most commonly used symbols in literature is the continental shelf, which holds rich significance and symbolism that adds depth and complexity to various literary works. In this article, we will explore the symbolism and meaning of the continental shelf in literature, with practical examples from famous works.

First and foremost, the continental shelf is often seen as a symbol of boundaries and limitations. In geographical terms, the continental shelf is the submerged edge of a continent, marking the point where the landmass ends and the ocean begins. Similarly, in literature, the continental shelf represents the boundary between familiar, known worlds and the unknown, unexplored ones. This symbolism is evident in Jules Verne’s novel “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” where the continental shelf is portrayed as the line between the known world and the mysterious depths of the ocean.

Moreover, the continental shelf also serves as a symbol of depth and hidden meanings. In literature, the ocean is often used as a metaphor for the subconscious mind, with the continental shelf representing the interface between the conscious and subconscious worlds. This is illustrated in the play “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams, where the character Tom says, “Oh, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be! I reach for a cigarette, I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger—anything that can blow your candles out!” Here, the surface (the conscious world) is portrayed as insufficient in capturing the complexities and inner depths of the characters’ minds.

The continental shelf also carries a sense of mystery and adventure, as it is often associated with uncharted territories and undiscovered treasures. This symbolism is evident in Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Gold-Bug,” where the characters set sail on a journey to a remote island in search of buried treasure. The continental shelf represents the boundary between the familiar, mundane world and the exciting and unknown territories that hold the promise of new discoveries and adventures.

Furthermore, the continental shelf is often used as a symbol of change and transformation. Just as the continental shelf is the point where land meets sea, literature also uses it to represent the point where one phase of life ends, and a new one begins. In the novel “The Old Man and the Sea” by Ernest Hemingway, the character Santiago represents the continental shelf as he embarks on a journey to catch a giant marlin, which he sees as a symbol of his own transformation. The continental shelf, in this context, also serves as a metaphor for the challenges and obstacles that one must overcome to achieve personal growth and change.

In conclusion, the continental shelf holds significant symbolism and meaning in literature, representing boundaries and limitations, depth and hidden meanings, mystery and adventure, and change and transformation. It is a powerful tool that writers use to add layers of meaning and depth to their works. So the next time you come across the mention of the continental shelf in a literary work, remember to delve deeper and think about the various themes and ideas it may symbolize.