The symbolism of everyday objects

One of the things I love about Diana Gabaldon's writing is the way she can take a perfectly ordinary object, something you've seen a thousand times and never really paid attention to before, and turn it into something completely unforgettable.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

1) Doorknobs

I don't think anyone who has read BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE will look at doorknobs the same way again.
Meanwhile, the doorknob--made of white china and slick as an egg--as though to compensate for the loss of the key, was inclined either to spin loosely round on its stem, or to jam fast, both conditions preventing the door from being opened from the outside.
(From LORD JOHN AND THE BROTHERHOOD OF THE BLADE by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 25 ("Betrayal"). Copyright© 2007 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
2) Strawberries

I can't think of strawberries now without remembering the wonderful scene in DRUMS OF AUTUMN where Jamie and Claire discover the site of Fraser's Ridge:
"It's a rare plant," he said, touching the sprig in my open hand.  "Flowers, fruit and leaves all together at the one time.  The white flowers are for honor, and red fruit for courage--and the green leaves are for constancy."

My throat felt tight as I looked at him.

"They got that one right," I said.

He caught my hand in his own, squeezing my fingers around the tiny stem.

"And the fruit is the shape of a heart," he said softly, and bent to kiss me.

(From DRUMS OF AUTUMN by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 16 ("The First Law of Thermodynamics"). Copyright© 1997 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
3) Oranges, and orange marmalade

The encounter between Lord John and Stephan von Namtzen in THE SCOTTISH PRISONER has been dubbed a "marmaliaison" by some people on Compuserve. <g>  If you read carefully, you'll see references to oranges scattered throughout that whole chapter.
As he followed Stephan from the coach, he caught the scent of von Namtzen’s cologne, something faint and spicy--cloves, he thought, and was absurdly reminded of Christmas, and oranges studded thick with cloves, the smell festive in the house.

His hand closed on the orange, cool and round in his pocket, and he thought of other rounded things that might fit in his hand, these warm.

“Fool,” he said to himself, under his breath. “Don’t even think about it.”

It was, of course, impossible not to think about it.

(From THE SCOTTISH PRISONER by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 9 ("Eros Rising"). Copyright© 2011 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
4) A wooden mallet, its handle wrapped with twine

Even Jamie is bothered by the memories evoked by this particular object, and no wonder!
"Surely ye can make hare pie without looking in the wee book?" he said, obligingly taking the big bone-crushing wooden mallet from the top of the hutch where it was kept.  He grimaced as he took it into his hand, feeling the weight of it.  It was very like the one that had broken his right hand several years before, in an English prison, and he had a sudden vivid memory of the shattered bones in a hare pie, splintered and cracked, leaking salty blood and marrow-sweetness into the meat.
(From VOYAGER by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 7 ("To Us a Child is Given"). Copyright© 1994 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
5) Sausages

The sausage pictured above is a whopping 15 1/2 inches long, roughly comparable in size to the one described in DRAGONFLY:
"I'll leave it to you, Sassenach," he said dryly, "to imagine what it feels like to arrive unexpectedly in the middle of a brothel, in possession of a verra large sausage."

My imagination proved fully equal to this task, and I burst out laughing.

"God, I wish I could have seen you!" I said.

"Thank God ye didn't!" he said fervently. A furious blush glowed on his cheekbones.

(From DRAGONFLY IN AMBER by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 12 ("L'Hopital des Anges"). Copyright© 1992 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
6) Pebbles

I thought Jamie's collection of stones, one for each of his family members, was a lovely bit in THE SCOTTISH PRISONER:
A scatter of stones, picked up because of their feel in the hand or a pretty color. He counted them; there were eleven: one each for his sister, for Ian, for Young Jamie, Maggie, Kitty, Janet, Michael, and Young Ian; one for his daughter, Faith, who had died at birth; another for the child Claire had carried when she went; the last--a piece of rough amethyst--for Claire herself. He must look out for another now: the right stone for William. He wondered briefly why he had not done that before. Because he hadn’t felt the right to claim William even in the privacy of his own heart, he supposed.

(From THE SCOTTISH PRISONER by Diana Gabaldon, chapter 38 ("Redux"). Copyright© 2011 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
7) Compass with needle pointing north

I love the compass-needle imagery in "Lord John and the Haunted Soldier", as a metaphor for John's feelings for Jamie:
He dipped the pen again, and saw the slender splinter of metal that lay on his desk, straight as a compass needle, dully a-gleam in the candlelight.

My regiment is due to be reposted in the spring; I shall join them, wherever duty takes me. I shall, however, come to Helwater again before I leave.

He stopped, and touched the metal splinter with his left hand. Then wrote, You are true north.

(From "Lord John and the Haunted Soldier", in LORD JOHN AND THE HAND OF DEVILS by Diana Gabaldon (Part III, "The Hero's Return"). Copyright© 2007 by Diana Gabaldon. All rights reserved.)
I love that metaphor. John simply can't stop loving Jamie, any more than a compass needle can avoid pointing north.

Hope you enjoyed these! Let me know if you find any more examples like these in the books.


jayjay said...

Lovely excerpts and thoughts to contemplate. Thanks

Unknown said...

I completely agree about how magical DG is turning every day objects into a story onto their own.

I feel nobody captures scents in a novel better than she. I recently wrote about in my review of The Scottish Prisoner too.

Great post!

Mary said...

Kudos to you, Karen, for finding the quotations AND fitting the wonderful images to the words.

Karen Henry said...

Thanks to all of you! Glad you liked this!


Mari said...

This is absolutely amazing, I love the way you see things. Deep to the core, even in something superficial like a doorknob. It's true, Diana put it there but not anyone can find it. I'm sorry if I wrote something wrong but it's very late here in Italy and I lost my ability to understand English about an hour ago. Congratulation again for you sense of depth.

Shelley Kubitz Mahannah said...

That bottom quote from Lord John is my favorite ... I find myself rereading that passage from time to time. :)

Karen Henry said...

Mari - thank you! You're making perfect sense to me. :-)


Karen Henry said...

SKM - I love the letters in "Haunted Soldier". That compass needle imagery obviously made quite an impression on me! :-)


Karen Henry said...

Diana Gabaldon just sent me a message on Twitter: "Terrific piece! Thank you!"

Naturally that's extremely gratifying, to know that she liked it!


Jess said...

I always love reading your "observations " Karen. You never fail to find things I overlooked. I particularly enjoyed this piece. Thank you!

The bit with the compass was my favorite :)

TRuff said...

Awesome Karen! Love this piece. It captures the wonderful imagery that Diana Gabaldon paints with her words perfectly.

Anonymous said...

Thank you sharing your observations. They make our memories and experience of the bookS even richer.


Christiane KYPREOS said...

Hello Karen! Thankyou once more for your smart observations!good work.I do like the strawberries piece!I think I have to get and read ALL the Lord John's books!(have got SP,not read it yet)Take care.Christiane

Karen Henry said...

TRuff - Thanks! I really think the pictures help a great deal.

Catherine - you're welcome! I'm glad you liked it. :-)

Christiane - The scene with the strawberries always makes me cry. I hope you get to read SP soon.


Jackie O said...

DG has changed my life in the way she writes - her skills with language have helped me compose better emails (although to speak to me in person, you'd not think it possible!) Also, I've started having dreams in which people speak Gaelic and it's not odd to me. Thanks for sharing your pics and thoughts. ~Jackie O

LisaW said...

Wow Karen that was a wonderful tribute to the things that are so ordinary but have such meaning in Diana's books.

Karen Henry said...

Jackie - well, my life has changed in many ways since I found these books, too, but I can't say I've ever dreamed in Gaelic! :-)


Karen Henry said...

Lisa - thanks! I'm glad you liked it. :-)


KatduGers said...

Excellent, but how could you forget the butter churn?!!!

Karen Henry said...


I love the scene with the butter churn, but I don't consider a butter churn to be an ordinary, everyday item that people are likely to encounter in our modern 21st-century world. All the other objects on the list are things that anyone in today's society would be familiar with. I've never seen a barrel-type butter churn in real life, not even in museums, have you?


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