Fire symbolism is widely used in literary spaces, however, besides its cliché adoption as a thing that burns, fire is seen to have a variety of meanings; a widely diverse concept of its usage.
What is fire? Well, that depends on you. The meaning of fire is relative, carved from the philosophies of individuals. In the actual sense, fire is a body of flames that provide light and heat. In the literal sense, fire is many things. A body of destruction, a source of illumination, an act of purification, a flicker of hope. Fire is a very vital object in the literary space, which is often used within the context of symbolism. Symbolism is the representation of objects or concepts through symbols. For instance, the dove is a symbol of peace, the color red may symbolize passion, blood, or romance, fire may symbolize the destruction
Fire is an incongruous symbol attached to a manifold of meanings. These connotations may arise from experiences or a definite realization of the numerous functions of fire. These symbols have been used in literature, film, and religious texts for centuries. Now, we view fire as many things, outside the primary function of cooking.
What does fire symbolize? What are the connotations that we attach to it, the emotions that are linked to it? Fire symbolism is imbued with the sensualities of human beings.
Flames incite passion. When telling a lover “light my fire” or “ignite my desires for you with a flame”, we often give romance or love a fiery impression. In steamy erotica, or a simple surprise for a lover, candles are lit to symbolize passion and persuade the desire of the other; “the flicking flame evokes thoughts of passion and desire”.
Have you ever wondered how fire is a symbol of rebirth? This image can be likened to the phoenix, a mythical bird-like creature that thrives with its flame engulfed body. People incline to characterize themselves as a phoenix when they explain the conditions of their redemption or rebirth. As the mythical phoenix dies by spontaneous combustion, it bursts into flames and disintegrates into ashes. From the ashes, another emerges. Likewise, the phoenix, a forest that is burnt by fire, is likely to grow afterward.
Fire can be used as a tool of destruction. How many homes have been razed by blazes? How many people have been killed with fire? In the bible, God used fire to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Many times, a fire has caused mass damage. When humans lose control of fire, this is what happens.
As children, we heard stories of how hot hell is, and how it burns the body. The meaning of hell as an apocalyptic city of sinners is portrayed in the bible multiple times. Sometimes we even curse an evil person by saying; “may you burn in hell”. The inferno of hell is one that many people attempt to avoid.
In memory of a deceased person, candles are lit to symbolize the continuity of the person’s memories. Although the body is gone, the candle represents the legacy of the person remaining in the hearts of many. The metaphor “eternal flame” captures this symbolization of fire. So long as it burns, we will remember.
Fire Symbolism has appeared in some literary texts and each time it is used to convey something different. Shakespeare often used fire as a symbol of passion in his plays. A particular example is how he incorporated it in the love between Romeo and Juliet. Act one, scene one, Shakespeare speaks of “a fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes”.
Similarly, Shakespeare uses fire to symbolize hell in Othello. Othello realizes his mistake of killing Desdemona, he now knows that it is he, who will be condemned to hell, where he exclaims:
“Roast me in sulfur… gulfs of liquid fire”! (Act five, scene 2).
Shakespeare also demonstrates fire symbolism in one of his famous quotes in the play Henry VIII:
“My drops of tears I’ll turn to sparks of fire.”
In Fahrenheit 451, a sci-fi novel by Ray Badbury, fire is used in the literal form of destruction. Here, there are firefighters, but instead of putting out fires, they ignite fires and burn books, which are illegal. The main character, Montag burns books for a living. It is only when he met a little girl, he realizes that fire does not only associate with destruction. At the beginning of the novel, he says:
“It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed.”
Fire, here is a symbol for the passage of time, a time of intellectual darkness and subordination. Also, fire reincarnates the dark ages, a period in history where people lost interest in learning.
Another is the use of fire in "Frankenstein". Fire is seen in two ways, a source of light and harm. The monster's discovery of fire, that it is not only a source of light but is also hot and can cause pain is depicted below:
"One day, when I was oppressed by cold, I found a fire that had been left by some wandering beggars and was overcome with delight at the warmth I experienced from it. In my joy, I thrust my hand into the live embers but quickly drew it out with a cry of pain. How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce opposite effects!”
How we interpret the fire symbolism used in texts differs. But, of pertinence is the diverse nature of fire and how we can read different connotations to it. We may not be able to decipher what an author means when he uses fire, however, its beauty lies in the doubt of a reader and how (s)he may want to use it.
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