Symbolisms in Farming of Bones: “Representations of Certain Aspects in the Lives of the Characters”

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Edwidge Danticat starts off The Farming of Bones with narrator Amabelle Desir speaking of her lover Sebastian Onius. These two Haitians are later separated due to the beginning of the 1937 massacre. Amabelle starts off a long journey in pursuit of news of her love and along the way encounters various difficult obstacles.

Symbolism in The Farming of Bones is a grand portrayal of the relationship between Haitians and Dominicans under the rule of Generalissimo Rafael Trujillo leading up to the Slaughter of 1937. The novel revolves around a few main concepts, these being birth, death, identity, and place and displacement. Each of the aspects is represented by an inanimate object. Water, dreams, twins, and masks make up these representations. Symbolism is consistent throughout the novel and gives the clearly stated and unsophisticated language a deeper more complex meaning.

While on the surface the novel is an easy read, the symbolism which is prominent throughout the novel complicates the audience’s interpretation. True enough, the reader is left to look beyond the language and uncover the underlying themes of the novel. According to Adlerberg (1998), through symbolism the author is able to use inanimate objects to represent each of her character’s more deeply rooted problems. The first example of symbolism is in the form of dreams. When Amabelle and Sebastian open up to one another it is through their shared experiences, which are most usually, their dreams. They are able to be the most themselves when they are not in real life experiences, though it sounds like an oxymoron, the juxtaposition between dreams and reality says a great deal about the characters.

Dreams are essentially escapes from reality. As how Freud (1895) puts it, dreams appear to be the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ as it is in dreams that the ego’s defenses are lowered so that some of the repressed material comes through to awareness, albeit in distorted form. Dreams both perform important functions for the unconscious mind and serve as valuable clues to how the unconscious mind operates. And when Amabelle and Sebastian share their dreams with one another it serves as an escape. It becomes clear that they share the desire to escape, but escape from what exactly, their pasts, presence, or futures? This implication of escape prepares readers for the escapes made by the lovers near the end of the story. In the 1st Chapter, Amabelle says of her nocturnal escapes, “It’s either be in a nightmare or be nowhere at all. Or otherwise simply float inside these remembrances, grieving for who I was, and even more for what I’ve become.” This quotation implies that that even her life has become a nightmare. Readers can infer that a good night’s sleep would be Amabelle’s only chance of escape.

Her nightmares are destroying her life, and her life, in turn is becoming a nightmare. As the novel opens, we learn that one of the main characters, Señora Valencia, is expecting a child. Then, the Señora gives birth to a set of twins. Upon the arrival of the twins it is said that most babies begin as twins but one usually kills the other as a result of having to share the same womb. ‘Many of us start out as twins in the belly and do away with the other,’ says Doctor Javier. This is an exact parallel to Haitians and Dominicans. The womb is the island that the two nations share and they are the twins, one of which will most likely kill the other. It becomes abundantly clear throughout the novel the amount of hatred and disgust the two nations have for one another and when one of the twins dies unexpectedly, readers are left wondering which nation will be the first to fall. There was quite a difference between the twins as one was lighter skinned, and the other, much to the family’s disappointment, had much darker skin. The Dominican Republic was represented by the stronger, lighter skinned, male baby, and Haiti was portrayed by the weak, dark skinned, female child. When, much to our surprise, the male child is the one that dies, that implies a sort of uncertain future for the Dominicans.

After Kongo loses his son, Joel, he battles with identity and coming to terms with himself as an individual instead of a father. He brings to Amabelle one night a mask of his own face made when he was much, much younger. He tells her of how happy mask making used to make he and his wife, but once his wife was gone he had no desire to make the masks. Masks are made to either hide one’s face or to preserve it.

Kongo offers Amabelle a mask that represents him during much happier times, when he gives it to her he says, “I give this one to you because you have a safe place to preserve it”. In other words, Kongo’s mask represents him during happier times, which is how he would like to be remembered. Yet another important example of symbolism comes in the form of water and it’s recurrence throughout the novel. Before they even begin the novel, readers are informed of the importance of water. The dedication page reads, “In confidence to you, Metres Dio, Mother of the Rivers.” At first, this may not mean much, but when we discover water throughout the course of the novel; surrounding the island, causing the death of Amabelle’s parents, and leaving readers with a feeling of uncertainty at the end of the novel, it becomes harder not to take notice of it.

Traditionally, water in symbolizes life, death, eternity, and rebirth. This notion holds true in The Farming of Bones. The water surrounding the countries could be considered a representation of life beyond the island. In the case of Amabelle’s parents, the water is clearly representative of death, and in the case of Amabelle readers are left to come to their own conclusions, in which case any of the traditional examples would be fitting. In my opinion, Amabelle ended her own life in the same river that took the lives of her parents a number of years ago, which symbolically ended young Amabelle’s life as well. Figuratively speaking, the river took her life long before she offered it to him.

The Farming of Bones is not only an amazing work of literature, but a wonderful example of post-colonial literature. The presence of symbolism throughout the novel is undeniable. Each of the symbols in the work is representative of a certain aspect of the characters’ lives. Dreams showed us the desire of characters to escape their realities.

The twins that Señora Valencia gives birth to are clearly meant to represent the neighboring nations of Haiti and The Dominican Republic. Water is primarily symbolic of life and death, but in this case readers are expected to come to their own conclusions regarding the river. Using these symbols allows the author to make discrete yet important additions to her writing without disrupting the format of the novel. Aside from serving as a benefit to the authors writing style, they can also be seen as an artistic addition which brings the entire novel to a different level. The use of symbolism in The Farming of Bones is not only extraordinarily well written but also completely essential to the story as a whole.


Adlerberg, Scott. “The Farming of Bones.” 1998. The Ridgemond Review. 19 August 2010 <;.

McLeod, S.A. “Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams.” 2007. Simply Psychology. 19 August 2010 <;.

ReadingGroupGuides. The Farming of Bones. New York, 2010. Testimony: An Introduction to The Farming of Bones. New York, 05 July 2001.


~ by elpreferiti on September 26, 2011.

2 Responses to “Symbolisms in Farming of Bones: “Representations of Certain Aspects in the Lives of the Characters””


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