“When used as a literary device, symbolism means to imbue objects with a certain meaning that is different from their original meaning or function.” – from literarydevices.net.
My most ambitious employment of symbolism in The Remains of the Corps is using a crew race to reflect the competition between Kenneth and Lawrence for the affections of KatyKay Mulcahy -- though Lawrence is oblivious to Kenneth’s challenge.
Though it is unknown to Lawrence at the time, Kenneth is competing with him for his long-time girlfriend’s attentions. The white shell is emblematic of Kenneth and the black shell oozes Lawrence.
...A loud cheer from down on the lake captured their attention. Two sixty-foot-long racing shells, manned by eight-oared crews, had come into view at the northern end of the lake, greeted boisterously by the crowd gathered in front of the boathouse on the near shore. A sleek black shell had a two-boat-length lead over a faded white shell. The contest, for whatever reason, seemed to have a contentious air to it. A grey heron, standing in the shallows on the far shore, had raised its supercilious head, a dead fish clasped in its pinkish-yellow, vise-like bill. Completely motionless, the bird appeared to be staring at the disturbance.
Kenneth knew from experience that rowing on a lake is usually easier than rowing on a river, as the course is more uniform and predictable. But a strong breeze was coming up from the south—the front of a towering thunderhead that seemed to be drawing a bead on the regatta. The fierce headwind was favoring the black eight, which appeared to be the stronger, more muscular team; they were moving their shell at an extremely fast race pace, pulling their boat forward with long, powerful strokes, and seeking to bury their smaller opponent by seizing an early lead, from which they could then coast to victory; Kenneth noticed, however, that the black eight’s oars were not striking the water in a uniform cadence. As a former coxswain, Kenneth sensed that the cox, the stroke, and the rest of their crew were not synchronized; to his trained eye, they were churning out one misaligned stroke after another.
The heron, his neck now retracted into an elongated S, had returned to stalking and stabbing its prey. Kenneth’s ear caught the suddenly booming voice of the trailing coxswain who, relying no doubt on his bona fides with the crew, was choosing this moment to wring every last ounce of resilience, perseverance, and stamina from them—and it was working. White, slowly but surely, was closing the gap. Digging their oars deep into the water in perfect unison, and finishing their identical strokes as one, they were making their shell fly, surging forward to cut their deficit to one-and-a-half boat lengths. Though Kenneth could not hear it now, he remembered well the sound that eight oarsmen, rowing in a perfect natural cadence, would make as oar struck water—Whoosh! Whoosh! Whoosh! And though he could not see it clearly now, he also recollected the perfectly symmetrical wake created by such powerful, yet controlled, strokes. It was a team effort—borne of discipline, growing in confidence, and spawning a camaraderie that had set white on a perfectly even keel, skimming the surface, as it narrowed the lead to a single boat length.
As the battle joined, the thunderstorm was racing toward them. The two coxswains—the only crew members who could see the billowing mass of clouds homing in on them, as the others were facing astern, rowing blind, and trusting in their coxes—were paying the storm no heed, as their boats hurtled toward the turn buoy. Kenneth could see that the heron, wary of the storm and perhaps tired of the watery commotion, had lifted into the air, and with slow, ponderous wingbeats, was lumbering over Kenneth’s and KatyKay’s heads, while complaining loudly: “Fraaank! Fraaank!” Back on the water: just when it appeared the whites were rowing as fast as they could, the crew rowed even faster. It was something to behold . . . if speed could be beautiful, then the white’s pace was exquisitely so. Their crew had risen to their oars and were swinging now, as the boat’s rhythm, set by the bold and canny stroke, had taken up residence and assumed control. Black’s lead had shrunk to a half-length, as white approached on its starboard side. And, the black eight’s lead continued to shrink . . . down to ten feet . . . then white was only a seat off the pace . . . then white drew even! But, with the boats approaching to within forty yards of the turn marker and the white eight seemingly poised to surge into the lead, the storm’s punishing winds suddenly swept over the shells. Momentarily caught off guard by the severe conditions, the two boats responded to the minor crucible with a furor of their own. Black was the first to recover; powered by its crew’s natural strength, it took the lead twenty yards from the turn with white close behind. The two boats went into the turn with black on the inside and white on the outside. As the coxes steered hard to port, white entered its turn a bit early—was it intentional?—and the oars of the two shells became tangled briefly . . . but enough so that black wobbled, and nearly foundered, before recovering. By then, white had gotten off well out of the turn, was two dozen or so strokes away from the buoy, and was displaying excellent oarsmanship as it burst to the lead. The brief storm had blown through, sans rain: the sun was back on the water and the lake was dead calm. Black came on hard, but white had regained its earlier rhythm and was now rowing elegantly and efficiently. The black shell, with a ferocious effort, drove its blades savagely through the water, sparking several gains that closed the gap . . . only to collapse each time; it was paying the price for failing to pace itself. The white shell was pulling away now, a true crew . . . leaning into it . . . bending their oars . . . rowing bigger than their physical dimensions; they were increasing the open water between the two boats and finishing hard—full-on hard.
As the white boat comfortably rowed out of sight behind large, stately pines, Kenneth turned his attention to the black boat, now finally rowing in synch, but much too late to make a run. They would likely suffer the embarrassment of being a monster crew horizoned—and humbled—by a crew of much smaller athletes: a crew that had trailed so badly at the start, a crew that, in their minds, they should have easily overpowered, as they had so many inferior crews before. That was the natural order of things.