Symbolism, a device in which something concrete represents something abstract, can be used in fiction in at least two different ways. Sometimes symbolism occurs in the form of symbolic objects. The symbolism of these objects can be universal, but often it is contextual, meaning that the symbolism derives from how the object is framed in the story. Two prominent symbolic objects in Cold Sassy Tree are the Cold Sassy tree itself and the automobiles that Hoyt and Rucker acquire. The Cold Sassy tree is the last remaining tree of a grove of sassafras trees. The town’s settlers cut down the grove to make room for the town, but one tree remains. The tree then is symbolic of the town itself and its link with the past. However, as the town moves into the more modern age, the tree has to be cut down to make room for improvements. Thus, the town’s link with its past, including its traditions and prejudices, is severed. It is not severed entirely, though. Townspeople, including Will, take pieces of the tree, and Will still has his eight years later at the time he tells the story of Cold Sassy.
In the context of Cold Sassy Tree, cars become symbolic objects. Until 1906, the town relied entirely on horses and horse-drawn carts and wagons for transportation. The railroad went through town, but even that is beginning to seem old-fashioned, the product of the previous century. Cars, though, are a symbol of modern progress. They point not only to technological change but to changes in attitude as Cold Sassy moves into a modern age with more modern ways of thinking.
Actions, like objects, can have symbolic overtones. Early in the novel, Will is on the railroad trestle that crosses over the creek where he is fishing. A train approaches, and Will is caught on the trestle with no means of escape. He lies down between the tracks so that the train passes over him. Although he emerges unharmed, the experience is frightening and could have led to his death. In the context of Cold Sassy Tree, this scene could be regarded as symbolic. Just as Will is caught on the trestle, so too he is caught between two ways of life in Cold Sassy. Will himself becomes a kind of bridge (like the train trestle), connecting these two ways of life. In the process of surviving his passage over the bridge, he becomes a bit of a hero in the town, just as readers may regard him as heroic for safely negotiating his passage into adulthood. This passage is suggested by another symbolic act: Will’s shaving for the first time.
Burns uses a great deal of southern dialect, a distinct form of language and grammar particular to a region or community, in Cold Sassy Tree. Thus, for example, late in the novel, Rucker says to Miss Love, ‘‘They ain’t no gar’ntee thet we ain’t go’n have no troubles and ain’t go’n die. But. . . God’ll forgive us if’n we ast Him to.’’ Translated into standard English, this passage would read, ‘‘There isn’t any guarantee that we aren’t going to have any troubles and aren’t going to die. But God will forgive us if we ask Him to.’’ Will even gives the reader a bit of a lesson in Cold Sassy dialect in Chapter 17: ‘‘You need to understand that in Cold Sassy when the word ‘aunt’ is followed by a name, it’s pronounced aint, as in Aint Loma or Aint Carrie.’’ Will goes on to provide further examples. The chief purpose of this use of dialect pronunciation and grammar is to add color to the novel. The reader is invited into the Cold Sassy community and can ‘‘hear’’ the characters speaking in their characteristic ways. Cold Sassy thus becomes more real. In contrast, Miss Love, a northerner, speaks more properly, using standard English grammar and pronunciation. Near the end of the novel, though, she uses the phrase ‘‘y’all,’’ dialect for ‘‘you all’’ or simply the plural ‘‘you.’’ This hint of dialect suggests that she is becoming part of the Cold Sassy community.
Point of View
Point of view refers both to the narrator of a work of fiction and to the perspective from which the novel is being narrated. The narrator is Will Tweedy, who narrates the novel from a first-person point of view, that is, from his own perspective using the pronoun ‘‘I.’’ The perspective, though, is more complex. At the time of the novel’s events, Will is just fourteen years old, though he turns fifteen near the end. As an adolescent, he is not always able to comprehend the implications of the events that he narrates. Thus, rather than having him tell the story from the fourteen-year-old’s perspective, Burns makes her narrator older. Thus, Will tells the story in 1914, by which time he would be twenty-two years old. This technique gives Will more of an adult perspective on events. He is still young enough to capture the innocence and incomprehension of the teenager but old enough to understand the meaning of what has occurred and communicate that meaning to the reader. Thus, the novel blends the two perspectives. Some events would have little meaning if they were narrated by the fourteen-year-old, but if the novel had been narrated entirely from the twenty-two-year-old’s perspective, it would have lost much of its poignancy, its ability to capture the perceptions of a character who stands at its center and who has to outgrow his more childish perceptions on his road to adulthood.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Novels for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Volume 31, Olive Ann Burns, Published by Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.