Plants have always played a significant role in literature, acting as powerful metaphors that can convey complex emotions, themes, and ideas. Their use as literary devices has evolved throughout history, adapting to the changing cultural and societal contexts. In this article, we will explore the history and evolution of plants in literary metaphors, examining how they have been utilized across different periods and cultures. From Shakespearean plays to contemporary novels, plants have been woven into the fabric of literature, adding depth and symbolism to the written word.
The significance of plants in literature
Plants have been used in literary texts across all periods and cultures, although their significance to literary critics remains uneven [^1]. There has been a longstanding interest in plants in literary works, particularly in the mentions, motifs, and potions used as plot devices in works by William Shakespeare. However, representing the lives of plants in literature has proven to be more challenging, leading to the emergence of a fast-growing subfield of scholarship in the 21st century known as critical plant studies [^1].
The rise of plants as literary characters
While plants are often depicted as background scenery, there are instances in literature where they take on more active roles and become central characters. Novels such as “Garden by the Sea” by Mercè Rodoreda, “The Seed Keeper” by Diane Wilson, and “The Island of the Missing Trees” by Elif Shafak explore the active presence and role of plants in the narrative [^2]. In these novels, plants are not just metaphors but key elements that shape the story, reflecting themes of identity, connection to the earth, history, and the potential for renewal and transformation.
The representation of plants in children’s literature
Children’s literature also utilizes plants as metaphors, emphasizing their ability to blur species boundaries and encourage empathy for non-human subjects [^3]. The Phyto-Analysis Map, a flower-shaped analytical tool, clusters various concepts from plant theory and previous literary analyses into six petals. These petals explore different aspects of plant representation in children’s literature, including mediation, agency, character, environment, silent backdrop, instrumental value, and intertexts [^3]. Understanding these different perspectives helps researchers gain insights into the symbolic use of plants in children’s literature.
The evolution of plant symbolism
The use of plant symbolism in literature has a long history, rooted in oral traditions and later recorded in written works. Different cultures and regions have their own unique plant symbols and associations, adding richness and depth to literary works [^4]. The Tree of Life, for example, is a widely recognized symbol in various mythologies and represents the connection between the underworld and transcendental realms. The Snowdrop and Narcissus hold different symbolic significance in Western literature, while the Oak tree and Holly tree have specific meanings in Celtic mythology [^4]. By understanding these cultural associations, readers can appreciate the deeper layers of meaning infused into plant metaphors in literature.
Plants as symbols of human emotions and ideologies
Plants are often used as symbols of human emotions and ideologies in literature. They can represent a wide range of emotions, from love and passion to decay and death. For example, in Anton Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard,” the cherry orchard symbolizes the wealth and status of a crumbling Russian aristocracy [^5]. Raymond Chandler uses orchids in “The Big Sleep” to convey moral corruption, while Daphne du Maurier employs rhododendrons in “Rebecca” to foreshadow the narrator’s displacement [^5]. Plants serve as powerful symbols that allow authors to evoke specific emotions and convey complex ideas.
Plants have a long-standing presence in literature, and their role as metaphors has evolved over time. From the mentions and motifs of Shakespearean plays to the active roles of plants in contemporary novels, their use in literature adds depth, symbolism, and emotional resonance to the written word. The representation of plants as literary characters in children’s literature further amplifies their significance, encouraging empathy and blurring species boundaries. Plant symbolism, rooted in cultural associations and mythologies, enriches the reading experience, providing readers with additional layers of meaning. As we continue to explore the history and evolution of plants in literary metaphors, we gain a deeper understanding of the power of nature’s language in shaping our literary landscapes.
[^1]: “Plants and Literature” – Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. https://oxfordre.com/literature/display/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.001.0001/acrefore-9780190201098-e-1267
[^2]: “Beyond the Anthropocentric: When Plants Become Literary Characters” – Literary Hub. https://lithub.com/beyond-the-anthropocentric-when-plants-become-literary-characters/
[^3]: “Analysing Plant Representation in Children’s Literature: The Phyto-Analysis Map – Children’s Literature in Education” – SpringerLink. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10583-021-09469-2
[^4]: “Plant Lore – A Brief Insight Into the Mythology and Symbology of Plants – New Acropolis Library”. https://library.acropolis.org/plant-lore-a-brief-insight-into-the-mythology-and-symbology-of-plants/
[^5]: “Plants in literature” – Unlocking Words. https://unlockingwords.wordpress.com/2017/11/14/plants-in-literature/