Symbolism in An American Marriage

In an author’s attempt to reinforce a certain theme or message, they are sometimes apt to referencing objects in ways that parallel their story in certain aspects. In An American Marriage by Tarari Jones, this use of symbolism occurs most notably with consistent reference to a specific tree. This hickory tree, which was so prevalent that it found its way onto the cover of the book, repeatedly made an appearance throughout the story, starting with Roy’s recount of calling a “tree doctor” to inspect the tree in order to calm Celestial’s nerves (pg 39), and ending with Roy nearly chopping it down out of anger toward the end of the story (pg 205). It is arguably one of the most symbolic objects in the novel, and is one which plays an integral role in representing the dynamic of the relationship between Celestial, Andre, and Roy.

However, even more interesting can be the more discreet symbols that, while still intentionally presenting themselves in meaningful ways throughout the story, are a bit more difficult to recognize due to their increased scarcity in comparison to more prevalent symbols like the previously mentioned tree. One relevant example of this sparsely-placed symbolism is the author’s mention of bones, both when in reference and when not in reference to Roy’s missing tooth.

While Roy’s tooth is mentioned often enough throughout the book to be noticed, it is not immediately clear what the tooth is being used to symbolize, or how it is meant to tie into any other concept within the novel. Close attention, however, will reveal the way in which the tooth (or lack of tooth) repeatedly draws parallels with Roy’s and Celestial’s relationship. Celestial, for example, on page 88, contemplates how her mother will react to knowing about her engagement to Andre. In doing so, she considered the validity of Andre’s engagement ring compared to Roy’s wedding ring, but ends up introducing a new object to her thoughts that trumps them both: “According to the ruby, Andre is my fiancé, but Roy’s diamond, so white that it’s blue, insists that this is impossible. But who listens to the wisdom of jewelry? Only our bodies know the truth. Bones don’t lie. What else hides in my jewelry box? A small tooth, ivory like antique lace, with a serrated edge like a steak knife.” Celestial herein recognizes that Roy’s tooth, which is in her possession, is “speaking” to her louder and with more authority than any amount of jewelry she owns, as indicated by her conclusion that “bones don’t lie.”

For context, Roy’s loss of his tooth was caused early on by his willingness to chase down a thief that had just stolen from Celestial. In this way, this tooth continues on to represent, both to the story’s readers and to Roy and Celestial themselves, Roy’s inherent bravery and selflessness when presented with a difficult situation. Celestial expresses her recognition of this on page 31, where she thinks to herself  “I would think about Roy, his bowlegged walk or the time he wrestled a robber to the ground, costing him a precious front tooth. When memory tapped me, I let go a few tears, no matter where I was, blaming it on allergies or an eyelash gone rogue.”. To discredit the notion that her sadness was simply from reminiscing Roy, this statement was made by Celestial before Roy was taken, indicating her sadness resulted from that actual event, or possibly the contrast between that event (a foil) and the situation she found herself in now, having just concluded an argument with Roy. Roy also frequently reflects back on the situation, saying on page 190 “That night in Brooklyn, I felt like Captain America; I didn’t even care that I lost my tooth defending her honor. You don’t get that many opportunities to be a hero like that.” and again on page 221, “I know you’re an independent woman and everything. You got your own money and your daddy’s money, too. But I liked being able to save you. Chasing that kid down the street, I was a hero. Even when he kicked my tooth right out of my head.

Roy’s tooth not only represented Roy’s bravery and loyalty to Celestial early on in the story, but as time progresses and Roy is charged and sentenced to twelve years in prison, the tooth, in the eyes of Celestial, begins to represent Roy himself, as it is the only real part of him she has left. On page 134, Celestial says she wishes to “harness its power and command it to her will”, indicating she sees it as a miniature manifestation of Roy himself: “God must know that in the bottom of my jewelry case, snapped into a felt box, is Roy’s missing tooth. A root woman would know what to do with it; even I, not talented in the unseen, can feel its blazing comet energy in the palm of my hand. But I have no way to harness this power or command it to my will.” Roy also affirms the tooth’s representation of him on page 217 when he asserts “It’s because you love me” after Celestial discloses that she has kept it with her while Roy was in prison. This shows that Roy acknowledges Celestial’s show of care toward his tooth as care toward him.

Even aside from representing Roy’s bravery – and Roy himself, there is yet another way in which Roy’s tooth acts as a symbolism, and that is the parallel between Roy’s view of his tooth and his view of Celestial. In addition to viewing Celestial as part of himself even after he gets out of prison (“I know who I married, too. You’re in me. When I touch you, your flesh communicates with my bones.” – page 227), he views his tooth as part of himself even though it no longer is not: “My missing tooth was part of my body that should have been with me forever. Teeth are bones at the end of the day. And everyone has a right to their own bones.” (page 198). Roy eagerly seeks to revive his marriage with Celestial: “Big Roy said, ‘You better get to Atlanta and see if you have any marriage left.’ He paused. ‘If that’s what you want.’ ‘Hell yeah, it’s what I want.’ […Roy said] ” (page 138) as well as to recover his tooth: “All I wanted to take with me was my tooth. For years, I stored it in a velvet box, like what a ring comes in.” – page 198), and then, while doing so, reconsiders his desire to restore that marriage: “I swear to God my plan was to leave right then. I would gas up Big Roy’s car and get back on the highway, taking nothing with me but my mama’s letter. But then…” (page 202) as well as his desire to recover that tooth: “Maybe it was only fitting that I move into this uncertain future without [the tooth]. The grave robbers of the next millennium would find me incomplete for all eternity, the story of my life there in my jaw.” ( page 202). And finally, in both cases, Roy, after initially losing them both, is then able to eventually recover them, but in a form that will never be the same as their original state, given that his marriage with Celestial was not actually restored, even though they were left on relatively good terms, and given that his tooth will never again be of use to him, even though it is once again in his possession.

Reference to Roy’s tooth is not the only way in which bones are used as symbolism in the novel. On page 33, bones are used to describe the depth of friendships: “My mother, an alumna herself, insisted that this was where I would cultivate new, bone-deep friendships, but I stuck close with Andre…” as well as on page 88 to represent the authenticity of Celestial’s relationship with Roy, as previously described. On page 161, the author describes Celestial as being “shook to the bone” when her father took her to the hospital, using this again to symbolize depth, just of a different emotion (fear, rather than friendship). However, even more notable than these examples are when bones are used in describing a form of communication between Roy and Celestial. On page 25, when Roy had just disclosed to Celestial that Big Roy was not actually his real father, he tells the reader: “When I was mad, I didn’t raise my voice. Instead, I lowered it to a register that you heard with your bones, not your ears” after which he asks Celestial in that tone: “Are you sure you want to do this?” Once again, on page 227, Roy uses the same analogy, telling Celestial: “Georgia, I know who I married, too. You’re in me. When I touch you, your flesh communicates with my bones. You think I can’t feel how sad you are?

While the author’s mention of teeth and bones relate almost exclusively to the relationship between Roy and Celestial, there still remain other symbols throughout the novel that tie in other characters as well. Use of the description of shoes in the story to illustrate a number of different meanings and implications is a perfect example of where this is the case.

Primary purposes of shoes being mentioned as often as they are include clear indication of social status, of a feeling of belonging, and of an attempt to think of things from a different perspective. In the scene between Big Roy and Little Roy, just as Little Roy gets out of prison on page 99, he mentions how his own shoes feel foreign on his feet, and immediately transitions into describing his interaction thereafter with his father. In this case, Roy is mentioning how, after all his time of being in prison, he feels like a stranger standing in his own shoes – as well as a stranger standing before his father (as he thinks: “Father’, what a clumsy word now, as I approached Big Roy, afraid to want anything at all.”). This shows how shoes are being used to symbolize the dynamic of Roy not feeling like himself in terms of his relationship to his father. Shoes are also mentioned twice when Celestial is at her parents’ house for Thanksgiving, speaking with Uncle Banks. During this conversation, Uncle Banks says to Celestial: “You remind me, actually, of Celestial’s father. He and I have been friends ever since he had holes in his shoes.” (page 70). In this statement, Uncle Banks is using the image of her father’s holed shoes to accurately portray the amount of time that he and her father were friends. Shortly after, and perhaps uncoincidentally, the author described Uncle Bank’s process of climbing down the ladder to Celestial’s level as follows: “Wearing his Sunday shoes, Uncle Banks took several careful steps down the ladder and landed on the porch…” (page 92). Accordingly, it could be concluded that the image of Uncle Bank’s shoes were being compared with those of Celestial’s father.

Shoes have also made their place in representing wealth, as was specifically the case with Roy in describing his financial situation as a child: “Me, Olive, and Big Roy were a family of three, and we lived in a sturdy brick house on a safe block. I had my own room, and when Big Roy built an extension, I had my own bathroom. When I outgrew my shoes, I never waited for new ones. While I have received financial aid, my parents did their part to send me to college.” (page 10). Celestial’s lack of shoes when approached by her professor, Raul Gomez, from when she was attending Howard University, showed how she was unorganized and unprepared. When Andre considers the one way in which he envies Roy, he makes an interesting reference to shoes in doing so: “This is one thing I envied Roy: his dad. It wasn’t that I had never seen anybody with a responsible father before. After all, I grew up right next door to Celestial and Mr. Davenport. But a man who is a father to a daughter is different from one who is a father to a son. One is the left shoe and the other is the right. They are the same but not interchangeable.” (page 147), showing how two things that are similar but still different, such as raising a daughter and a son, can be symbolized by a pair of shoes. On page 160, when explaining to Celestial the difficulty of imagining being in Roy’s position, Andre says: “I’ve tried, but I can’t even walk around the corner in his shoes, let alone a mile.” On page 13, Roy says about Celestial: “She wore her pedigree like the gloss on a patent-leather shoe.”, on page 53, Celestial describes how her mother “talks bad about these white people and she talks about them in detail, as if she could actually remember them. She says that they were trashy, smelled of camphor, and the little girl didn’t even have shoes.”, and on page 138, while Roy is temporarily staying at his father’s house, he thinks this to himself while looking in the mirror: “I returned to the kitchen dressed in the best apparel Walmart had to offer, khaki pants and a knit shirt with a collar. At least I had good shoes.

These are just a sample of instances in which shoes are used to represent a larger concept throughout the book, as similar references to shoes appear time and time again, so much so that exploring the implications of each one individually would be a lengthy process. It is the use of these shoes in describing the relationships of characters, such as that of Little Roy and Big Roy, as well as the fact that they are mentioned over and over again in more subtle ways, that leads to the conclusion of them being a dominant symbol in the novel. Combined with other uses of symbolism, such as with bones, teeth, and another similar one not covered, hair, the book effectively uses symbolism on a number of levels to reinforce concepts, which is done in a manner that’s easy to follow, with a reasonable amount of attention, by any reader that is interested in better understanding that dynamic of literature.

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