Symbolism In Pillars of the Earth

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As most proficient authors are aware, the process of developing themes within a work of literature is one of the most important duties of a writer. Authors have numerous methods available to them for this task, including devices such as symbolism. Ken Follett, author of The Pillars of the Earth, uses symbolism frequently throughout his novel (which is set in 12th century England and follows the dramatic events surrounding the construction of a cathedral). Follett employs several symbols, including the cathedral, the English monarchy, and fire, to aid him in conveying themes concerning the power of faith in achieving one’s goals.

The most prominent symbol in Follett’s masterpiece is the cathedral itself. It is the centerpiece of the entire plot, and also, quite literally, the vital center of the town of Kingsbridge. The building of the vast church binds the citizens together because all of their fates are tied to the effort of accomplishing such a huge project. With the existence of a cathedral, the town also benefits economically because of the increased numbers of religious pilgrims and inevitable attempts to cater to their material demands. The attitude toward the completion of the cathedral is the sole defining factor of a character’s role in the novel. The passion involved in the process of building the church is best expressed in Ellen’s plea for her son, Jack, to be allowed to continue working on it: “… the challenge of that cast church has got into his blood. He’ll go wherever someone is building a cathedral. He’ll go to Jerusalem if there’s stone there to be carved into angels and devils” (573). Because this cathedral is so incredibly significant to the townspeople, it comes to symbolize all of their hopes, dreams, and a...

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... the wool business, leading her to Kingsbridge and her future lover, Jack; Tom Builder is rescued from unemployment and starvation, and Kingsbridge gets a stunning new cathedral; and the town learns how to defend itself in the future. As Tom Builder put it, “It was not the devil who sent a master builder here on the night the church burned down” (252). In this manner, another theme is revealed: through perseverance, one can overcome nearly any obstacle, no matter how bleak it may seem.

These three symbols, the cathedral, the monarchy, and fire, serve to illustrate multiple themes in Pillars of the Earth about having faith and accomplishing one’s dreams. In a book as lengthy as this one, the author must use some device to tie the events together and express his purpose. Follett accomplishes this beautifully by harnessing the power of symbolism in literature.
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