Imagery and Symbolism in David Guterson’s The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind

Imagery and Symbolism in David Guterson’s The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind

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Imagery and Symbolism in David Guterson’s The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind

In David Guterson’s anthology, The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind, characters are portrayed effectively and succinctly through the imagery of their surroundings. Many of his stories are symbolic in that they reflect relationships and feelings of characters. Guterson’s titles have a more complex and deeper connection to the story than is first apparent. They too are often symbolic of a main character, or of relationships.

In "Angels in the Snow," Guterson describes the world as fragile because of the snow that has fallen. This fragility of the world, at that particular time, is representative of the relationship between John and Cora. The next morning the world is described as ‘a fragile, white place’ and this symbolises their relationship which has also become very fragile because of what John has revealed. The whiteness of the snow symbolises innocence and purity, but at this moment, through Cora’s eyes, John has lost the last of his innocence. Guterson also uses the act of making angels in the snow to portray innocence that is rapidly fading.

We made angels in the snow, Cora and myself, swept our arms through
the powder, left an impression of wings that would melt before the new

It is as if John already knows what is to come, and is aware of how soon it will be. He is aware that his relationship with Cora has changed. She now has confirmation that John is not as innocent as he might have liked her to think. Through making the angels he is making one last attempt to seem innocent, for this is a very innocent act. John appears to think that if he can some how act innocently, he can convince Cora that he really is so.

In "The Flower Garden," Guterson continues his exploration of the fragility of a relationship between a man and a woman and again portrays this by drawing parallels with what is happening in nature. The relationship between Anna and the narrator is a very fragile one like the garden they ‘planted with nursery sets and fragile garden cuttings.’ The relationship and the garden are at the beginning of their being, and both are very fragile. Both have to be thought out, then nurtured carefully. Any mistake or misjudgment can have long and lasting consequences.

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A relationship and a garden are similar in that they both require much work in order to be successful. In discussion about her family’s gardens, Anna says:

They’ve been a job . . . Constant work. But if everyone helps, and you

do a bit each day, and don’t get behind or let them get ahead of you,

you don’t notice it. Let things go and it becomes a miserable chore.

The parallels are that both a relationship and the flower garden require commitment and constant work. They also require the work of more than one person to be truly successful. This is especially true of a relationship if it is not to be a one-sided affair. Anna is also implying that if one is not in a relationship by choice and does not work at it, then it becomes an unhappy thing and actions are just done out of habit or for the sake of doing them. The title of "The Flower Garden" has a deeper connection with the story. At times it seems as though the relationship between Anna and the narrator is centred around the garden and it is all that the two of them have. It is where they meet and spend the majority of their time together.

Guterson uses symbolism and imagery to express a particular state of mind, especially one that a character desires. In "Wood Grouse on a High Promontory Overlooking Canada," Guterson uses both a flock of sheep and the wood grouse to show the state of mind that Gary is looking to find. When Gary sees ‘a flock of sheep, a sheepdog and a shepherd, up on the Wind Pass trail,’ he says, "Aren’t they beautiful?" After coming back from the Vietnam war, Gary is looking for peace and tranquillity. He wants to escape and forget what he has gone through, and so he idealises things which appear to him to have this state of mind. When Bud throws a rock at a flock of wood grouse and injures one, the two react differently. To Gary the harm is senseless and cruel, but Bud feels nothing. Bud has no real reason for throwing the rock other than something to do, an automatic behaviour. For Gary it is different as this kind of senseless harm reminds him of his time in Vietnam, something he does not wish to be reminded of. To Gary the wood grouse, in this "draft dodger heaven," has the ultimate freedom. It has the bird’s freedom of flight, and also the freedom of being able to cross between the two countries, a thing that he would like to have. It is also something that he would like to have been able to do in order to escape from going to war.

In "Piranhas" Guterson also uses symbolism and imagery to portray a character’s state of mind and feelings. Paul imagines what his goldfish are thinking and this reflects how he is feeling.

as they might have been in their other lives - free, inhabiting a warm
and boundless ocean, darting joyfully, their hearts light, feeding, in
conquest, at liberty to live.

Paul sees his parents as strict, authoritarian and suppressive. He is desperate to rebel against them, but is unable to do so. He can identify with his fish, for this is how he thinks they are feeling. He is a destructive young man, and this is symbolised by his choice of piranhas as pets. His piranhas are also symbolic of his parents and the way that he feels they treat him. Paul feels that his parents are greedy and vicious, like the piranhas, and by feeding his other fish to them, he is allowing them to act out what he feels his parents are doing to him. It is also a way in which he can release some of his destructive tendencies and rebel against his parents to some extent. Guterson presents the relationship between Paul and his parents cleverly and economically through his use of symbolism. There is little obvious love in the relationship.

In "Aliens" Guterson uses symbolism to portray the feelings of the narrator. Here the narrator's actions are both physical and spiritual.

So I stood at the edge of the city and tossed it. It floated at first, and
than seemed to plummet, and at last it fell out of sight.

With the throwing of his coat, the narrator is letting go of a cover. It is a shedding of something and a becoming of oneself. It is the removal and discardment of a visual identity, a revelation of his real self. He is letting his mask fly away, by letting it float off the building, but at the same time, he rises up to be who he really is.

In "American Elm" Guterson draws attention to an important aspect of a character through imagery and symbolism. A tree is used to portray the age and character of a person. The American elm tree is symbolic of Ed.

he drew up and pointed ninety feet into the fragile, reaching branches
of an American elm snapped like a pencil fifty feet up and slanting
tamarack: where it waited, wavering half-toppled and leafless, for
another storm wind to send it hurtling down like a battering ram
launched by the gods to split asunder Ed Stone’s dark cabin.

Through this symbol Ed is portrayed as an old and strong being, one who has reached the end of his time. It is in removing the elm so as not to allow it to fall that Ed falls and breaks his leg. This is his downfall and after this he finds himself in a hospice where he is taken to die. With the elm, Ed fell too and this is the eventual cause of his death.

In "Opening Day" Guterson again uses symbolism to depict old age through the sage bushes.

‘Smell that sage,’ I said to Sean. ‘It’s the strongest smell you’ve got out
here. It’s everywhere.’
‘Some sage’ll live for a hundred and fifty years,’ Pop reflected. ‘Same
sage Chief Joseph smelled, you’re smelling now.’

It is here that the age of his father and son are brought to the narrator’s attention. Through Pop’s comments about the sage, the narrator realises just how old his father is. It is brought to his attention that Pop is going to die soon. It is as if Pop feels himself to be the sage. The narrator also realises how young his son is at this same time, for Pop is passing knowledge onto Sean and is also drawing Sean’s attention to his age. The theme of age and the things that are to come in the characters’ lives is shown through the title. For Sean, it is the beginning of his adult life. For Pop it is the end of his, but also the beginning of something new, the "Opening Day" of what is to come next.

Many of Guterson’s titles are similar to that of "Opening Day" in that there is more meaning to them than the obvious link to the story. They underline the use of symbolism within it. In "Day of the Moonwalk" it is clear that this day is a significant day for the whole world. It is a turning point for humans, but it is also a turning point in the lives of the family in this story. On this day, one of the characters damages his knee and this greatly changes his physical activity. It also affects the rest of the family as the son, Harold, is evidently the favourite of the parents and his younger brother, the narrator, has much admiration for him. Without Harold being able to partake in his favourite pastime, basketball, things change for the parents and his younger brother. Thus an event that was so crucial to the whole world is reflected in miniature within the family of the story.

In "Acrturus" the star, Arcturus, is symbolic of what the friendship should have been between Carl and Floyd.

He didn’t want to forget about it ever. Even the ridiculous promises had
been sweet. He would have died for Floyd back then. He’d been dumb
enough and young enough for ridiculous things.

Despite what Carl and Floyd promised each other, when Carl sees Floyd he cannot even bring himself to say hello. The promises that they made at the time, should have gone on forever, and yet they do not. Although it appears that the feelings of loyalty are still there, they are not actually carried out. This makes Arcturus and their friendship different. The friendship and its promises should have gone on forever, and been there always, like the star will, but they do not.

The title of Guterson’s The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind, like many of the titles for the short stories and the symbols used with in them, has a deeper meaning that connects to the anthology. All the stories are about what has happened to the main characters in the past. Many of the stories explore the relevance of the particular relationship described to that person's present and future being, as well as the obvious role in the past. The past, "The Country Behind" affects the main characters for the rest of their lives, as these are all stories of coming of age. Through the clever use of movements in time, Guterson gives insight into the futures of the characters, "The Country Ahead." This allows readers to gain an understanding of how these single events in the characters lives have an on-going effect on the way they live their present and future lives.

Works Cited and Consulted

Guterson, David. The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind, Vintage Books 1996.

Scott, Whitney. Rev. of The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind, by David Guterson. Booklist 93 (1996): 604. Literature Resource Center. Gale Group. Genesee Com. Coll. Lib., NY. 4 Aug. 2004 <>.
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