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Seize the Day | Symbols



The novel is filled with symbolic language of water. Modern life is, in effect, pulling Wilhelm under, threatening to drown him. The novel begins with Wilhelm in an elevator that "sank and sank" to the lobby where the carpet "billowed" toward curtains "like sails." From the window, Wilhelm can see the neighboring hotel, the Ansonia, whose exterior features "huge swells and bubbles of metal ... like sea water."

Wilhelm struggles financially, his father refusing to help him. Encountering his father's rejection, Wilhelm "drew and held a long breath, his color changed and his eyes swam" as if he had been plunged under water. He tells his father he expects help; without it, he feels "like a ball in the surf, washed beyond reach." Adrift in his troubles, Wilhelm struggles, finding it difficult to breathe. The language of suffocation permeates the novel. Wilhelm feels "choked" and "congested" such that he "just can't breathe." He is terrified "the waters of earth are going to roll over [him]." When he loses all his investment, "his unshed tears rose and rose and he looked like a man about to drown." Submersed in grief at the dead man's funeral, he "finally sinks beneath that watery floor" underneath the pressure in a picture of baptism and rebirth.

Tower of Babel

The reference to the Tower of Babel symbolizes isolation and the impossibility of communication in modern life. Thinking of his sister Catherine, Wilhelm recognizes she is "just one of thousands of artists in New York, "each practically a law unto himself," like "a Tower of Babel in paint." The Tower of Babel comes from a story in the Bible, which recalls a people who wish to build a high tower to show their abilities. To disrupt this attempt, God divides the people by making them all speak different languages. Unable to communicate to organize their efforts, the people abandon the attempt and scattered throughout the world. Artists, like everyone else in New York according to Wilhelm's experience, lack a shared understanding or language, making it impossible "to understand or be understood." Inability to communicate leads to isolation.


Tommy Wilhelm's estranged wife, Margaret, represents the demands and pressures facing modern urbanites, forces that distort their character, forcing them to wear masks of conformity. Margaret forwards all her bills to Wilhelm, expecting him to pay them despite his lack of employment. She has no sympathy for his position of being out of work, and she doesn't care what he has to do to come up with money. In fact, she hangs up on him when he expresses his emotions, insisting he conform to socially acceptable manners. She will speak to him only when he is calm. She is unwilling to compromise or seek employment herself. Margaret doesn't care she is killing Wilhelm, and she will not allow any late payments of what (she claims) he owes her. Like the pressures of modern life, she is unrelenting, demanding, and cold.

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