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Siddhartha | Symbols



Kamala keeps a songbird in a golden cage. It serves as a symbol of Siddhartha's inner voice and of his imprisonment in a world of wealth and luxury. While his life may seem charmed, he nonetheless lives in a gilded cage, trapped by his possessions and worldly vices. Over the years Siddhartha loses his pleasure in life, seeking greater and greater adrenaline highs—anything offering temporary joy or excitement. At the same time, his guiding inner voice fades away as he neglects his practices of meditation, fasting, and thinking. His happiness in life evaporates completely, and then Siddhartha dreams the songbird dies and he throws it away. He awakens from the dream, understanding that the bird represents his own soul or inner voice, which he has killed with the escapism of alcohol, women, and gambling—losing his Self and leaving only the gilded cage behind. He has lost his will to live and nearly drowns himself in despair. After Siddhartha leaves town without a word, Kamala releases the bird from the cage. Later in the story Vasudeva refers to Siddhartha's son as a "young bird," too. Siddhartha has forced the boy into a life he doesn't want, just as Siddhartha could not thrive in his father's home or in Kamala's world.


The tranquil river is of central importance to Siddhartha's journey, and symbolizes the unity of everything in the world—even time. The river constantly renews itself, its flow of water endless, just as life renews itself through birth and continues in an endless cycle. "It was always the same and yet every moment it was new," Siddhartha observes, just as each generation of people are in some ways the same yet in other ways new and different. Siddhartha also concludes by watching the river that time does not exist, since the river is in all places at the same time, in the present moment. This idea unifies the past and future with the present, making "now" the only time that exists. Siddhartha and Vasudeva view the river as beautiful and holy, just as all of life is beautiful and holy—the good, the bad, and the ugly all taken together.

The river offers passersby the opportunity to slow down and reflect, to be present in the moment, and to be at one with nature and all of life. In doing so the observer can forget the Self and simply listen, opening up to messages from outside the Self. These are the voices Vasudeva and Siddhartha hear and learn from. However, Vasudeva states that although he has "taken thousands of people across ... to all of them my river has been nothing but a hindrance." Only a handful of people have recognized the river's beauty and magic. Most people have been too busy living their everyday lives to delve deeper or to listen for the voices of others. Although the universe is flowing right beneath their feet, such travelers never notice it or experience the wonder of unity. When Siddhartha wants to drown himself, miserable from the superficial life he's been living, the river offers him the healing sound of Om. The sound of voices, coming from the river, blended together reminds him of life's deeper meaning and the joy to be found in connecting with and loving all.


Throughout the story there is a certain smile only those who have achieved enlightenment wear. It is Gotama's "secret smile, not unlike that of healthy child" as he wanders begging for food. It is the "radiant" smile of Vasudeva as he listens to the voices of the river. And it is the peaceful "smile of unity" the enlightened Siddhartha shares with Govinda in his old age. The smile is childlike, hinting that the secret to enlightenment lies in viewing the world through a child's eyes, with love, curiosity, and acceptance. These are the very lessons Siddhartha learns on his journey. Through the heartbreak of losing his beloved son, he finally comes to understand and love "ordinary people." He accepts their passions, folly, and evils as part of the greater whole that is life, and he embraces it all. It is this knowledge of unity that hides behind the smile: the peace and love of knowing that all of life is connected.

Questions for Symbols

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Oates has specifically mentioned the "Death and the Maiden" folktales as one inspiration for this story (see "Death and the Maiden" under " Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory "). Some literary critics have
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