The Light in the Forest | Study Guide

Conrad Richter

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The Light in the Forest | Symbols

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The Butler House

The Butlers' house symbolizes imprisonment. The epigraph describes the transition from childhood to young adulthood as a prison-house closing around a boy. Though the quotation uses the term prison-house as a metaphor for disillusionment, to True Son, the Butler house resembles a literal prison. Not only is he sent there against his will, but the house cuts him off from nature. He associates nature with home, family, and freedom; in the woods, he can move as he pleases and make abundant use of natural resources. Now, his movements are restricted to a few rooms with limited belongings.

When True Son first observes white villages in Chapter 5, he wonders why human beings would choose to live in confinement. During his first night in the Butler house, he feels buried alive. Chapter 7 describes the ways in which every hole is covered in the walls and ceiling of True Son's room, making the room airtight. By Chapter 8, True Son wants nothing more to do with the Butlers, whom he finds hostile to Indians, so he "[makes] a prison of his room." He doesn't imagine a way to escape until he falls ill in Chapter 11. Then he realizes he can be free in his mind by honoring his inner voice, leaving "the prison cell" empty.

True Son's Clothing

True Son's clothing stands for his shifting identity and fortunes. The jacket and pantaloons he gets from Mrs. Butler in Chapter 6 symbolize the imprisonment he feels in the Butler house. For True Son, the clothes take on a much greater meaning. He thinks of all the pain Indians have suffered when white men imposed their version of civilization. He sees an identity that is not only foreign to him but opposed to his existence as an Indian.

His Indian clothes represent what he feels is his truest, freest self. What Mr. Butler sees as "miserable and pitiful Indian dress," True Son sees as comfort and liberty. His Indian clothing is less physically restricting, allowing for freer movement in the woods.

When Gordie wants to put on True Son's Indian outfit, he shows admiration for his biological brother's Indian identity. True Son's uncles Wilse and George Owens feel differently. After they show open hostility to Indians, True Son's pride and anger overcome him and he clings to his Indian clothing.

The new suits the tailor makes for him represent the son Mr. and Mrs. Butler want to see. When Mr. Butler looks at True Son's suits, he imagines the oldest son he always wanted, one who follows in his father's footsteps and accepts family cultural practices. One suit is made from Mr. Butler's own clothing, indicating that Mr. Butler wants to pass on his legacy.

After True Son returns to the Lenni Lenape, he's forced to put on clothes taken from murdered white settlers. The settlers' clothing suggests a change in the way the tribe sees him and in the way he sees himself. He realizes he has empathy for his white family, imagining Mrs. Butler and Gordie caught in the planned ambush. Once True Son betrays the tribe, members make him continue to wear the stolen jacket and pantaloons. Cuyloga indicates that True Son should keep wearing the clothing when he leaves the tribe for the final time. Exile from the tribe means that True Son is shedding his Indian identity and will have to adopt a new white identity in the settlers' world.

The Fork in the Road

The fork in the road represents major turning points in True Son's life. The first time he reaches the fork is Chapter 3 on his way to Fort Pitt. A sycamore tree has a dead branch pointing to Pennsylvania and a living branch pointing back to the forest. One side leads to his Lenni Lenape family and life; the other leads to restriction and confinement. The dead branch itself becomes a symbol for the "living death" True Son endures when he leaves his community behind—first in Chapter 3 and again in Chapter 15.

The fork reappears when Cuyloga banishes True Son from the tribe. This time there will be no going back. Once more, True Son takes the road pointing to white settlers' towns. The final paragraph describes a desolate and lonely life among white people. Each time he reaches the fork, True Son takes the path alone without his Indian friends and faces an uncertain future.

Blood

Blood symbolizes loyalty and connection. Richter uses blood as a metaphor. The changing of True Son's blood is not a literal blood transfusion but acceptance into an Indian family. In Chapter 1 True Son describes a spoken ritual that Cuyloga performs that "took out [True Son's] white blood and put Indian blood in its place." True Son then adopted the traits of his family, thinking and acting as Indians do. The connection is deeper than a biological bond to him. Blood later becomes shorthand for the habits and values he finds familiar. At first white culture is so foreign to him that when he sees the military tents of Colonel Bouquet's army he feels "not a drop of blood that knew these things."

Mr. Butler—who hopes True Son will eventually embrace white culture—clings to the fact that True Son is biologically white. He defends True Son to Uncle Wilse, saying his son has "white blood." Uncle Wilse retorts that the Indians turned True Son's white blood red, making the same point Cuyloga made but from a different perspective. To Uncle Wilse True Son will always have Indian loyalties and habits.

True Son believes that white blood is thinner than Indian blood, indicating he finds Indians more courageous, moral, and strong than white people. When he begins to adapt to routines at the Butler house, he picks up habits he would never have imagined in his Indian life. He hoes corn, wears white clothing, and goes to church. Eventually, he fears the "milk-warm water" of white blood has infected him. Cuyloga also notices a change in Chapter 15 when True Son shows compromised interests by betraying his tribe. He believes True Son's blood—his essential self—has thinned into white blood.

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