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The Satanic Verses | Symbols


Dawn, Birthdays, New Year's Day

Dawn marks the beginning of a new day; birthdays and New Year's Day mark the beginning of a new year. As such, these events symbolize newness and beginnings. In addition, both daily and annual cycles are repeating patterns, and so the newness of a dawn, a birthday, or a New Year's Day symbolizes not only a beginning, but cyclical renewal and rebirth. These potent symbols underscore the novel's theme of metamorphosis and rebirth. Examples of these symbols abound in the text: the fall that begins the novel takes place around dawn and near New Year's Day. Mahound walks up Cone Mountain on his 44th birthday. Gibreel begins his movie career after he is fired from his job on his 21st birthday, then disappears around his 40th birthday, and takes Rosa dancing on her 89th birthday. All of these instances mark new phases of life or important transformations. The Imam promises to abolish the notion of time itself, and so declares that "[a]fter the revolution there will be no birthdays" (Part 4). This is an attempt to stop beginnings from happening and enter a state of being where everything is unchanging.


In general, water is a feminine and spiritual symbol of both life and death. It symbolizes death because of its associations with being overwhelmed or drowning. It symbolizes life because of the diversity of life it contains; its importance to every form of life, particularly human childbirth; and its associations with baptism and birth. The novel opens as the two main characters fall into the sea, and one of its final scenes is of people disappearing into the sea. Saladin and Gibreel enter the water after their fall, and their lives are changed, so that the sea is an agent and symbol of rebirth and transformation. The Ayesha plot line ends when the villagers walk into the sea, likely to their deaths. In the Mahound plot line, the city of Jahilia is described as being all made of sand, a place where water is shunned as a destructive agent. Thus, the symbolic use of water helps to develop the theme of metamorphosis and rebirth. It also demonstrates the complexities of female presences in the physical and spiritual lives of the main characters who are Hindu and Muslim, Indian and British.


Fire carries the symbolic weight of being associated with hell and the devil, as well as being a powerful agent of death and destruction. Rushdie, however, uses fire ironically as the opposite of water to envision a type of masculine rebirth associated with phoenixes, one of the examples of reincarnation that is so fascinating to Gibreel: "phoenix-from-ashes, the resurrection of Christ, the transmigration ... of the soul of the Dalai Lama" (Part 1, Chapter 4). The fires that erupt in London become part of Gibreel's hallucinatory vision of reality, creating a hellscape in which he will meet his adversary. Gibreel blows his trumpet and flames shoot forth, consuming several pimps. Both the London fires and the explosion of Flight 420 support the theme of metamorphosis and rebirth. Significantly, fire plays an important role in fulfilling the opening (and repeated) line "To be born again ... first you have to die," because it initiates the transformations of Saladin and Gibreel and is important to the final "confrontation" between the two. Fire thus extends and complicates the symbol of water and furthers the tension between male and female energies in the novel.


As Saladin Chamcha's transformation into a devilish, eight-foot, half-goat reaches its peak, he begins to haunt the dreams of people in the neighborhood of the Shaandaar Café. The youth in the immigrant community begin to use the "Goatman" as a political symbol: "The symbol of the Goatman ... began to crop up on banners at political demonstrations" (Part 5, Chapter 1). Since the police and city leaders dehumanize and demonize immigrants, they begin to claim the demonic Goatman as their own. Reclaiming racial slurs can be an empowering exercise, and the fad of the Goatman seems to fulfill that function in the novel, symbolizing both the poor treatment of immigrants and their empowerment.


In one of Gibreel's dreams, the village of Titlipur is home to swarms of amazing color-changing butterflies. These butterflies are associated with the long-dead saint Bibiji and disappeared after her death. They reappeared at the time of the orphan Ayesha's birth. The first time she appears in the novel, she is eating the butterflies. They follow her, often covering her body like clothing.

Since butterflies undergo metamorphosis in their natural life cycles—changing in a chrysalis from a caterpillar to a butterfly—they are a powerful symbol of metamorphosis and rebirth. These butterflies have the additional quality of changing colors, chameleonlike, depending on their surroundings. This quality supports the connection between the theme of metamorphosis and rebirth and the theme of immigrants, who must change to fit into a new environment.

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