Symbols in Junot Diaz’s “Is This How You Lose Her” Essay
Junot Diaz’s incredibly insightful look at relationships in his collection of short stories “Is This How You Lose Her” incorporates a range of witty observations and poignant commentaries about the nature of a romantic connection. Studying the phenomena of affection, love, the emotions that it sparks, and the conflicts that may arise between people in relationships, the author introduces the reader to the other side of romance. Pointing to the fact that a romantic relationship may become the source of affliction once either of the sides is unwilling to contribute to it to the full extent, the author describes a series of events that take place in the life of his main protagonist, Yunior. By incorporating a range of symbols such as the main characters’ clothes, their personal belongings, and attributes of their culture, the author conveys the conflict of belonging, sense of being lost, and the problem of expressing emotions as the path to understanding them in his collection of short stories.
Symbols and Their Significance
Using letter as the symbol of relationship is so common as a means of symbolic expression in a novel that the trope must have worn out its welcome before “This Is How You Lose Her” was even written. However, Diaz manages to breathe a new life into the specified trope by incorporating several important ideas into it. In the novel, Ramon refuses to throw Virta’s letters away, thus, imitating the continuation of relationships. On a closer look, one might argue that the specified idea represents Ramon’s failure to reconcile with his loss. He realizes that the letters are the last thing that keeps the connection between him and Virta sealed. Therefore, when he casts the letters away, he will feel emotionally disconnected from his memories of her. Herein lies the reason for him being so reluctant to throw away what seems to be no longer representative of his relationships with Virta.
Although being very close to letters in their basic function and primary purpose, e-mails embody a different concept in “This Is How You Lose Her.” In the short stories, e-mails are viewed as one of the tools for distancing people and, therefore, alienating lead characters from one another. For instance, Diaz writes: You compose a mass e-mail disowning all your sucias. You block their e-mails” (Diaz 176).Therefore, e-mails are interpreted as cheap substitutes for communication that symbolize a transfer to a new mode of relationships, which is seen as faster, less meaningful, and much cheaper than the actual communication. The mentioning of mass e-mails is the detail that lessons the value of the identified tool to an even greater degree. It could be assumed that the specified line invites the reader to participate in a conversation about the problems of modern communication. With several sharp words, Diaz makes an observation about communication losing its value and becoming cheaper in the contemporary world with the introduction of the media that allows keeping in touch consistently. In addition, the image of a blocked e-mail can be interpreted as a symbol of the relationships that have been interrupted and ceased to be.
Thus, e-mails can be regarded as the symbols of colder and more distanced relationships between the lead characters. While the specified process of alienation might be deliberate, as in the example provided above, they can also be representative of the relationships that have lost their spark and are no longer sustainable. It is remarkable that, in contrast to letters, which bear a district air of nostalgia and represent the relationships that the lead character treasures, e-mails are viewed as the means of brushing people off and cheapening the relationships. Thus, Diaz incorporates a very smart commentary on modern interactions and the problems that contemporary media has introduced into the communication process. Much to his credit, Diaz is not being preachy about the subject matter in his stories. Quite the contrary, he uses rather subtle imagery to convey his message. In fact, the subtlety of his writing allows the reader to perceive the symbol of e-mails not in opposition to regular letters but, instead, as an entity that exists on its own. Furthermore, the author provides the reader with an opportunity to interpret the symbols that he introduces to his stories from one’s own perspective, which is especially exciting since the characters are easily relatable and the situations in which they interact are emotionally overwhelming.
Clothes play an especially important role in Diaz’s writing. The way in which his characters dress helps convey the changes in their emotions and attitudes, thus, creating unique esthetics. The specified detail becomes especially evident when Magda wears the clothes that can be described as rather revealing, as Diaz put it, “clothes to replace the old shit she was wearing” (32). The specified change indicates a shift in the character’ priorities, particularly, her willingness to become an entirely different person, therefore, developing independence. Although the specified gesture might seem as childish and lacking in maturity, it signifies an important plot point in the novel and a significant turn in the character development of Magda. Although the specified change in the portrayal of the character can be regarded as a sign of her immaturity, it also indicates that she is willing to make a positive change in her life. Therefore, the specified symbol can be viewed as one of the most memorable and crucial symbolic images in the story. The change in the lead characters’ clothes, thus, can be regarded as the symbol of transgression to a new stage of personal growth (Smith 208). Even though the specified alteration is often seen in Diaz’s short stories through the prism of relationships between the characters, the change in the type of their clothes is regarded as a deeply intimate change that signifies a shift toward a new mode of behavior and a new way of thinking.
Personal belongings are both rather easy to turn into symbols and at the same time very difficult to make appealing to an average reader. Because of the intimate and personal meaning that seemingly meaningless items may have for people, as well as a wide array of interpretations with which these symbols can be imbued, it is rather difficult to help a reader relate to the character by using the latter’s belongings as the means of introducing symbolism into a story. However, Diaz makes an exceptional work of the identified task by using boxing gloves as a means of introducing symbolism into his stories. In one of them, Rafa mentions that his boxing gloves as one of his possessions: “’I’m going to be buried in it.’ ‘In this piece of crap?’ ‘Yup. With my TV and my boxing gloves’” (Diaz 99). One could argue that the specified image represents the symbol of toxic masculinity of Rafa, i.e., his unwillingness to reject social stereotypes in order to find his identity. However, boxing gloves as a symbol can also be interpreted as the repudiation of the said prejudices, i.e., Rafa’s willingness to yield and accept his failure to build strong relationships with anyone. Therefore, in some way, the gloves represent both the weakness and the strength of one of the leading characters. If stretching the specified symbol even further, one may claim that the gloves are illustrative of the willingness to stay within the mold of the social standards and constructs that define ones’ relationships. However, one could also argue that a more common idea of gloves being the symbol of refusal to yield and the willingness to fight one’s own battles was used in the novel (Miranda 198). The duality of the object and the lack of clarity regarding the message that it is supposed to send to the reader leaves a bittersweet feeling of wistfulness as the short story ends.
The significance of the symbols that the author uses to render his ideas can hardly be overrated. Serving as the medium for building a connection between the characters and the reader, the specified device becomes a universal language. Even though each of the symbols created in the short stories can be interpreted in a million ways depending on the reader’s cultural and ethnic background, the experience of relationships, etc., the message that they convey remains the same. Particularly, the author makes an endeavor to render the significance of valuing the bonds that people create with others and striving to sustain these connections. Claiming that Diaz insists on keeping these interpersonal links would be very easy, yet the solution that the author offers is not that simple. As seen in the symbols represented by letters and e-mails, Diaz recognizes the threat of falling prey to one’s own delusions and feeding the illusion of relationships. Thus, it could be argued that the author addresses the significance of being able to end relationships that lead to eventual self-destruction. Thus, Diaz’s short stories render some of the problematic aspects of the subject matter, including toxic relationships that result in the ultimate suffering of the people involved in it.
The significance of the symbol represented by a change in one of the characters’ clothes can also be deemed as one of the simplest and at the same time most emotional symbols represented in Diaz’s work. Implying a change toward a new and improved state of being, such as the transformation of a chrysalis into a butterfly, the specified symbol can be regarded as the quintessence of personal growth. The transformation that the woman experiences is similar to shaking off the old shell and taking a new form. Therefore, the symbols that Diaz uses in his short stories, while being somewhat wistful, are mostly positive. They incorporate cautious optimism and suggest that the lead characters and, thus, readers are capable of making a difference in their lives by reconsidering their relationships and focusing on healthy interactions (Soto 3). Although some of the symbols that the author uses can be described as rather naïve, most of them are also breathtakingly sincere, which makes them all the more powerful. In addition, in a range of cases, the symbols utilized by the author have a double meaning. The very discovery thereof is already rewarding, yet the revelations that it contains, such as the significance of being able to abandon the remnants of the past, are truly priceless. Diaz teaches his readers crucial lessons about relationships and communication, in general, by using an elaborate system of symbols and signs (Sandín 101). While these symbols might seem unrelated, they are, in fact, closely linked to each other in a single coherent metaphor.
Therefore, the use of symbolism is evident and common the Diaz’s short stories. He uses the elements of daily life such as clothes, letters, e-mails, etc., to explore the identity crisis and the personal transformations that his characters are experiencing, Moreover, the use of the specified techniques allows inviting the reader to experience the emotions that the lead characters fee and undergo the changes that they decide to make. Thus, the personal journey of the people in Diaz’s books is intertwined with the readers’ experiences. The symbols that Diaz incorporates in his stories serve a distinct purpose, yet their interpretation hinges heavily on the personal convictions and set of beliefs of his audience. As a result, the process of reading becomes a journey into the identification and deconstruction of one’s personal self (Chadwick 17). Thus, the symbols that Diaz uses are supposed to interact with readers and encourage them to change, shaping their ideas of interpersonal relationships and gaining a better understanding of what healthy relationships represent. While not being preachy, the author creates a very distinct idea of problems that the lead characters face due to their inability to build relationships. Helping the audience relate to the issues experienced by protagonists, the symbols that Diaz incorporates in his short stories create additional layers of meaning, some of which are hidden deep underneath the surface of the story.
In order to address the problems associated with the management of relationships and convey the atmosphere of emotional confusion experienced by the lead characters, Diaz creates arrange of symbols that are supposed to indicate the crisis of identity experienced by the characters. The incorporation of personal items as the main symbols into the stories, including boxing gloves, clothes, and even attributes of the protagonists’ culture, makes the short stories appeal to readers on a personal level. Being nuanced and complex, the symbols that the author uses serve as the means of both render the emotional state of the characters and the environment in which they are placed, thus, making the reader submerge into the setting of the stories completely. While incorporating a complex and often intricate set of meanings and ideas, the symbols used in the story are represented by rather basic objects, which helps the reader make an immediate emotional connection to the characters and their problems. Thus, the symbols serve a dual function, helping the reader relate to the characters and at the same time distancing ones from them far enough to look critically at the mistakes that they make and the challenges that they face. The resulting acceptance of one’s individuality and recognition of one’s personal responsibilities to the people in one’s personal life makes further personal progress possible.
Chadwick, Charles. Symbolism. Taylor & Francis, 2017.
Diaz, Junot. This Is How You Lose Her. Riverhead Books, 2014.
Miranda, Daniela. “How to Dismantle a Boy: A Queer Reading of the Masculinities in Junot Diaz’s Work.” The Apollonian, vol. 2, no. 2, 2015, pp. 197-208.
Sandín, Lyn Di Iorio. Killing Spanish: Literary Essays on Ambivalent U.S. Latino/a Identity. Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.
Smith, Jennifer J. “Teaching the Short-Story Cycle, Teaching American Literature.” Pedagogy, vol. 16, no. 2, 2016, pp. 207-227.
Soto, Alejandra. Broken Men: The Failures of Machismo in Junot Diaz. Chapel Hill, MC, 2014.