More Riffing on Light and Dark

A couple of days ago, I penned a post about light and darkness, and the enduring, almost super-conscious symbolism contained within the dichotomy.

In short: Light = life, dark = death.

And we see it play out a thousand different ways in a thousand different tales:

The universe explodes forth out of darkness, and here, in our infinitesimal corner of a speck of a galaxy, a slow-burning star provides the heat and light necessary for life to take over our planet.

Cavemen huddle around a dwindling fire, both for the heat it provides and the fact that it keeps the predators away.

The lights go out in the house when you’re all alone, and that’s when the monsters (demons, ghosts, psycho killers) strike.

Macbeth: “Out, out, brief candle!”

And I riffed for a little while on just how ubiquitous the dichotomy is, and how universally recognizable it is, and I even fielded some ways in which I’m going to consciously work the idea into the books I’m working on.

And that got me thinking.

Can you reverse it?

I’ve been pondering over the last day or two on this idea: can you invent a storyworld in which darkness represents life, and light represents death? Okay, maybe you can do it, but you can technically do anything in a story: reverse gravity just for kicks, invent an alien race who, for fun, remove their genitalia and fling them at each other, cozy up to all sorts of talking flora and fauna. But those are concepts totally alien to us. They don’t have to compete with a preconceived notion already extant in our head; they simply have to carve out their own little weird space in our thinkparts.

The fact is, symbols mean only what we agree they mean. But light and dark are symbols that have been around and understood since before there was literature. Huddle up around the fire at night, walk during the day, and your odds of survival go up. Go wandering in the darkness, and sabre-tooth tigers will make kibble out of you.

Can you reverse such a powerful, subconscious symbol, even for the space of a single story, in the mind of your audience?

I can’t be the only person who’s had this idea. I’m sure it’s been done in films or books before, but all of a sudden my mind is racing like a jackrabbit on Jolt cola.

Maybe aliens come down and suck all the juice out of the Earth’s power grid, causing their ships and their bio-suits to glow. As long as we stay huddled in the dark, they leave us alone, but if you turn the lights on…

Or maybe there’s some long-forgotten beast slumbering beneath the earth, dug up by glory-seeking archaeologists. At first, it just sits there, inert and unmoving, since they dug it up at night. But the moment daylight strikes its ancient hide…

Or maybe I’m thinking too close to home. Maybe it’s the far-flung future, and we’ve found a perfect planet to colonize (you know, since we’ve either a: trashed the earth or b: a wandering asteroid has wiped it out or c: the sun burnt out and left the earth frozen… pick your apocalypse, we have a neo-earth situation here), except that it emits a particularly nasty brand of radiation, so that you can’t go out in the day lest you be burnt to a crisp…

Man, I dunno. Each one sounds dumber than the next, and I immediately start poking holes in those ideas. (Do the aliens only live on electric power? Is it just one monster, and is it only sunlight? What about indoor lights on the neo-earth, surely we still need light to see indoors…) Which brings me back to the question: can it really work?

Can a story teller create a world where darkness brings the life and the safety, and the light brings with it death and fear?

If you know of a story like this, I’d love to hear about it.

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About Pavowski

I am a teacher, runner, father, and husband. I am an author-in-progress. I know just enough about a lot of things to get me into a lot of trouble. View all posts by Pavowski

10 responses to “More Riffing on Light and Dark

  • Writella

    That’s an interesting notion. Part of the appeal being that living in darkness is *still* scary, even if the light brings greater dread. The population is forced to accept darkness for safety even with its pervasive fearful associations that makes it interesting. It could work well, don’t you think? It’s something that could sneak into any story, regardless of aliens.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Pavowski

      Sure, I think you’re on the track. A “lesser of two evils” kind of thing. I was about to say that such a story ends up going “dark” pretty quickly, but I guess I’d better say it turns bleak instead…

      Liked by 2 people

      • Writella

        And yet think of a story with a blind protagonist – could it work? Our blind protagonist might find ‘light’ in her interpretation of the world through her other senses. Instead of light vs dark she has sound vs silence – which is kind of the same thing… but can we imagine this protagonist is comfortable with darkness, but *light* is something she experiences as the side effect of dreadful migraines: When she sees light, it’s paired with pain so severe that she becomes insensible to her surroundings, which causes more problems. Now I’m reminded of cases where people have had sight or hearing restored, only to prefer to live blind / deaf as the new senses cause anxiety. So lets take our blind protagonist and restore her sight (to be tidy, link the sight restoration operation with a procedure to cure the migraines) after so many years associating light with pain she finds that she prefers to live in the darkness. The darker the better. Any kind of light is terrifying to her, in fact, so strong is her fear of light that she may experience psychosomatic pain similar in intensity to her old migraines. Phew. My character now fears light and is comforted by darkness. Does that work for you?

        Liked by 2 people

      • Pavowski

        Just … excuse me while I copy / paste the whole of your comment into my little black book of future story ideas…

        And the conflict, of course, comes from the fact that she lives at odds with the rest of the world. It practically begs to be written from first person, which would make it seem like her worldview *is* the whole world…

        Liked by 2 people

      • Writella

        Ha! Please do! It’s going in mine too! She needs a job, don’t you think? How about she’s a lawyer working a terribly important case and her condition is threatening her job – it’s migraine season and she’s been absent too often. She’s going to have to undergo the experimental operation to fry part of the optical centre of her brain. Luckily she will be fit to return to work just a couple of days later, assuming it doesn’t go horribly wrong. The odds are pretty slim for surviving with your sanity. She’s scared, but excited. She buys a book (at random?) and wonders with a chuckle if she’ll be able to read it even if she can see the words. Will her brain be able to process that information visually, that she is used to taking in through her finger tips? She holds the book tightly to her chest as the doctors clamp her head into the thingy. It will be obvious quite soon after the op that something is wrong. She will return to the hospital with her head bound up in a sweater – an attempt to block out all light, as she can’t even tolerate the glow through her eyelids. She can’t go to work like that. Dark glasses aren’t dark enough, but she finds they work better at night. She hates street lights but their artificial glow is less painful than sunlight and more effectively blocked by the glasses. She can see, sort of, as much as she wants to see, and becomes increasingly active at night, and resultantly tired during the day. Her work suffers. A relationship at work becomes untenable. She quits her job, breaks up with her boyfriend and then what? Starts working night jobs – what kind of nefarious business will she get involved with? Night may bring her comfort, but still the story arc begs me to write in grimy criminal activities. She has to use her lawyerly smarts to earn a living, but who can possibly use her services during the sundown hours? The gangsters? Is there some kind of underground law firm that only operates at night, serving the dark forces of the city…. well, I don’t know. But I think I’ve proven that even in trying to give her comfort in darkness I’ve ended up leading her into something grim at night, and leaving her healthy job / relationship combo behind in the sunshine. Perhaps there’s a way to tweak it all though…

        Liked by 2 people

      • Pavowski

        See, what has happened already (not that this isn’t really fascinating stuff) is that she is drawn almost inexorably by her association with the dark to those seedier elements that are going to pull her into a world of evil and death.

        Actually, it kind of reminds me of a crappy horror film I saw a few years back, called (I think) “The Eye” — a blind protagonist has an operation to restore her sight, but all of a sudden she can see ghosts and demons all around. (I forget how it ends.) The moral? Horrible things are all around us even in broad daylight, but most of us choose not to see them — hiding in the dark, as it were. But even then, the dark is not symbolic of safety; it’s only an illusion.

        Liked by 1 person

  • Writella

    I’m reminded of Zaphod Beeblebrox’s glasses that go completely dark at times of danger… it may have worked for him as a reader we find it alarming (in a comical way) that he can’t see the danger coming.

    Liked by 2 people

  • Our Voices Reach Far | Accidentally Inspired

    […] Then there’s a little muser of a piece I popped off about the symbolism and the ubiquity of light and dark in literature, which gets a handful of hits every week. And then, it’s been a constant […]

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  • Accidentally Inspired Best of 2016 | Accidentally Inspired

    […] More Riffing on Light and Dark. Just a little post about symbolism that I may revisit some time, because it’s everywhere, but we don’t pay all that much attention to it. I think I was high on the scene where (SPOILER!) Han Solo dies in TFA at the time. […]

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