Black Spring

Black Spring Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Symbol: The Crab

In one of the many sentences which begins with the words “I am,” Miller completes the phrase with “the crab, which moves sideways and backwards and forwards at will.” That lack of a linear direction, suggesting fluidity of purpose and intent, past and present, and shifting of locations, is symbolic of the text as a whole. The structure lacks the chronological progression of most books and even in its categorization as a novel it moves at will between obvious examples of pure fiction and sections which read far more like pure autobiography.

Symbol: Black Spring

The only occurrence of the phrase “black spring” in the book is its title. The closest the text ever comes to an explicit referencing of the title is one single line: “Out of this black, endless, ever-expanding girdle of night springs the continuous morning which is wasted in creation.” In this connotation, the title becomes not some sort of seasonal symbol as one might naturally suspect. Spring becomes not a noun but a verb, and black an adjective not describing spring but the darkness of night. Black spring under these terms becomes a symbol for the continuous regeneration of that which is doomed to die.

Motif: Native American Violence

Miller mentions Native Americans and their supposedly bloodthirsty behavior several times. In Paris at night he claims to be “scalped and tomahawked” (188), but then smiles that this is “Just the right world for me! Keeps my flesh tender and my soul intact” (188), suggesting the viciousness and thrilling nature of the night as it acts upon body and soul. In “Into the Night Life” Miller presents an extended, violent scene of his massacre at the hands of Native Americans. He is scalped and disemboweled, but again, this is less horrible than it may appear: “My body is a sepulcher which the ghouls are rifling. I am full of raw gems that bleed with icy brilliance” (177). Miller uses the motif of Native American violence to suggest that there is truth and beauty in savagery, and that the modern man might look to this supposed primitiveness to find succor and sustenance.

Motif: Bridges

Bridges feature numerous times in the text. In “The Fourteenth Ward” Miller writes that “Day comes when you stand on the Brooklyn Bridge looking down into black funnels belching smoke and gun barrels gleam and the buttons gleam and the water divides miraculously under the sharp, cutting prow” (12). In addition he writes, “One looks down from the Brooklyn Bridge on a spot of foam or a little lake of gasoline or a broken splinter or an empty scow; the world goes by upside down with pain and light veouring the innards” (13). In “A Saturday Afternoon” he crosses the bridge at Boulogne in his walks, which makes him think of how he is “crossing any and every bridge and I have crossed them all” (41). He adds a bridge to his masterpiece in “The Angel is My Watermark!” and walks over the Brooklyn Bridge again in “The Tailor Shop,” ruing his existence and stating firmly that he has nothing to say about his own life. There is a swaying, creepy bridge in “Into the Night Life” as well as a lovely one where he felt secure and could stand forever. In “Burlesk” Miller walks the Brooklyn Bridge yet again to see the house where he was born and “an immense, heartbreaking loneliness grips me” (224). There is no one usage for the bridges in the text; they can refer to the act of creation, a liminal space, a passageway, a symbol of modernity, and more.

Symbol: Barbed Wire

In “Walking Up and Down in China,” Miller writes of the boys that will soon be sent off to the next war to die: “The boys from the north side and the boys from the south side—all rolled into a muck heap and their guts hanging on the barbed wire” (210). He also writes in “The Tailor Shop” of the terrors of modernity: “new babies coming out of the womb, soft, pink flesh to get tangled up in barbed wire and scream all night long and rot like dead bone a thousand miles from nowhere” (118). Critic James Decker explains that Miller uses barbed wire as a symbol of the crushing, terrible reality of modernity: “Barbed wire, a bitter symbol of the mechanized destruction of the first ‘modern’ war, here betokens the shredded identities and living deaths that await children once they mature.”