11 June, 2013

Icons in Literature

Let's play a game. Everybody likes games - especially when they're about icons in literature, right? RIGHT?

I am reading The Godfather by Mario Puzo at the moment. I didn't think I knew anything about it, until I started reading. Then, I realised two very famous parts were familiar to me already. Firstly, there was the scene where a man wakes to find a horse's head in his bed, and then there was the phrase "sleeping with the fishes" - to mean a body which has been dumped in the sea. I knew about both these things without ever having watched or read or discussed The Godfather before.

It got me thinking about how many other things in books become part of our common knowledge and language. I don't mean things like particularly famous titles, plotlines and characters. I mean iconic lines, images or scenes that have grown bigger than the books themselves. They become either phrases that people use without necessarily even knowing the book at all (think, Catch-22), or - as with The Godfather - ideas that somehow everybody knows about.

So, here are a few of those lines or images that I consider mini-icons from literature. I haven't looked anything up, this is all dredged from the corners of my brain. Do you know which books I'm thinking of? I bet you do, or at least have come across what I'm referring to, even if you don't know the book title! Pop your answers in the comments (and no peeking ahead before having a go yourself!).

  1. A woman dressed in a wedding dress, sits amongst cobwebs and the rotting remains of a wedding breakfast.
  2. "Curiouser and curiouser."
  3. "Please Sir, can I have some more?"
  4. "My dear, I don't give a damn." (The "frankly" often found at the start of the expression was added by the movie-makers and isn't in the book).
  5. Don't panic.
  6. "I don't think we're in Kansas any more." (I use this line every time I'm confused about something!)
  7. A place where it's always winter but never Christmas.
  8. "My precious."
  9. Room 101.
  10. "Bah! Humbug!"

Actually, because these things are so much in common useage, I found it quite hard to think of them! Can you think of any more icons that aren't just famous storylines but have somehow become more than that?


  1. I think I can name every book in your list above - but won't spoil it for others just yet ;). And you're right - I certainly haven't read/seen all of the examples you mentioned, they are just infamous. Though number 1 I don't think I'd have know without reading the book in question.

    I'll have a think and see if I can come up with any others.

    1. Oh go on... :)

      I thought of Number One straight away as in The Art of Letting Go, Rosemary refers to herself as a 'Miss Havisham' (when sitting alone in a room still decorated as her childhood bedroom). I figured most people would know what I meant even if they hadn't read Great Expectations.

      More ideas welcome!

    2. Oh ok then :)

      1. Great Expectations
      2. Alice in Wonderland
      3. Oliver Twist
      4. Gone with the Wind
      5. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
      6. Wizard of Oz
      7. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
      8. The Lord of the Rings
      9. 1984
      10. A Christmas Carol

  2. I couldn't name them all, but could add a few...
    - The winter of discontent
    - To be or not to be
    - Iron sharpens iron
    - Take the log out of your own eye
    - May the force be with you
    - Beam me up

    1. As I was writing this post, I found it quite difficult to differentiate between things that were just famous because a lot of people had read/seen them, and things that had become part of common useage. The Bible is such a rich source of the latter. When I read the King James Version I was amazed at how many phrases are in common use now!

      (My favourite phrase in the KJV is when King Darius (I think...) is really scared and "his knees smote one against the other". Brilliant.)

  3. I knew all of your list.

    Big Brother?


    1. I was trying to do 10 different books, so after Room 101...

      I would've bet good money on you being able to do them all!

  4. Did you know why in the film, Clark Gable stresses the word 'give' rather than the last word 'damn', which would have sounded more natural? It was because they were worried censors might object to the latter word and so wanted to draw attention away from it!

    1. I haven't seen the film and I didn't know that. Interesting! Check you out with all the facts!

      It reminds of that Mark Twain quotation... something about how every time you want to use the word 'very' in your writing, write 'damn' instead. The editors will cut it out and your writing will then be as it should be.

  5. I'll try to remember that - it's a damn good idea!

  6. Hi Chloe and once again I find myself apologising for my absence. Well, I'm back from my various projects (including setting up a new website and new blog). Yes, I've come back to find out how it's done properly and what happens? I got five out of ten in your quiz. Should I be ashamed to admit that I've only read 'Alice in Wonderland' and 'The Wizard of Oz' from your list. No, I haven't seen any of the movie versions. One good aspect - I've read 'The Godfather' and seen the movies - does that reclaim some points?
    Since reading your post a few minutes ago I have yet to recall a phrase that comes to mind which could be classed as every day usage. If I can remember one this century 'I'll be back ... '

    1. Good to hear from you again, Tom. Every time I go to check your blog it appears to be a different address. I tried to visit the other day and it wasn't where I thought it should be so I thought I'd lost you!

      Yes - you can have an extra point for having read The Godfather :)


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