Symbols of Comfort and Loss in Updike's 'A Sense of Shelter'

Categories: Short Story


In John Updike's "A Sense of Shelter," the author skillfully employs various symbols to underscore the overarching theme of comfort and the subtle transition towards a more somber mood. This essay delves into the deliberate use of symbols, such as bad weather, the familiar school environment, and a symbolic desk, to convey central ideas and enhance their significance throughout the narrative.

Symbolism of Bad Weather

The narrative opens with a meticulous account of bad weather, setting the tone for the story.

The detailed description of snow, thirty-two-degree temperatures, and a wintry landscape immediately signals a mood of melancholy. The bad weather acts as a symbolic representation of the sullen tone that the author intends to convey.

However, the symbolism extends beyond mere gloom. The snow, often a metaphor for a clean slate or a fresh start, takes on a dual significance. It signifies the opportunity for the main character, William, to embark on a new chapter by confessing a long-lasting love and eventually stepping outside his familiar high school environment.

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This symbolic beginning subtly foreshadows the gradual shift towards a more depressing tone in the unfolding narrative.

Symbolism of School

The school, introduced early in the story, serves as a powerful symbol conveying a profound sense of comfort. It becomes evident that loss of comfort is a central theme, and the school is a tangible representation of this theme. William, a senior accustomed to four years in the same high school, finds a haven of familiarity within its walls.

The impending loss of this comfort is palpable as William confronts his final year in high school.

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School, to him, is not just an institution but a comfort zone nurtured over years of attendance. The familiarity with the surroundings, the people, particularly his classmates, and the sense of superiority as a senior contribute to the profound solace William derives from his school environment.

William's internal struggle becomes apparent as he grapples with the inevitable departure from this sense of shelter. The symbolism of the school as a sanctuary highlights the emotional depth of his connection to this familiar space and emphasizes the overarching theme of a loss of comfort.

Symbolism of the Desk

One of the most poignant symbols in the narrative is William's symbolic desk, dictated by his last name, Young. Placed in the back of the room due to tradition, this desk becomes more than just a physical space; it embodies a sense of comfort and familiarity for William.

William's enduring attachment to this desk, maintained for twelve years, is not merely about a seating arrangement but a representation of his life's lack of change. It goes beyond the physical location, encompassing his routines, relationships, and overall existence. The desk symbolizes the shortage of change in both William's immediate surroundings and his broader life experiences.

Just as the desk remains a constant in his academic life, it mirrors the sameness that permeates his everyday existence. Whether observing the same students nearby or recognizing small details like a blue ink stain, the desk serves as a microcosm of William's life, highlighting the profound comfort derived from familiarity and the avoidance of change.

The Impact of Symbols on Theme and Tone

Collectively, these symbols intricately weave into the fabric of the story, reinforcing the central theme of a loss of comfort and its impact on William's emotional state. As these symbols challenge William's comfort level, the audience witnesses a perceptible shift in tone towards a more somber atmosphere.

Whether through the protective cocoon of the school environment, the steadfastness of the symbolic desk, or the wintry, frigid days, each symbol plays a crucial role in supporting and deepening the overarching theme and tone of "A Sense of Shelter." The deliberate use of these symbols enriches the narrative, providing layers of meaning and resonating with readers on an emotional level.


In conclusion, John Updike's masterful use of symbolism in "A Sense of Shelter" elevates the narrative beyond a simple exploration of comfort and its loss. The symbols of bad weather, the school, and the desk serve as intricate tools, shaping the mood and underscoring the emotional nuances of the story. Through these symbols, Updike crafts a tale that transcends the ordinary, leaving readers with a profound reflection on the intricacies of human comfort and the inevitable shifts that accompany its loss.

Updated: Jan 02, 2024
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Symbols of Comfort and Loss in Updike's 'A Sense of Shelter'. (2016, Jul 06). Retrieved from

Symbols of Comfort and Loss in Updike's 'A Sense of Shelter' essay
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