Although air travel is a recent invention, humans have fantasized about flying for thousands of years. Returning to Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, Foster suggests that the “flying African” myth represents the desire for freedom in the midst of captivity. In Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus (1984), a woman is ironically trapped by her ability to fly, as due to this skill she is forced to perform with a circus. Although this meaning may seem oppositional to Morrison’s, its ironic power rests on the shared assumption that flight usually means freedom.
While some symbols are notoriously complicated and ambiguous, others are far more straightforward. It would be hard to argue against the idea that flight symbolizes freedom, even if that symbolic meaning is then ironically manipulated and subverted, as Angela Carter does in “Nights at the Circus.”
Foster again highlights novels by Fay Weldon and Salman Rushdie that feature characters expelled from exploded planes mid-flight. The fact that these characters survive their fall is a miracle defying the laws of science, which in turn invokes themes of rebirth and hope. At the same time, these are rather exceptional events; most characters, like most real people, do not often literally fly through the air. Yet authors allude to themes of flying and freedom in other ways, for example, through the use of bird imagery.
As Foster points out here, many authors—especially those working in the realist tradition—might wish to avoid portraying their characters actually flying through the air. Although it might seem obvious, this is an important point to bear in mind. When symbolism and imagery seems unnecessarily difficult to identify, the reason for this may be because the author is working within the confines of realism.
Another symbolic way in which characters take flight is through the flight of the soul from the body at the point of death. This is originally a mostly Christian image, relying as it does on the journey up to a heaven in the sky (as opposed to the Greek belief in the Underworld below). Once again, flight is associated with freedom—in this instance freedom from the trials of a physical, mortal existence.
Ideas such as the soul rising after death can seem fundamental, when in fact they did not always exist and correspond to a specific tradition (although also to other traditions than Christianity, some of them older). Even the association of flight with freedom is thus contingent (historically specific), and may change in the future.