Foster quotes from Shakespeare’s sonnet 73, in which a man compares his coming old age to the shift from fall to winter. Although Shakespeare didn’t invent the use of seasons as symbolism, he was particularly skilled at it. Henry James uses a similar technique by calling two of his characters Frederic Winterbourne and Daisy Miller, thereby contrasting cold, stiff winter with the beauty and freshness of spring. Unlike other symbolic systems, the seasons have tended to signify more or less the same thing over time, creating parallels even between works of literature written many centuries apart.
Although this is less the case now (particularly for people living in urban regions), historically human life has been deeply affected and rhythmically governed by the seasons. Not only do changes in light and weather affect our behavior, but seasons have their own set of events and customs, such as New Year’s Eve in the winter and harvest celebrations in the fall.
As well as creating atmosphere, seasonal events such as blizzards, blossoming, and harvest can also be metaphors for events happening in the lives of characters. For example, just as farmers harvest crops at the end of the summer, so do people “reap whatever it is that we sow.”
Seasonal events such as the harvest are particularly meaningful in contexts where people ascribe religious and moral meaning to the seasons. In these contexts, seasonal changes are deeply intertwined with human life.
Because the seasons retain a fairly fixed meaning, writers experiment with representation of the seasons in order to avoid cliché, and some choose to depict the relationship between season and plot in an ironic fashion. Furthermore, different cultures have different particular associations with each season, even though the mood will be essentially the same. The Ancient Greeks, for example, associate fall with comedy. Christianity, meanwhile, has established a link between the spring and Jesus’ resurrection.
No matter how close the associations between, for example, fall and the harvest, no symbol ever has a totally predetermined meaning. Indeed, this is what makes literature somewhat unique as a form of representation; although the symbolic imagination and “language of reading” create rules and conventions, all of these are made to be broken.