Saturday, April 26, 2014

Final project - The Use of Symbolism & Psychology in Jimmy Corrigan

            An English professor I had once explained to a class of mine that authors will always find ways to deliberately manipulate their writings with delicate hints of symbolism that would be imperative to understand, but won’t always become apparent as you read.  He alluded to several things such as colors, buildings, shapes, locations, even characters names all have a significant and intentional purpose in novels, of which should never be overlooked. These symbols are expressions profoundly used to express human nature and knowledge in many different cultures. During this semesters readings it was vitally important to pick up on these symbols in the stories that we delve into, especially when reading Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth. Chris Ware’s graphic novel about the extremely awkward Jimmy Corrigan is full of symbolism, motif, imagery, and sometimes to a greater extent, a glimpse into the protagonist of Jimmy Corrigan’s psyche through the scope of fundamental psychology. Chris Ware utilizes an entire range of subtle images and symbolism throughout Jimmy Corrigan, however, it is the use of these symbols and images which actually can be connected through modern psychology to prove some usefulness in explaining and understanding many ordeals of Jimmy Corrigan’s life during the course of the novel.

            For nearly eight decades superheroes have been a staple of American culture. As a piece of mesmerizing Americana, it was Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Captain America who epitomized some of the earliest pivotal figures in comics we’ve come to admire and love today. In Chris Ware’s graphic novel, the first four pages give us a glimpse into the role one prominent superhero will have throughout the novel: Superman. We are presented this superhero—albeit very far from ‘super’—and while we see a young Jimmy Corrigan enthralled by meeting with his idol, his single mother doesn’t share quite the same idolization of one of his heroes. Her attitude at the beginning can be only described as standoffish towards Jimmy as she is hostile during the car ride to the show and also right before he gets his autograph from Superman. In these instances we need not observe Jimmy and his mother’s relationship—which we know plays a significant role on Jimmy later in life—but we must examine the role of this recurring superhero more thoroughly.

            Many years after meeting his childhood idol, adult Jimmy comes back to his cubicle at work and finds a note that reads, “I sat across from you for six months and you never once noticed me! Good bye.” Moments later he looks up and out the window to see someone in a Superman costume on top of a building who subsequently leaps to his death. A few pages later, during a fantasy of his a giant superhero appears and turns Jimmy’s house upside down ultimately destroying it. Further in the novel on two separate occasions there are again references to Superman in the form of a child’s toy and the other as a shirt with an “S” on the front that Jimmy’s dad lends to him. One way to observe these recurrences would be that Jimmy suffers from unresolved issues stemming from the lack of an adult father figure and frequently likes to envision the his childhood idol as the missing male figure that he never had. The superhero is an embodiment of fantasy as we see Jimmy fantasizes a lot throughout the novel. His fantasies and dreams can be elucidated as an explanation for “repeatedly failing in an attempt to do something; of being attacked, pursued, or rejected; or of experiencing misfortune” (Myers 103). In Jimmy’s case feelings of rejection and abandonment are severely shown. Some have noted the psychological roles superheroes have, like Lawrence Rubin who writes “Contemporary superheroes tales, just like their legendary and mythological counterparts provide us, as psychotherapists Lauretta Bender and William Marston suggested, with a means for exploring many important psychological issues.” Jimmy’s psychological problems arise from the absence of a father figure pure and simple. A child with an absentee father develops a tendency to create an imaginary father figure who can be idealized and looked at as a myth, while not deterred by the certainty of the situation (Wineburgh). Jimmy’s idealized representation of his father is this caped crusader he occasionally thinks about and envisions throughout his life which is indicative of the constant yearning of knowing the true identity of who his father really is.

            Analyzing Jimmy Corrigan certainly wouldn’t be complete without including some sort of discussion about the use of peaches throughout the entirety of the novel. It is not just the peach as a fruit that is repetitively used, but the peachy color that Ware chooses to paint several skylines and backgrounds with. Additionally, there are several other distinct frames when the peach becomes present, like when there is a conversation with a complete stranger about peaches in the airport; the conversation having several sexual connotations. We also see how Jimmy’s grandfather is shown to have coincidentally once lived on “Peachwood Ave”. All of these instances should hopefully reveal to the reader the subtle importance of this simple fruit. Even with a broad understanding of symbolism common knowledge tells us that most fruits and flowers, when given enough emphasis in literature, are usually metaphorically associated with the cyclic nature of the seasons, of which ultimately signify life and death (Wheaton College). In Chinese culture peaches are symbolic and often associated with long life and immortality. In many biblical texts most fruit is commonly used to suggest fertility. The latter seems to be explicitly implied in Jimmy Corrigan’s case. The peach represents Jimmy’s desire for a female companion to reproduce with and is shown through the several sexual fantasies he has when he encounters practically any woman face-to-face. The first introduction of the peach is at the onset of meeting Peggy, Jimmy’s coworker he has a crush on, when he fantasizes about planting a peach grove with her. The implication is clearly sexual and possibly brought on by how “life events trigger transitions to new life stages at varying ages. The social clock—the definition of ‘the right time’ to leave home, get a job, marry, have children, and retire,” and in Jimmy’s case, the time to marry and have children is running out as he approaches the later stages of adulthood (Myers 216). The correlation between Jimmy and the peach is his eagerness to merely find a woman in his life to fill that missing void of companionship.

            Another scene where the peach is importantly depicted is when Amy is notified about her father’s accident and rushes to the hospital where she sits anxiously in a waiting room to hear about his condition. During this collection of pages Ware illustrates to us how paramount recognizing the peach symbolism is in Jimmy Corrigan. On the wall behind Amy we see a still life portrait of a bowl full of peaches by Paul Cezanne. It can be postulated that this
placement is purposeful and deliberate to again deliver the symbolic message of the peach and fertility since a hospital is obviously a place where life (birth) and death occur daily. The issue is, when Jimmy finally arrives to the waiting room to meet Amy for the first time we once again see a portrait on the wall, however, in all the frames that follow there is no longer any still life sketch of peaches by Cezanne. This fruitful, ripe, and fertile symbolism is now completely nonexistent. The peach has now transitioned into foreshadowing symbolism in the novel which implies that long life, immortality, and fertility are about to cease. We know later on that Jimmy’s father dies due to complications sustained from the car accident, and so the symbolism of the peach just prior to his death is one which for once didn’t always have sexual connotations associated with Jimmy. Another way to view this could be that the peach wasn’t implied in Jimmy’s case, but rather his sister, Amy.

            Advertising is a 250 billion dollar industry which has heavy influence on how people are presumed to act, feel, and look (Kilbourne, 2010). Today’s society relies heavily on television for entertainment, news, and viewing new products, so it is commonplace to see the advertisement of goods and services exploit women at the cost of making money. For decades, women have dressed scantily and acted seductively during television ads, creating what we now know as a cultural norm here in the United States. But when reading the first few pages of Jimmy Corrigan it is not hard to see the comparison that could be made between these advertisements we’ve become desensitized to and the ones that are right before us in Ware’s artwork. These images appear to us most of the time in a blatant manner, but occasionally symbolic, too. Jimmy is one of few men in his family who have become influenced by these symbols thereby affecting the way in which he psychologically operates in viewing women throughout the course of his life.

            In the beginning of Jimmy Corrigan we see a young Jimmy who has set out with his mother to meet his superhero idol. The venue of this meet and greet is a car show where the subliminal messaging becomes evident almost immediately. Slogans like “sweet thing,” “hot stuff,” and “pussy” are all advertised right before Jimmy’s eyes, and at a very young age
nonetheless. He sets off by himself to find his superhero and in one almost seemingly harmless frame we see Jimmy rounding a corner just to see on the wall right behind him a young woman in a promiscuous pose holding a wrench. The insinuation is simple and yet sexual. Little did he know, but from a very young age Jimmy was psychologically primed to think sexually and see women as sexual objects, and not only because of the advertisements around him, but also due to seeing his mother being used as an object of desire with one of his childhood hero’s.

            As an adult, Jimmy frequently has these fantasies which arised initially with Peggy, but when he and his father are in “Burger Kuntry” is when Jimmy first has revealing thoughts brought on by the girl who is working at the cash register. Jimmy envisions himself on a yacht with a friend named “Chauncey” who suggests they go below deck and “wake the ‘ladies’.” Unhappy with his meal, Jimmy has to go replace his father’s burger and we then see hearts surround his head when he begins talking to the young girl working. Shortly after Jimmy has a very negative fantasy about a failed sex attempt with the same Burger Kuntry girl, where after he is denied he says, “Well my dear, I for one have got better things to do than waste my time with some cocktease whore.” For a man who barely musters up enough confidence to speak confidently to women, Jimmy demonstrates some unresolved sexual issues which lend to the idea that he views her as a mere sexual object. This is something Ware likes to occasionally let surface to the reader.

            The second occurrence where we see how the effects of primed sex symbols on Jimmy’s psyche is when he is in the doctor’s office after being hit by a postal truck. When Jimmy and his father are sitting in the doctor’s office we see the conspicuous placement of a chart of the female reproductive system lingering right behind his father in exactly nine separate frames. This chart of female sex organs is once again a focal point Ware chooses to intentionally make; references to the symbolism of fertility between Jimmy and women around him are apparent. Soon after, the nurse that is tending to Jimmy enters, who happens to be wearing a blue and pink bracelet—another symbol that represents the female and male sexes—telling him he needs to fill up a jug, then leaves the room. She returns and
finds that Jimmy has dropped that same jug spilling his bodily fluid all over the floor. She notices Jimmy’s nose beginning to bleed again and leans in to apply a moist towel to it, but as she is leaning into Jimmy the frame is distinctly focused in on the revealing of her bra, and it has caught Jimmy’s attention. In the next frame Jimmy is grabbing his crotch and then in embarrassment begins turning red in the face from what we can assume is from his arousal. The ensuing events depicted show the nurse getting on top of Jimmy to perform a sex act, but then in a completely fantasized futuristic setting they are in a park walking a dog, exchanging vowels, and living in a cabin together. But, this is sadly never Jimmy’s reality. He has once again had a ridiculous made-up sexual encounter about another woman who has left his life just as quickly as she has entered. These sexual fantasies were brought on by the primed sex symbol of the female reproductive system during the course of his visit. In my opinion, I believe that Jimmy suffers slightly from hypersexual disorder (HD). Hypersexual disorder is characterized as a “phenomenon involving repetitive and intense preoccupation with sexual fantasies, urges, and behaviors, leading to adverse consequences and clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” (Reid). This diagnosis best fits Jimmy because he frequently has sudden sexual fantasies often in public settings (i.e. restaurants, work, and the doctor’s office) which has actually led to social impairment and awkward predicaments.

            Another object which unknowingly has symbolic meaning in Jimmy Corrigan is Jimmy’s tape recorder. After being hit by a postal truck we see Jimmy in what must be a flashback of him in his apartment playing with a recently purchased “realistic home tape recorder.” In what can be considered reverting back to a child-like state, Jimmy speaks into the recorder and says “The Jimmy Corrigan show will be back after these messages.” He plays with it in his bed and even in the park where he records a romantic young couple talk as they walk by. Later, while sitting alone in his living room he plays back the words of the young woman from the park and in belittling fashion utters “HA HA bitch.” There are two key points
to make about this tape recorder: Jimmy’s actions like creating “The Jimmy Corrigan Show” should be interpreted as him reverting back to a child-like state or at least the mentality of being a young child again; also, Jimmy has problems being able to communicate with others which gives credence to the fact that he is searching for his own voice in the wrong places. These issues have been brought on by the lack of companionship and friendship in his life as seen by the loneliness demonstrated while in his apartment when making fun of the young couple from the park. According to Marano “evidence has been growing that when our need for social relationships is not met, we fall apart mentally and even physically” and “a lack of close friends and a dearth of broader social contact generally bring the emotional discomfort or distress known as loneliness.” Jimmy is certainly no stranger to loneliness; he has no girlfriend, his coworkers coerce him for money and give shoddy advice, and he has lacked a father figure for the greater majority of his life. The tape recorder—when coupled with Jimmy’s solitude—is the only way Jimmy can find a way to speak confidently and enjoy himself. In other situations such as when he is with his father he clearly lacks this same confidence and shows difficulty communicating effectively.

            One other recurring use of symbolism Chris Ware chooses in Jimmy Corrigan is the use of birds. There are several occurrences where a red bird appears during the course of the novel to mean something. The significance of birds and their flight has always been the embodiment of spiritual freedom by ascending the soul to heaven and to share symbolic meaning by assuming the role of messengers (Fontana 86). In Jimmy Corrigan the relationship between birds being a messenger is shown in the very beginning of the novel
when Jimmy receives a phone call from his mother, but this is not before we see the red bird on the previous pages as the foreshadowing metaphorical messenger. Interestingly enough, birds are typically used to represent foretelling knowledge, bloodshed, and skill (Davidson). The instantiation of spirituality is shown through a passage where Jimmy’s grandfather is fighting during the war. The bird first appears sitting on the branches of a tree inside a wartime camp dull in color, but within a turn of a page it has returned to its vibrant red where we see amputated limbs and bodies strewn about. The ascension of the soul to the heavens following death is a prime example here. Finally, following Jimmy’s sexual fantasy with the nurse, while in the doctor’s office he envisions himself soaring through the air accompanied by the same red bird as before. This is Jimmy imaginatively wishing for freedom from the doctor’s office, on the other hand it could also be a random reference to his admiration for his childhood idol, Superman. He may possibly be projecting his resentfulness of his father and therefore having a momentary psychological break from reality where mentally he is superman in order to get through the entire ordeal of his day. As a side note: a visit to the doctor’s office is typically associated with being an unpleasant and woeful trip for children. Again, after being hit by a truck, rushed to the hospital, and still trying to accept his newfound father, Jimmy could be reverting back to a child-like state of mind because of the stress.

            Jimmy Corrigan is a brilliant graphic novel which utilizes a mix of nonlinear and linear storytelling coupled with frequent flashbacks to tell the intriguing, yet pitiful story of the Corrigan family. However, it is the repetitive use of symbolism during the course of reading that is especially important to recognize in order to explain the majority of psychological issues lurking inside Jimmy Corrigan. Recurrent superhero’s, peaches, advertisements, birds, and a tape recorder are some of the very integral pieces looming in the background of many frames that truly offer the reader a broad insight into the psyche of Jimmy Corrigan.

“Truth did not come into the world naked, but it came in types and images. One will not receive the truth in any other way.” — The Gospel of Saint Phillip

Work Cited
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse University Press: Syracuse, NY, USA, 1988.
Ferber, Michael. A Dictionary of Literary Symbols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 1999. Print.
Fontana, David. The Secret Language of Symbols: A Visual Key to Symbols and Their Meanings. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 1994. Print.
Kilbourne, J. (2010). Killing Us Softly 4 [Video file] [Video file]. Retrieved June 28, 2013, from
Marano, Hara. "The Dangers of Loneliness." Psychology Today: Health, Help, Happiness + Find a Therapist. Psychology Today, 01 July 2003. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <>.
Myers, David G. Psychology. New York, NY: Worth, 2010. Print.
"Medieval Lit Bibliography - Plants." Wheaton College. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2014. <>.
Reid, Rory C., et al. "Mindfulness, Emotional Dysregulation, Impulsivity, And Stress Proneness Among Hypersexual Patients." Journal of Clinical Psychology70.4 (2014): 313-321. Academic Search Premier. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Rubin, Lawrence. "Superheroes On The Couch: Exploring Our Limits." Journal of Popular Culture 45.2 (2012): 410-431.Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.
Wineburgh, Alan L. "Treatment Of Children With Absent Fathers." Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal 17.4 (2000): 255-273.Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 Apr. 2014.

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