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The Columbus School for Girls

The story “The Columbus School for Girls,” by Liza Wieland contains the imagery of smoke, fire, and burning as a means of expressing the many aspects of love and passion. The ultimate symbol of love in the story is an all-consuming fire, yet smoke and burning act as manifestations of the different stages of love. The “narrators” in the story experience many of these facets by witnessing it in the life of Emily Jerman, and ultimately come to a realization and transformation of their own. Through these experiences the girls come to a new understanding of their lives and the world.

In the beginning of the story the imagery of smoke and fire is continually attached to Emily Jerman. The first encounter in the story is the narrators’ desire to “build a fire fight at her feet,”(1388) as if in worship of her. The descriptions of Emily exemplify the love the narrators have for her. They “burn for her,” and see her hair “in flames” (1391). Her voice is “like being wrapped in a smoky blanket,” and the girls try to imitate her every action. This connection of fire imagery with Emily is a manifestation of the love and passion they see within her and their worship of her is the expression of their desire to be like Emily.

In the middle of the story the imagery begins to shift from that of a controlled fire, to one that is more explosive and charged. A new side of Emily is revealed to the narrators and the imagery conveys the change by becoming more violent to expression the passion Emily shares with the girls. The story of the gardener and the young girl is where this can be seen. “Exploded,” “burnt” and “the two bodies tangled together singed, blackened by smoke”(1392) is the gruesome imagery used. This imagery expresses a new notion of love and passion.

One that is more dangerous and out of control, but one the girls seem attracted to, none the less as the enjoy listening to Emily’s memories. The final manifestation of he fire imagery is when the girls begin to experience the fire within themselves. Throughout the story the girls describe Emily with a sense of wonder and connect the imagery of fire to her. But, when they enter the graveyard to see Emily Dickinson’s grave they “feel panic beginning to take fire under our ribs”(1395), when prompted to leaving something behind by Emily. Their faces also appear in Emily’s glass of vodka before they “shatter into light and fire.

The fire that is first seen only in Emily is now taking hold of the girls. Ultimately, the girls come to see Emily consumed by the fire at the end of the story. Emily tells the girls “you have to learn to keep warm. When I was your age, I learned how. When I was your age, I was on fire”(1396). It is as if she is teaching them what love and passion mean even as it consumes her. Through this experience the girls come to a realization of what their view of love was and, what Emily saw it as. The imagery of fire is a symbol of love. That love starts out as the girls’ worship of both Mr. Jerman and Emily.

That love is also an expression of the relationship that Mr. Jerman shares with his wife. At first to the girls it seems that the two are deeply in love and that the fire of that love is something the girls desire. But as the story progresses, the girls learn that the love is not what is seems. Emily’s true passion and love was for the gardener and that fire consumed her long ago in the explosion that destroyed him. Through this story the girls come to realization of what love truly is. Their trial by fire consumes the childish crush they had for Mr. Jerman, and gives them new eyes to see the world through.

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