Symbols in Siddhartha

Instructor: Summer Stewart

Summer has taught creative writing and sciences at the college level. She holds an MFA in Creative writing and a B.A.S. in English and Nutrition

Symbolism in ''Siddhartha'' works to develop the main themes of the book. In this lesson, we will cover the Ferryman and the Smile as main symbols within the book.


Siddhartha by Herman Hesse is a spiritual novel that follows Siddhartha as he seeks enlightenment. Symbols in this book play a major role in Siddhartha's journey to understand the meaning of life. A symbol is an object that represents a larger idea, while supporting the main themes of the book. In this lesson, we will explore the main symbols of this book: the ferryman, the smile, and the river.


The Ferryman

The ferryman, Vasudeva, is a guide on the river and serves as a bridge between reality and enlightenment. Unlike the other teachers that Siddhartha comes across in the book, Vasudeva is the only one who teaches him how to achieve enlightenment from within. In a way, the ferryman represents self-reflection and listening to the universe to discover enlightenment.

For example, the narrator says of Siddhartha and the ferryman, 'He learned incessantly…taught him how to listen, to listen with a silent heart, with a waiting, open soul, without passion, without desire, without judgment, without opinion.'

The ferryman's guidance on the river from the regular world toward enlightenment represents the need to listen and reflect upon the world from within to gain a true understanding of life.

The Smile

A smile in Siddhartha symbolizes a balanced soul. A smile is a rare thing to see because many people within the material world have not achieved harmony between body and soul. However, when Siddhartha witnesses a smile, he is impressed at the peace and balance the smile brings to Vasudeva.

For example, the narrator says, 'Radiant was Vasudeva's smile, it hovered, luminous, over all the wrinkles in his old face just as the om hovered over all the voices of the river. Bright shone his smile when he looked at his friend, and bright now glowed the very same smile on Siddhartha's face.'

Siddhartha sees how enlightenment has made Vasudeva one with the universe, and his smile represents the peaceful balance enlightenment brings to a person. At the same time, Siddhartha shows his first smile in the book, which represents his achievement of enlightenment and balance as well.

The River

The river represents unity and eternity as Siddhartha journeys through life to reach enlightenment. The river, by flowing in many places at once, shows that everything is united at once, which helps Siddhartha become one with the world.

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