Summer represents a time of our lives when we are strong and embarking on adventures. It symbolizes freedom, happiness, idleness and self-development. Positive times of friendship and love are often set in the summer months in books, poetry and film.
Some common meanings attributed to summer include:
- Happiness and Joy
- Idleness and Carefree Living
- Coming of Age
- The Prime of Life
This article explores all the symbols of summer that may occur as motifs and settings within various forms of literature and art.
Summer Symbolism and Meanings
1. Happiness and Joy
Summer is seen as a time of joy. The weather evokes a sense of positivity in contrast to the punishing cold of winter.
It’s very common that happy times in a book will coincide with summertime. For example, an author might start a chapter (in which the character is feeling positive) with a few paragraphs explaining the beautiful sunshine outside and the warmth of the day.
Similarly, we will often refer to someone as ‘radiating joy’, evoking the sense of a warm summer sun that radiates warmth. But here, it’s a metaphor for someone who similarly pushes out positive vibes that make us happy (much like summer!).
2. Idleness and Carefree Living
Stories of long, happy days of youth are nearly always set in summer. The long, rambling days of summer under the warm sun can make us feel like all our worries are far away. In our nostalgic and wistful minds, we might often picture ourselves lying on a warm beach or field enjoying the sun on our skim.
And this symbolism is everywhere in our culture.
One example is in the film Grease where a carefree love affair is depicted. Once the summer ends and the pressures of school life resume, the main characters’ relationship falls apart – showing contrast between the idle summer and the serious buzzkill of ‘real life’ outside of the summer holidays.
Another example is in the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac. This road trip book is all about a summer road trip across the United States where the main characters reject the path they’re expected to take in life and instead take off on a rambling trip on a shoestring.
Similarly, there are countless songs playing off this motif, such as Keith Urban’s Summer Nights:
When I think about those summer nights
Ain’t it funny how the best days of my life
Was all that wasted time
All that wasted time
Summer is a time for exploring. It’s when there seems to be endless possibilities. And there are countless examples of books and films based on summertime adventures. There’s of course Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants, To Kill a Mockingbird, and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Summer is a time for adventure precisely because it’s a hopeful time. The weather evokes a sense of positivity and intrepidness in us. We should enjoy our lives while the sun shines, with the knowledge that winter will come around and confine us to our homes soon enough.
4. Self-Development (Finding Yourself)
You’ll also find that summertime is a common background for coming-of-age stories.
Take, for example, Chris Rock’s song All Summer Long:
It was 1989
My thoughts were short my hair was long
Caught somewhere between a boy and man
She was seventeen
And she was far from in-between
It was summertime in Northern Michigan
Examples in film include Stand by Me, My Girl, and Dirty Dancing. Such films can depict young love, the summer after high school (or between grades at school), or even middle-school children’s nostalgic summers with friends.
But overall, my favorite summer coming of age book is To Kill a Mockingbird, where Scout learns to develop a moral compass, to stand up against society’s ills, and to develop compassion for others.
Summer could be described as a relief after a long, cold winter. And in fact, this imagery is evident in many stories where the summer comes after the difficulties of a long, cold winter (often where there is a war or other plot complication).
A prime example of this is in The Lion King where, after Simba banishes Scar from the Kingdom, the sun comes out and trees and grasslands blossom before our very eyes.
Summer is a time for us to take vacations. Summer itself can be a synecdoche for vacations. People will ask: “what are you doing this Summer?” which, they may mean, “how are you spending your holidays?”
The Summer Vacation motif is evident in films including Wet Hot American Summer and National Lampoon’s Vacation.
Digging beneath the idea that summer is a time for vacations are tropes already seen in this article: the idea of relaxation, idleness, adventure and enjoyment that take place during a summer vacation.
7. The Prime of Life
The human life cycle is often metaphorically connected to the seasons. Spring is youth, Summer is the prime of life, fall is a dip into old age, and in winter we are on our death beds.
For authors, this often means that a lot of the adventure in storylines comes during summertime. Consider, for example, The Great Gatsby, which takes place in one summer in New York, or Nemesis by Philip Roth (who, in a twist, contrasts the idea that summer is supposed to be a happy time of life to the devastation caused by the 1944 polio epidemic).
Summer is often an upbeat time of year. It’s when characters might hit their stride in storylines. And this is often reflected in summer scenes of people walking confidently through parks with birds chirping in the background.
One of my favorite examples of this is in the film 500 Days of Summer where Tom (at the height of his love affair with the main character – Summer) walks down the street with a spring in his step:
This scene is then dramatically contrasted to the ‘end of summer’, where Tom sits slumped into his arms because the relationship (Summer!) has come to an end.
9. Love and a Romantic Fling
Summer love affairs are a thing of legend. And it’s remarkably common that love affairs are set in summer.
One quintessential example of this is in the film Grease where the main characters fall in love during the school summer break. This film gave rise to the famous song Summer Loving:
Summer loving had me a blast
Summer loving happened so fast
I met a girl crazy for me
Met a boy cute as can be
Similarly, this is a repeated motif for ‘chick lit’ romance novels, such as A Summer for Scandal, One Hot Italian Summer, and The Simmer I Turned Pretty.
Summer can also symbolize beauty. There is, of course, the girl’s name Summer which is often given to characters who are both beautiful and upbeat, radiating positivity.
But perhaps the best example of summer symbolizing beauty is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, which begins:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Here, the comforts and warmth of summer are projected onto the girl to whom Shakespeare is talking.
Summer becomes a symbol of maturity when contrasted to Spring. Spring symbolizes youth, innocence, and fragile beginnings of life. But the transition to summer evokes the sense that animals, relationships, and lives are maturing.
This concept is even visible in (and likely emerges from) the sights of baby animals. While in spring they are tiny fragile creatures, by summer the young birds are maturing. They’re no longer chicks but appear to be ‘teenagers’. Fauns are finding their feet and learning to run and frolic, and the hunting animals are becoming skilful as they acquire experience hunting with their parents.
Playing with seasonality can help writers to evoke emotions in their readers. Its symbolism can help you show not only the passing of time, but evolution in a plot line. Usually, summer represents the height of positivity, action and adventure. When contrasted to the symbolism of winter as a time of sadness, you can use the symbolism of summer effectively to create transitions and foreshadow changes to characters’ mindsets.
I’m a Scorpio and I love the outdoors. My spirit animal? It’s the black horse, of course! It symbolizes inner strength and is a majestic sidekick.