Decoding the Literary Significance: What Do Hands Symbolize in Literature?

Hands are one of the most powerful tools we possess as human beings. They allow us to create, communicate, and connect with others. But did you know that hands also have powerful symbolism in literature? From classic works of literature like Shakespeare’s Macbeth to modern-day novels like Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, hands have played a significant role in conveying deeper meaning and emotional resonance.

In literature, hands can symbolize a variety of things. They can represent power, control, or authority. On the other hand (no pun intended), they can also signify vulnerability, connection, and intimacy. In some cases, they can even serve as a metaphor for the human condition. Think of the phrase “hands that built America” or the phrase “lend a helping hand.” There’s something universally powerful about hands that make them ripe for use in literature.

If you pay attention to the way that hands are used in literature, you’ll notice that they have a particular weight and significance. From the way that authors describe the lines on a character’s palms to the way that they clench their fists in anger or stretch out their fingers in supplication, there’s a lot of meaning to be found in hands. So the next time you’re reading a book, take note of how hands are used and what they might be trying to say. You never know what kinds of insights you might gain.

Hands as a Symbol of Power

Throughout literature, hands have been used as a powerful symbol of strength and control. A character’s hands can reveal their dominance and authority over others, or their vulnerability and subservience to a higher power. Let’s explore some of the ways hands are used as a symbol of power in literature.

  • Gestures: Hand gestures can communicate a powerful message without words. For example, a character clenching their fists can indicate anger and a desire for control, while a character extending their open palm can indicate a desire for peace or offering of help.
  • Physical strength: A character’s physical ability to use their hands can also symbolize their strength and power. This can be seen in a character’s ability to wield a weapon or engage in physical combat, showcasing their dominance over others.
  • Manual labor: In some cases, a character’s work with their hands can serve as a symbol of their power. For example, a factory owner’s ability to control and direct their workers represents their power and authority over the working class.

In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, Lady Macbeth famously says, “unsex me here and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty; make thick my blood, stop up the access and passage to remorse that no compunctious visitings of nature shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between the effect and it.” This quote reveals Lady Macbeth’s desire for power and control, and her fear that she may not have the physical strength to carry out her plans. By asking to be “unsexed,” she is essentially asking to have her femininity removed so that she can fully embrace the power of a man, including the strength of their hands.

Hands can also be used as a symbol of power in a more literal sense. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the One Ring grants the wearer immense power and control over others. However, this power comes at a cost as the ring’s influence can corrupt the wearer. When Frodo first receives the ring, he becomes obsessed with its power and the ability it gives him to control others. The ring also represents the power of evil, and Frodo’s ultimate triumph in destroying it symbolizes the triumph of good over evil and the restoration of balance and order to the world.

MacbethWilliam Shakespeare Lady Macbeth’s desire for power and strength through the metaphorical removal of her femininity
The Lord of the RingsJ.R.R. TolkienThe One Ring’s ability to grant immense power and control, while also representing the power of evil

Overall, hands serve as a powerful symbol of strength, control, and authority in literature. Whether through gestures, physical strength, or manual labor, a character’s hands can reveal their power and influence over others.

Hands as a symbol of labor and work

In literature, hands have often been used as a symbol of labor and work. The physical aspect of work and the labor required to perform it are captured in the imagery of hands. The hands of characters in literature often display the calluses, bruises, scars, and wrinkles that result from strenuous work. Through the portrayal of these physical markers, authors use hands to symbolize the toil and effort that goes into making a living.

  • In John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” the hands of the migrant workers symbolize their hard work and struggle for survival. The author describes their hands as “hard and calloused,” emphasizing the labor and hardships they face as they travel from one place to another in search of work.
  • Similarly, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” the hands of the characters symbolize their social status. The soft and manicured hands of the wealthy elite reflect their privileged lifestyle, while the rough and dirty hands of the working-class characters symbolize their struggle to survive.
  • The hands of characters in literature also often reveal their emotional state. For instance, in William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” the aging hands of the protagonist symbolize her isolation and loneliness. Her hands are described as “deathwhite, delicate,” suggesting a sense of decay and fragility.

Moreover, hands have been used as a powerful metaphor to describe a character’s emotional and psychological state. The clenched fists of a character can represent anger or frustration, while the trembling hands can reflect fear or anxiety. In Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” Lady Macbeth exclaims “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” while washing her hands frantically, symbolizing her guilt and attempt to rid herself of the bloodstains of her crimes.

John SteinbeckThe Grapes of WrathHands symbolize the hard work and struggle for survival of migrant workers.
F. Scott FitzgeraldThe Great GatsbyHands symbolize social status, with soft and manicured hands representing the wealthy elite and rough and dirty hands representing the working-class.
William FaulknerA Rose for EmilyAging hands symbolize isolation and loneliness.

Thus, the symbolism of hands in literature goes beyond the physical aspects of labor and work. The emotions and mental state of characters can also be conveyed through their hands. Whether representing hard work, social status, emotional state, or psychological condition, hands are a meaningful and powerful symbol in literary works.

Hands in religious symbolism

In religion, the symbolism of hands is significant as it represents various meanings, including the power of God, blessings, healing, and protection.

Let us take a closer look at the religious significance of hands:

  • The hands of God: In many religions, the hand of God represents divine power and authority. The Bible describes the hand of God as a symbol of his strength, guidance, and salvation. In Hinduism, the hand of God is depicted in various forms, such as Vishnu’s four hands and Shiva’s dancing hand, representing the cosmic dance.
  • Blessings: In the Christian religion, the gesture of a priest or a bishop blessing someone is by the sign of the cross. While the hand as an instrument of blessing may be different in every religion, the symbol represents protection and grace bestowed upon its recipient. In Hinduism, blessings are given through the gesture of namaste, wherein the two hands are placed together with bowed head and acknowledgment of one soul in two bodies.
  • Healing: In the Bible, the gestures of hands performing miracles of healing are among the teachings of Jesus Christ. In Christianity, the laying of hands ceremony is an essential ritual of the New Testament. Similarly, in Hinduism, the gesture of hands in performing Pranic healing or Reiki involves the channeling of vital life force energy to heal people naturally.

Symbolism of hands in different religions

In many religions, hands have a unique symbolic meaning. Here is a list of some of the religious symbols of hands:

  • Christianity: The hand of Jesus Christ is depicted in the gesture of blessing, healing, and the sign of the cross.
  • Hinduism: The hand of a Hindu God is depicted in various gestures, such as the mudras of yoga, representing cosmic harmony and meditation.
  • Buddhism: The hand gesture of Buddha is called mudra, representing different meanings like purification, compassion, and fearlessness while meditation.
  • Islam: The hand gesture of Muslims called dua is an important ritual of prayer and supplication towards Allah.

Hands in religious art

The religious art of many cultures has depicted the symbolism of hands throughout the centuries. Religious paintings, sculptures, images, and icons often show the hands in various postures conveying different meanings to the believers.

For instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Creation of Adam” displays the finger of God touching Adam’s finger. It is a symbol of God’s imparting life and human soul to Adam. Similarly, in a Christian painting of the “Last Judgment,” Christ’s hand indicates the separation of the blessed and the damned souls during the end of times.

Hands as a symbol of friendship and love

Throughout literature, hands have been used as a symbol to represent the bond between two individuals. From the clasping of hands in a friendship to the intertwining of fingers in a romantic relationship, hands symbolize the affection and connection between people.

  • In Shakespeare’s play “Romeo and Juliet,” the famous balcony scene features the exchange of vows between the two young lovers as they touch hands, symbolizing their commitment to one another.
  • In the novel “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green, the main characters often hold hands as a way to support each other through their struggles with illness and mortality.
  • In the poem “I Carry Your Heart With Me” by E.E. Cummings, the speaker describes carrying the heart of their beloved “in my heart, I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)” while also holding their hand.

The act of holding hands is often seen as a way to provide comfort and reassurance, especially in times of hardship or distress. It signifies a sense of unity and intimacy, as well as a willingness to be vulnerable with one another.

A table can be used to illustrate the various meanings of touch in different cultures:

The hand of God

A priest blessingBuddha's hand gesture
The hand of GodA priest blessingBuddha’s hand gesture
CultureTouch Meaning
WesternHandshakes indicate greeting, farewell, or congratulations
AsianBowing indicates respect and gratitude, while hand holding is reserved for romantic partners
Middle EasternKissing on the cheeks and hugging are common greetings among friends and family members

In conclusion, hands are a powerful symbol in literature that represent the emotional connections between individuals. From the touch of a friend’s hand to the intimate grasp of a lover’s fingers, hands signify the willingness to share oneself with another person.

The Symbolism of Left and Right Hand

In literature, the hands have been used to symbolize many things. They can represent power, strength, healing, guidance, and even deception. The direction in which a hand is facing can also add depth to its symbolic meaning. Here, we’ll explore the symbolism of left and right hands.

  • The Right Hand: In many cultures, the right hand is seen as the dominant hand, and thus symbolizes strength and power. In Christianity, the right hand is associated with the idea of righteousness and is often depicted as the hand of God. This hand is also commonly used in oaths and pledges, as it represents commitment and trust.
  • The Left Hand: Conversely, the left hand has historically been associated with weakness and even evil. In many cultures, the left hand is considered taboo and is seen as unclean. However, in some religions, such as Hinduism, the left hand is revered as the hand of the gods. It can represent intuition, creativity, and femininity.

While these are some of the broad interpretations of the symbolism of left and right hands, in literature, the meanings can be much more nuanced. Here are some examples:

The use of left and right hands in Shakespeare’s plays:

  • In Macbeth, the title character famously declares, “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand? No; this my hand will rather the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red” (Act 2, Scene 2). Here, Macbeth’s right hand symbolizes his power and strength, while his left hand represents his guilt and weakness.
  • In King Lear, when the Earl of Gloucester is blinded by Cornwall and Regan, he laments, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport” (Act 4, Scene 1). In this moment, Gloucester’s left hand symbolizes his own helplessness and vulnerability.

In addition to the hands themselves, the gestures and movements of the hands can also have symbolic meaning. For example, placing one hand over another can suggest protection or guidance, while clasping the hands can imply prayer or desperation.

Hand on heartTruthfulness and sincerity
Hand on another’s shoulderComfort and guidance
Hands clasped togetherPrayer, pleading

In conclusion, left and right hands can be powerful symbols in literature, with varied meanings that can depend on cultural and religious contexts, as well as the specific gestures and movements associated with them. Writers can use these symbols to add depth and complexity to their characters and stories.

Hands in Gothic Literature

In Gothic literature, hands symbolize power, control, and often serve as a metaphor for the characters’ inner turmoil and psychological states. Below are subtopics that explore the various interpretations of hands in Gothic literature:

The Importance of Touch in Gothic Literature

  • Hands often represent the importance of touch in Gothic literature. Characters often use touch to establish intimacy, dominance, or to inflict pain on others.
  • In Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights,” the character Heathcliff uses his hands to demonstrate his control over Catherine. Heathcliff’s hands are described as being “covered with hair” and “hard as the bark of a tree,” emphasizing his raw, savage power.
  • Similarly, in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,” the monster’s hands are described as being “gigantic,” emphasizing his physical strength and imposing nature. The monster uses his hands to inflict violence and demonstrate his power over his creator.

The Symbolism of Missing Hands

In Gothic literature, the absence of hands can also carry significant symbolic weight. Characters who are missing hands are often seen as helpless or powerless.

One example can be found in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” where Mr. Hyde is described as having “ape-like” hands. These hands are a marking of Hyde’s primal and violent nature. Meanwhile, Dr. Jekyll’s hands are described as “surgically neat,” highlighting his civilized and respectable nature.

The Role of Hands in Horror

Hands also play a crucial role in the horror genre of Gothic literature, often producing fear and unease in readers.

In Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” the vampire’s hands, with their “long and pointed nails,” evoke a sense of danger and menace. Similarly, the “ghostly hand” that appears in Elizabeth Gaskell’s “The Old Nurse’s Story” is a haunting and unsettling image.

Hands and Dual Identity

In Gothic literature, characters often have a dual identity, and their hands can symbolize this split nature.

“Jane Eyre”Edward RochesterRochester’s left hand is disabled and symbolic of his damaged and hidden nature
“The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”Dr. Jekyll/Mr. HydeDr. Jekyll’s hands are described as “well-formed and small,” while Mr. Hyde’s hands are “huge and hairy,” symbolizing their split identities.

Overall, hands in Gothic literature represent a complex mixture of power, fear, and duality. Whether it’s the literal touch of a character or the symbolic absence of hands, these elements often play a crucial role in shaping the narrative and evoking emotions within readers.

Hands in Shakespearean plays

In some of Shakespeare’s plays, hands play a significant role in the symbolism of the scene. In this section, we will explore the various nuances of hand symbolisms in Shakespearean plays.

Seven different meanings of hands in Shakespearean plays

  • Power and authority: In Julius Caesar, Caesar’s refusal to shake hands with the soothsayer underscores his belief in his own power and authority over others.
  • Betrayal and deception: In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth constantly rubs her hands together, revealing her guilt over her part in the murder of King Duncan.
  • Violence and aggression: In Richard III, Richard boasts about his ability to fight with his hands, and ultimately meets his demise at the hands of the Earl of Richmond on the battlefield.
  • Loyalty and submission: In Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra offers her hand to Caesar as a symbol of her submission to his authority.
  • Love and affection: In Romeo and Juliet, the famous balcony scene features Juliet wishing that Romeo would change his name so they could be together, saying “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” She then allows Romeo to take her hand, symbolizing their love and affection for one another.
  • Grief and regret: In Hamlet, Ophelia mourns the death of her father, Polonius, by singing a song about a father who is drowned, saying “He is gone, he is gone, / And we cast away moan: / God have mercy on his soul / And on mine also.” She then hands out flowers to the other characters, symbolizing her grief and regret over her father’s death.
  • Honor and trust: In Titus Andronicus, when Lavinia’s hands are cut off as a punishment for being raped, her father’s response of “Injustice, lords! Commotion in the heavens! / And, if there be demons, would I were a devil, / To live and burn in everlasting fire, / Rather than to suffer this tormenting shame!” show how much he valued the honor and trust of his family, especially his daughter.


Hands are an important symbol in literature, and Shakespeare’s plays are no exception. From power and authority to betrayal and deception, hands can reveal a great deal about the characters and themes of a scene. By exploring the different meanings of hands in Shakespearean plays, readers can gain a deeper understanding of the complexities and nuances of the Bard’s works.

Hands in Postmodern Literature

In postmodern literature, hands are often used as a metaphor for power, control, and manipulation. The symbolism of hands in these works reflects the postmodern era’s distrust of authority, institutions, and traditional power structures. Postmodern authors use hands to explore the complexities of human behavior, individual agency, and the struggle for authority. Below are some examples of how hands are utilized in postmodern literature.

The Number 8

In the postmodern novel “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski, the number 8 is a recurring motif that is often associated with hands. The book’s typography is manipulated to create an 8-shaped labyrinth, which the characters navigate throughout the story. The number 8 is also linked to the concept of infinity, as it appears to continue indefinitely when turned on its side. In the novel, characters often use their hands to trace the shape of the 8, emphasizing the idea of an endless, cyclical pattern. Furthermore, the number 8 is associated with the Chinese concept of yin and yang, which represents the duality of opposites. This idea is reflected in the novel’s structure, which presents two parallel narratives that oppose and complement each other.

The table below illustrates some additional examples of the use of hands in postmodern literature.

AuthorTitleHand Symbolism
Don DeLilloWhite NoiseThe protagonist’s hand trembles as a metaphor for his fear of death.
David Foster WallaceInfinite JestThe character’s amputated hand represents his loss of control over his life.
Bret Easton EllisAmerican PsychoThe protagonist’s hand is a tool for violence and domination.

These works highlight the importance of hands as a literary symbol for postmodern authors. Through hands, they explore themes of power, control, and the struggle for authority in a world that is characterized by distrust and uncertainty.

The symbolism of severed or injured hands

Hands are often used as powerful symbols in literature, representing themes such as strength, power, control, and communication. However, the symbolism of severed or injured hands takes on a different meaning, highlighting themes of loss, powerlessness, and vulnerability.

  • Loss of power: When a character loses the use of their hand or has it severed, it often represents a loss of power or control. This loss can be physical, as with amputation or injury, or symbolic, such as when a titular character relinquishes their power in order to save others.
  • Vulnerability: Without the use of one or both hands, a character is at a distinct disadvantage in any confrontation. They are no longer able to defend themselves or use their strength to protect others. This vulnerability often leads to a character’s downfall.
  • Sacrifice: In some cases, a character may willingly sacrifice their hand for the greater good. This sacrifice represents their commitment to a cause or their love for others.

In literature, the symbolism of severed or injured hands is often seen in characters who have suffered a trauma or loss. It can represent a physical reminder of their pain and a permanent reminder of their trauma. For example, in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Jaime Lannister loses his sword hand and is forced to redefine his identity in the absence of his greatest physical asset.

The table below presents notable literary examples of characters with severed or injured hands:

Book/AuthorCharacterHand(s) AffectedSymbolism
The Odyssey/HomerOdysseusRight handLoss of strength and power
The Empire Strikes Back/LucasfilmLuke SkywalkerRight handVulnerability and loss of identity
Game of Thrones/MartinJaime LannisterRight handSymbol of identity and redemption
The Three Musketeers/DumasD’ArtagnanLeft handSacrifice for a cause

In conclusion, severed or injured hands in literature can symbolize themes of loss, vulnerability, and sacrifice. They serve as a reminder of a character’s trauma and can significantly impact their identity and power dynamics within the narrative.

Hand Gestures as a Form of Communication in Literature

In literature, hand gestures serve as a powerful tool for authors to convey emotions, thoughts, and messages without explicitly stating them. A character’s hand movements are used to reveal their innermost feelings and intentions, adding depth and complexity to their personalities.

One of the most common hand gestures in literature is the simple act of clenching one’s fists. This gesture is often associated with anger, frustration, and determination. When a character clenches their fists, it can signify their readiness to confront an obstacle or their pent-up rage towards a person or situation.

Another hand gesture that conveys a range of emotions is the act of wringing one’s hands. This gesture is often associated with nervousness, anxiety, and fear. When a character wrings their hands, it can suggest their uncertainty about a decision or their apprehension towards a looming danger.

The act of shaking hands is a symbolic gesture that often signifies an agreement or alliance between two parties. This gesture can also indicate respect and gratitude towards a person. In literature, shaking hands can be used to show the establishment of friendships, partnerships, and alliances.

  • Other hand gestures commonly used in literature include:
  • Pointing fingers
  • Waving hands
  • Patting backs
  • Crossing fingers
  • Thumbs up/down
  • Finger snapping
  • Hand on heart
  • Finger guns
  • Tipping hats

Furthermore, hand gestures can also be used to add stylistic elements to a character’s language. For example, an Italian character may use the “italian gesture” (flick of the hand) to emphasize their words or mood.

Hand GestureMeaning
ClappingApproval, enthusiasm
HandshakesAgreement, respect, gratitude
Thumbs up/downApproval/disapproval
Finger pointingAccusation, emphasis
Finger gunsCoolness, detachment

Overall, hand gestures are a subtle yet powerful form of communication in literature. They allow authors to convey a character’s thoughts, emotions, and intentions through nonverbal means, adding depth and complexity to their storytelling.

What Do Hands Symbolize in Literature?

1. What do hand gestures and movements symbolize in literature?

Hand gestures and movements can convey emotions, messages, and intentions. They can symbolize power, authority, fear, love, and more.

2. What do shaking hands symbolize in literature?

Shaking hands can be a symbol of peace, agreement, and trustworthiness. It can also represent a formal greeting or a sign of respect.

3. What do clasped hands symbolize in literature?

Clasped hands can symbolize unity, trust, and cooperation. They can also represent prayer, reflection, and inner peace.

4. What do bloody hands symbolize in literature?

Bloody hands can be a symbol of guilt, shame, and regret. They can also represent violence, revenge, and destruction.

5. What do clean hands symbolize in literature?

Clean hands can be a symbol of innocence, purity, and righteousness. They can also represent honesty, sincerity, and transparency.

6. What do working hands symbolize in literature?

Working hands can symbolize diligence, progress, and productivity. They can also represent the struggle and hard work required to achieve success.

7. What do lost hands symbolize in literature?

Lost hands can be a symbol of disability, vulnerability, and fragility. They can also represent a sacrifice, a punishment, or a reminder of a traumatic event.

Closing Thoughts

Thank you for learning about the symbolism of hands in literature with us. As you continue to read and explore the world of literature, pay attention to how hands are used to convey meaning and enhance the storytelling experience. We hope you visit us again for more articles on literary symbolism. Happy reading!