Many symbols are left unexplained in both the novel and the film, but hold significant meaning to the overall story and plotline. In the film, Susie’s charm bracelet is the item Mr. Harvey chooses to keep as a souvenir of her murder. However, when investigating Mr. Harvey’s home, the detectives neglect to see it. In the novel, the story ends with a stranger finding Susie’s charm bracelet, never knowing the item’s significance. He shows his young daughter, and his wife says ‘the owner of this bracelet will be all grown up by now’. Susie hears them and replies ‘I’m not grown up yet’. Susie wishes him a long and prosperous life, what she never had, and in this wish lies perhaps the most disturbing lesson of the story–Bad things happen to good people for no good reason, and worse yet, bad people can go unpunished for their deeds for a lifetime. Susie’s charm bracelet represents Susie’s ongoing spiritual life on Earth.
Susie’s room is the place where, for her entire family, her memory lives on. The room symbolizes a place where Susie is still alive, and the contents are left relatively untouched until Grandma Lynn takes it over.
Both the porch light and the candle symbolize the hope that Susie’s family have that she will find her way home alive. The light was left on continuously throughout the novel, to represent the family’s continuous belief that she will come home. When Jack turns it off to attempt his attack on Harvey, the dim of the porch light represents the closure the family will receive with the capture of Susie’s murderer. Similarly, blowing out the candle is the only task Susie is able to accomplish from heaven as she watches her father being brutally assaulted. This represents her frustration and unhappiness that she cannot heal the pain, and also the realization that she is not coming home.
The wrecked ship represents Jack’s thoughts that his relationship with Abigail is brocken, but remnants still remain that can ease the pain. The ships in the bottles represent a special time between Susie and her father, in which she was desperately needed and loved.
The characters develop in this story unlike any other. Before Susie’s death, Jack was portrayed as the calm parent and the mediator among family conflict (as seen in his resolution to develop one roll of film per month, rather than all at once). After Susie’s death, Jack is so overcome with guilt and helplessness that he allows the unknown information about his daughter’s murder to take over his mind and his body, which render him incapable of nurturing or providing parental guidance to his surviving children, Lindsey and Buckley.
Abigail begins the story being depicted as the typical, beautiful suburban housewife. She is tired, but she loves her role as homemaker and taking care of her family. After Susie’s death, she avoids dealing with the reality of the loss and is incapable of acknowledging her surviving family and her maternal role at home. She takes the grief in the worst way, and it is unknown to her loved ones whether she will ever begin to move on. Her whirlwind of downfall is not portrayed as accurately in the film as in the novel. The film shows her struggle, and finally departure for the winery. In the novel, Abigail leaves after her affair with the detective, Len, and then works in the winery in California. Eventually, she returns.
Lindsey is one of the only characters in the novel who comes to terms with Suzie’s death rationally and rather quickly. The novel describes Lindsey as having ‘Walking Death Syndrome’, where people look at Lindsey and see Suzie looking back at them. Lindsey is able to wade through the initial horror of her sister’s murder and slowly move on with her life, while serving as a surrogate parent for Buckley, who is too young to comprehend the tragedy. As Lindsey goes through her teenage years and falls in love, Susie watches from heaven, living vicariously through Lindsey.
Buckley is too young to understand the tragedy of murder at the time of his sister’s death, but misses Suzie desperately and only voices his grief to his father. In the novel, Buckley is told that Suzie is at a friend’s house for a long period of time after her death, as Jack and Abigail cannot voice the fact that Suzie is really gone.
Susie’s struggle between allowing her family to move on, and getting revenge on Mr. Harvey, is the basis of the novel. Her development is seen first hand through her narration. Susie advances through her own stages of grief and recovery in the ‘in-between’, trying to move on from the tragedy and give her family peace. Mourning the loss of her family and friends, Susie lives vicariously through Lindsey, feeling happiness and true love as Lindsey undergoes the stages of adolescence that Susie will never herself have the opportunity to experience.
The themes in both the novel and the film include Loss, Grief, Love/Acceptance, and Good vs. Evil. Through the voice of Susie Salmon, readers get an in depth look at the grieving process. Susie focuses more on the aftermath and effects of her murder and rape on her family, rather than on the event itself. She watches her parents and siblings move through the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Each member of her family mourns at a different pace, and spend longer at each stage than the others. All characters react differently when death strikes, and overcoming grief is a long process. In the end, Susie and her family experience acceptance, and a stabilized new lifestyle.
Love and acceptance go hand in hand in the novel. It isn’t just love and acceptance for Susie’s death, but also of the way those around Susie react to the tragedy. The Salmon family allows the ties around them to strengthen their grip, and they each want to break away. The truth of the matter is that they will cope best if they stay together and try to begin again, renewed and ready to face a new life. Susie struggles with giving her family acceptance over her brutal attack, or wanting them to gain revenge on Mr. Harvey. Her choice of acceptance is seen when she enters Ruth’s body and kisses Ray; she could have told him that Mr. Harvey was the murderer, but instead took the opportunity to kiss him.
Finally is the theme of Good vs. Evil. Susie struggles with choosing vengeance over her murderer and allowing her family to move on. In the end, she is forced to release her desire for revenge and concentrate on what is good for everyone. Susie realizes that by finally contributing to his death, by icicle, Mr. Harvey can no longer hurt anyone, and therefore she has triumphed. Jack struggles between caring for his family and finding Susie’s murderer, and Abigail struggles with the decision of whether to stay or go.