Trains as symbols

JMW Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed

I love trains. Not just as a wonderful technology, but also what they represent and how they are represented in our culture and minds. In one sense, I see trains as a technology that connects us. But in another sense, that connection can be much more than just physical distance. They help unite a fragmented nation – such as the United States. They also help unite nations such as the Chunnel between France and Great Britain. The Shinkansen could be seen as a sign of new Japan rising out of the ashes of WWII. Trains also quite literally changed how we thought about time.


With trains having this kind of significance, it is no wonder that trains have appeared multiple times in art, often as symbols of change and progress. However, that progress is not necessarily always seen as a positive thing. 


One of my favorite paintings is Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed. It is the Great Western Railway engineered by the great Isambard Kingdom Brunel. You can also see a hare on the left hand side, “racing” with the train. Some have said that the hare represents Turner’s apprehension of the new technology, that it was endangering a romantic gestalt view of the world. (Turner, after all, was the man who tied himself to a ship’s mast during a winter storm.)


Anna Karenina – one of my favorite novels – also uses the train as a symbol. It begins and ends with tragic accidents involving a train. Thus, it is again an image of danger and apprehension. Tolstoy too was more of a romantic who subtly hints in Anna Karenina that perhaps Russia was not ready for this technology. And yet, when it came time for the communist revolution, trains were seen as necessary to creating an industrial, socialist Russia. 


The iron road in The Good Earth again represents not just progress and change in China, but a disruption of traditional patterns of life.  

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step
Around a pile of Mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare
To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill
And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop — docile and omnipotent —
At its own stable door.

Emily Dickinson

Here, Emily Dickinson sees the train as eating up valleys and mountains, almost as animal-like and alive thing. The poem is perhaps purposefully unclear as to Dickinson’s feelings towards the technology. Perhaps it was a mixture of apprehension and wonder.


There are many more examples. But it is quite amazing to see how this technology took on more than just a physical manifestation, but also embodied its effects on society, the fears and hopes of people. 


There is literature that treats the automobile similarly. I have yet to find much literature that treats airplanes in the same fashion. Perhaps because trains were our first great change in crossing distances, it has an indelible mark upon our psyche.