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What is the symbolism of the last red flower in this short story (titled A Red Flower) about madness? I suspect it means, in a fragmentary way, to show that love kills us, and the one we die with will save us, if we are mad. So the red flower is a symbol for the, if not passionate love, then its failure (in, eventually, death).

Final paragraph of the story:

In the morning he was found dead. His face was calm and clear; the harassed features, with thin lips and deeply-sunken, closed eyes, seemed to express some proud happiness. When they laid him on the litter they tried to unclasp his hand and to remove the red flower. But the hand had become stiffened, and he took the trophy with him into the grave.

I'm especially interested in what Russian word is used for 'trophy', whether 'trophy wife' exists when this was written, the social milieu's feelings for overt expressions either for or against mad love, and so on.

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Taking the easier part of the question first, a copy of the Russian original version of the short story can be found here. From this text it can be seen that the word used by the author, Garshin, was "трофей" (pronounced as "trofey") which is cognate to, and has the same meaning as, the English word "trophy".

The first part of the question, concerning the interpretation of the poem, is more difficult to answer. A poem does not have a single fixed meaning, and indeed, we must all find our own meaning in a work of poetry. Your interpretation of the red flower as a symbol of love is perfectly fine, but I do not think many readers would share it.

Garshin tells us why the madman found the red flower so disturbing:

the red petals had attracted his attention... In this bright red flower was concentrated all evil... The flower, as he saw it, ruled over evil; it absorbed in itself all innocently-shed blood (that is why it was so red), all tears and all the gall of humanity. It was an awful and mysterious being, the antithesis of God, an Ahriman presenting a most unassuming and innocent appearance.

To the madman it seemed that the flower was evil ("ahriman" is a term from Zoroasterism signifying absolute evil), and he set out to fight against it. He succeeded in destroying the first two flowers, but died after picking the third, which had grown after the first two had been picked. Rather than being connected to love, I would rather interpret the three flowers as representing a Trinity, but an evil Trinity in place of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Instead of connecting the word "trophy" to "trophy wife", I think it refers to the original meaning of a trophy:

Etymology. From Middle French trophée, from Latin trophaeum (“a sign of victory, a monument”), tropaeum, from Ancient Greek τρόπαιον (trópaion, “monument of an enemy's defeat”), from neuter of τροπαῖος (tropaîos, “of defeat”), from τροπή (tropḗ, “a rout, a turning of an enemy”).

In this case the dead flower is a sign of the man's victory over the forces of evil; a bitter struggle that took place within his own mind that ended in his death (although he died triumphant).

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  • you think that many readers would reject red flower as love? i must have forgotten the evil part, so maybe so!
    – user19849
    Dec 18, 2023 at 16:05
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    The author really underlines the perceived evil of the flowers, so I see "evil" as a more natural symbolism than "love". But your interpretation is equally valid! Dec 18, 2023 at 16:52
  • yeah, i read it a few days ago, and don't necessarily read to unpack symbolism.
    – user19849
    Dec 18, 2023 at 17:06

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