Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
What's up with all these Greek characters getting to be their own symbol? How you can be a character and a symbol? Simple: you just have to be really, really old. The fact is that Greek mythology has been around forever. The stories have been read and interpreted by countless people.
Over time, the characters stop being characters and become stand-ins for ideas. Narcissus is no longer a guy; he is now the ultimate picture of self-love. When you come across a person who thinks they're hot stuff, you say they're being narcissistic. This is a big symbol, so let's take it in three parts.
Narcissus as Himself
As a character in the story, Narcissus is a super-hot guy who falls in love with his own reflection. His desperate attraction to his image in the pool leads to his death. The end. But by dying, Narcissus becomes a symbol of the dangers of being too self-involved. So there's warning #1: we shouldn't think too highly of ourselves.
But wait! There's more! The fact that Narcissus' death is punishment for breaking so many hearts also makes him a symbol of the dangers of rejecting love. And there's warning #2: we should love others, not ourselves. Got it.
Narcissus as the Flower
Narcissus' transformation into a flower after his death doesn't just make for a pretty ending: it actually serves a number of symbolic purposes. Let's break it down.
(1) Even though Narcissus has been punished, we get the feeling—from the flower—that his beauty in-and-of-itself is not evil. His body is transformed into a flower to preserve its beauty; that way, others can enjoy it without his selfishness getting in the way.
(2) The transformation is also something of an apology for his death. It's sort of like the gods saying, "Sorry we had to kill you, but at least we made you into a flower." Personally we feel this is kind of a cop-out apology, but we guess it's better than nothing.
(3) Finally, the flower-transformation serves as a fun explanation for the origins of the Narcissus flower—better known to us as the daffodil. Who doesn't like a good fairytale about where flowers come from?
Narcissus as a Human Condition
Sometime in the early 1890s, as best as we can tell, scientists started using the term Narcissus-like to describe people who were obsessed with themselves. The term later morphed into Narcissism. In 1914 the well-known psychologist, Dr. Sigmund Freud, wrote an entire book called On Narcissism: an Introduction.
Today, narcissism is considered one of the components that make up a person's attitude. A lot of psychologists believe that every healthy human being experiences a small amount of narcissism. Basically, we all love ourselves at least a little bit. Just don't let it go too far…