The Lost Symbol, Reviewed by Praniet Chopra
The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown narrates the story of Professor Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, who is deceptively invited to Washington by a psychopathic murderer on a quest to find the ‘Lost Word’ and his honorary place among the demons in the afterlife, and is plunged into a manhunt to retrieve his friend, Peter Solomon, a high-ranking Mason. In spite of enduring various near-death experiences, Langdon is able to, by relying on his knowledge of ancient symbols and codes, decipher the enigmatic pyramid, find the villain, and prevent him from revealing all the secrets of the Masonic brotherhood’s rituals and members. Eventually, despite not being a member of the Masons, Langdon is exposed to the Lost Word—the Bible—buried deep within the Washington Capitol building by George Washington (a prominent Mason) and is reminded of the godlike powers of the individual.
In The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown attempts to present a very trustworthy and [overly] favourable interpretation of the Freemasons and, without bibliographic evidence, retells their historic myths in a present-day male-centered society.
This book includes a very eclectic range of history, spanning from the conspiracies revolving around the institution of Masonry to the ancient basis of the study of the mind’s power, known as Noetics. While it was certainly engaging to venture into the depths of an organisation that is perceived as extremely secretive and to understand the true potential our minds harness, Brown presents history in a very sensationalised manner. He emphasizes the secretiveness of Masonic rituals, and yet describes in detail the ceremony to enter into the highest order. Admittedly, Brown does not make a pledge of veracity in terms of the Masonic rituals and the Ancient Mysteries he describes. However, the fact that he incorporates them into his book with such perceived integrity is disconcerting because many readers might blindly accept his accounts as accurate. He also appears to be a bit too defensive of the secretive Masonic rituals and practices, and exhibits a clear bias in their favour. Relatedly, if the Masons truly are as secretive as he claims them to be, how reliable are his accounts of members’ identities and roles in history? In essence, to maintain the sensationalist character of his book and attract even more readers, Brown presents many mind-boggling conspiracy theories, whose legitimacy is not clearly established.
Being centered on the Masonic brotherhood, this novel obviously has a very gendered character to it. In fact, Brown, in depicting the heavily male-dominated history of the American founding fathers and the Masonic society, creates a similar society and atmosphere within which his own female characters, specifically Katherine Solomon and Inoue Sato, develop. However, these two characters are described inconsistently, with Brown simultaneously incorporating the characteristics of the ‘caretaker’ and ‘damsel in distress’ archetypes (especially in pertinence to Katherine) into those of a knowledgeable, well informed, useful, and authoritative individual.
Brown paints Katherine Solomon as a ‘female’ in a very conservatively traditional connotation of the word, with the exception her role as a scientist. She is described as an attractive and very sensitive character, often putting herself and others in danger in order to find and save her brother. Her constant worry for him is quite irrational at times, given the time-sensitive nature of concurrent crises. This irrationality is amplified when juxtaposed with the actions of Langdon and William Bellamy, who are focused on assessing the repercussions of deciphering the pyramid, even though doing so could save Peter’s life. Katherine’s emotionally driven behaviour pushes Langdon to decipher the pyramid, an event described as catastrophic, with all the blame being allotted to the Solomon sister. This seems to be an ‘Eve and the poisonous apple’-esque legend being moulded to fit into a historical fiction context. She is also portrayed as the overused stereotypical archetype for female characters, that of the “damsel in distress,” with both Langdon and Peter citing her safety as prime reasons for their actions and decisions.
However, instead of just leaving Katherine’s role as the sister of an important male character, Peter, Dan Brown attempts to weave her deeper into the storyline by presenting her niche area of research in Noetics. It also gives her a position of strength over the other characters in that her research is very closely linked to what the psychopath seeks and the Masons are trying to preserve: the Lost Word and the power of the human mind. It is interesting to note, however, that she divulges this research to the cleverly disguised antagonist, who burns it, while the Masonic brotherhood, who are protecting a similar secret, manage to preserve it throughout. There is a parallel here again with the Eve and the poisonous apple story where Katherine’s mistake nearly assures the doom of human knowledge, with the addition of the Masonic brotherhood acting as a saving grace. She reflects upon this instance as she lies, dying, and ponders upon how futile her life had been now that none of her research on Noetics would outlive her. Ironically, Langdon pursues a similar thought process when he is inches away from death, ruminating upon how useless he and his intellect would be after his death. Is this inconsistency in her portrayal, or attempt at setting her on an equal pedestal as the majoritarian male characters, an attempt at truly treating her as an equal to the male characters or simply depicting her as the ideal modern woman, who is deeply engrossed in her work but concurrently gives family more importance than anything else?
In contrast, the Director of the CIA Inoue Sato is depicted as a strong-willed and commanding woman, and provides an exception to the above-mentioned characteristics. Although she is not a major character and is described as harbouring various manly characteristics, her voice being one of them, she does hold a lot of power over many characters, including Langdon and Warren Bellamy, a high ranking Mason. Her ability to command even the most powerful characters in the novel certainly earns Brown some credibility for attempting to present a female character who is more than simply a loyal sidekick/love interest. Also, his attempt at diversifying his female characters, as well as his male ones (ranging from a fearful disbelieving professor to a blind all-knowing Mason priest) discourages the widespread use of stereotypes, even though Katherine is partly an exception to this.
When comparing Katherine and Sato, especially based on their interactions, there seems to be a power-influenced hierarchy that comes into play. It is characterised primarily by Sato ordering Katherine to obey her orders, as she is a top-ranking official in the CIA. Based on simply this analysis, as well as those of the male characters (Langdon-Bellamy, for example), it seems that once one transcends the gender divide by focusing on characters of the same gender, the major theme that determines interaction among these individuals is the allotment of power.
It seems a bit disturbing that despite her intellect and potential, Katherine and her communication and decisions are constantly influenced by a motherly and nurturing instinct in relation to loved ones, namely Robert Langdon and Peter Solomon. This dichotomy between the emotional Katherine and practical Langdon, Bellamy, Peter, or Calloway, is only countered by the significance of Katherine’s research and the contrast that callous Sato provides, acting as a sort of bridge between the female and male characters.
On the whole, this book is an inviting read because it presents a myriad of conspiracy theories that readers can evaluate based on their own interest. Due to its sensationalist nature, the book engages readers and maintains their attention throughout the various interpretations of different codes and symbols, due to the urge to discover what, truly, the Lost Word is. It also describes many interesting artistic and architectural phenomena, which can appeal to another sector of readership that might not have read a simple historical fiction. Furthermore, it justifiably only provides a basic introductory understanding of the Freemasons. The detail that Brown presents about the institution is not verifiable in the text due to the lack of a bibliography, but it can ignite in readers an interest in the topic, which they can pursue with external research.
However, because this book was a historical fiction, a genre not known for its historical accuracy, it contains many flaws as well. Firstly, as already mentioned, Brown does not cite his sources in this book, which means that Brown verifies nothing that he mentions in this book, allowing readers to openly question the information’s legitimacy. It is also extremely sensationalist; the conspiracy theories Brown brings up should not be taken factually by the readers, a group composed of a an array of people, including young students who might not know to challenge what Brown states so authoritatively.
Overall, while the book might present some interesting sensationalist conspiracy theories and conjectures about a diverse range of historical organisations and events, such as the Masons, George Washington, the Capitol building, etc., it is not worth the read. Dan Brown’s questionable stipulation of ‘facts,’ clearly gendered story-telling technique with an annoyingly unhelpful Katherine Solomon, and biased approach towards the institution of Masonry detract from the legitimacy of the book and render it unimpressive in its historical domain.
 Brown, Dan. The lost symbol: a novel. New York: Doubleday, 2009.
As this is the book being reviewed, this will be mentioned throughout the piece.