Booking Through Thursday: Symbolism

April 23, 2009 at 9:42 pm | Posted in Book Blather | 3 Comments

My response to this week’s Booking Through Thursday question:

My husband is not an avid reader, and he used to get very frustrated in college when teachers would insist discussing symbolism in a literary work when there didn’t seem to him to be any. He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it.

It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?

This question makes me wonder if “the husband” is an engineer.  I once helped a coworker who was a mechanical engineer pass a poetry class.  He wasn’t doing well because he just saw no point to the subject.  He walked away with a newfound appreciation for Carl Sandburg after I showed him how different “The mist arrived on tiny feline paws” was from the original.  Sometimes there’s more to something than we see at first glance.

I think there are authors who deliberately use symbolism, and then those who believe that they don’t.  It’s a truism that authors are often surprised at what readers and critics find in their work that they didn’t put there.  So, we could say that there are two kinds of symbolism: intentional and unintentional.

To me there would be absolutely no point in reading a story that lacked symbolism entirely.  Let me tell you a story.  “Once upon a time there was a boy who ate an apple.  Then he went for a walk.  The end.”  Did you feel enriched by that story?  Did it make you want to read more?  How about this?  “Celia had become clingy, Mark thought, and it was time to let her go.  He finished eating his apple, threw it into the trash, and walked on.”  Still boring, okay, but at least there’s some reason for the apple to be there.

The thing about symbolism is that we’re only likely to catch it if it resonates with us in some way.  For instance, I often feel that I’m missing something when I read stories about motherhood, miscarriages, etc.  Just because a story doesn’t seem to have overt, heavy-handed, deliberate symbolism doesn’t mean that elements of it can’t symbolize certain things for the reader.  This is probably more true of books after a certain amount of time has passed – the characters may symbolize a vanished era in a way the author never could have foreseen.

Upton Sinclair wrote of The Jungle that he aimed at the public’s heart, but accidentally hit it in the stomach.  His intention to write a story symbolic of unfair labor practices succeeded instead in drawing attention to unsafe food handling practices.  In this sense we can’t always accept the author as the final arbiter of what his or her work signifies.

There are times when a reader misconstrues an artist’s intent to a degree that enters the realm of legend.  For example, Charles Manson’s relationship to the Beatles’ White Album, the young boys who started a fire based on a Beavis and Butthead episode, or the urban myth that many serial killers are influenced by Catcher in the Rye.  I think this is the exception that proves the rule.



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  1. Some parts of The Jungle was unbearable to read, especially after I just had breakfast (I usually read over breakfast and coffee). Toni Morrison is the queen of symbols to me.

    I think only careful, meticulous readers could read into these symbols. In most cases, readers would understand the story without fully grabbing the symbols, but the level of appreciation would be compromised. Toni Morrison would be the prime example. Not all books are endowed with layers of meaning and implications, but symbolism can be a great device to describe things that are very intangible, like death. Symbols can also be very subjective entities. Sometimes I cannot read into any symbols in a book just simply because I lack the personal experience that would put me in tune to the author’s meaning.

  2. I definitely spoke to an author who I thought used symbolism but when asked she said there was no symbolism in her writing. Maybe it was like you wrote — unintentional.

  3. I totally agree with you about symbols being subjective. On several occasions I’ve read something (usually poetry) and thought whaaat? Only to have the symbolism ‘click’ sometimes years later with the addition of new life experiences.

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