Thursday, April 23, 2009

Symbolic? Or not?

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Question suggested by Barbara H:

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?

Well, when I was in college, we had a teacher who actually cautioned us not to go too far in foisting symbolic mass upon constructions not built to withstand their weight--sometimes "The Heaven of Animals" is precisely what the title says it is--but I do agree that some teachers are so desperate to have the literal-minded make any kind of association that they succeed in scaring them away from literary works for good. Which, of course, doesn't allow the literal-minded to live a life free of symbols, not at all. How well we function in life has a great deal to do with how adept we are in interpreting the ways we communicate with one another symbolically.

I don't agree that symbolism is a literary device that's fallen out of use. I've been mulling over a symbolic aspect of Reif Larsen's The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet for a week now. T.S. goes on a journey (and we all know how symbolic journeys are) and at one point unexpectedly travels through a wormhole. T.S. is a cartographer who draws maps and diagrams of everything, but the wormhole is something that defies visual representation. It was only at the end of the book, when T.S. enters into another unmappable region, that I felt I understood the symbolic relevance of the earlier wormhole.

Granted, most of us don't mention symbolism when we're trying to convince someone else to read a book we've enjoyed--plot and character are much bigger draws--but that doesn't mean symbols aren't there, that we don't pick up on a great many of them without consciously thinking "Oh, look! Symbol!" They're just there, an undercurrent of understood meaning that helps move us along. (Remember the Under Toad, as mentioned in another work with a protagonist named T.S.)

Likewise, I suspect most writers focus first on the characters and the plot, the same way readers do, seeding their works organically with material, images and events, that only in later drafts will be seen by the writer as the appropriate little plants to be taken to full symbolic bloom. But to say that symbols are not a part of the intended finished story, but are instead strictly manifestations of the reader, particularly the reader who doesn't want to think about symbols at all, strikes me as an attempt to shut down conversation and thought, not continue it.

Booking Through Thursday


  1. Exactly! Just because a symbol doesn't jump out and grab you by the throat doesn't mean there's no symbolism there. The best writers use all sorts of literary devices without drawing undue attention to them, and yet they still manage to enrich your reading experience.

  2. I wish my teacher had been like yours!

  3. I think symbolism needs the passage of time.


  4. Symbolism, in my mind, isn't something superimposed on top of a great story; it's an integral part of the great story.

  5. Sometimes I actually tend to look down on symbolism that's too obvious -- as if, if I notice it so easily, it must not be worth much. That's probably a knee-jerk reflex on my part that's worth examining. On the whole, anything imbued with significance could be symbolic, couldn't it? So unless the whole book is without significance, surely it will have some symbolism.

  6. "an undercurrent of understood meaning that helps move us along" - I really like this definition.



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