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?
Symbol - Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention,or, as a psychologist might use it - An object or image that an individual unconsciously uses to represent repressed thoughts, feelings, or impulses.
Symbolism - 1: the art or practice of using symbols esp. by investing things with a symbolic meaning or by expressing the invisible or intangible by means of visible or sensuous representations: as a: artistic imitation or invention that is a method of revealing or suggesting immaterial, ideal, or otherwise intangible truth or states.
I would say to your husband, dear h-o-b (husband-of-Barbara), good fiction old and new is full of people, places and events that represent intangible and otherwise immaterial truths or states. A fiction, by telling a story that didn't happen anywhere but in someone's imagination, or (in some cases) referencing events and people that happened differently in life, fashions stand-ins (symbols) for those characters, those happenings. In the alluring act of creation, those stand-ins will often take on a life of their own and do things or say things that never happened in the "true" events that may have been the starting point of the fiction. Language and literature, by their very nature, are rife with symbolism. That is not to say that every work of literature has the kind of intentional programmatic set of characters and events standing for another set of characters and events, as in, say, James Joyce's Ulysses, but the act of holding a mirror up to nature, as Shakespeare described art's purpose, is an act of symbolism. Furthermore, frustrating or not, if you had any good teachers who loved literature, they may not so much have been trying to get you to find the one-and-only hidden message that existed in the books you read like the dime in the black eyed peas or the prize in the cracker jacks, they were probably trying to get you to learn to invest in the experience of reading and get beyond either the superficial events of the story or the correct interpretation for getting an 'A' on your paper and instead allow the events and characters to stir up what associations and resemblances resonate for you given your experience of the world. That's part of the fun of being the audience of a piece of theatre, a painting, a book. Whatever the intention the creator of that work had, the experience of its audience is going to be full of the meanings and truths of their own lives. Hamlet is a story of a Danish Prince, it's also a story of adolescence, it's also a story of grief. Someone non-Danish and not born into a royal family can, if they appreciate the play at all, appreciate his indecision, his mourning his father, or some other aspect of the play. That is because Hamlet becomes a stand-in for us either individually or perhaps collectively, the play could be appreciated thinking of Hamlet as a nation that is responding to an attack. That is not to say that Shakespeare sat there thinking all these thoughts and filling his play with them and then disguising them so you had to look for them. But the experience of reading it can reveal them by the intersection of your mind and his work. A mystery story, while it can be a relaxing pasttime, can still have characters or events that evoke for us memories or experiences of our current life. A character can reminds us of someone we know. The murder can make us pause to think of the value of life, or the scene of the crime can conjure up a picture of a familiar house. The suspense of the events can raise our heartbeat. That is all accomplished by ink on a page. Remember this is a fiction. These specific things never happened. Our heart rate speeds up because of the investment we have in this unreality and the source of that is somewhere in our own lives. The fictional events stand for real ones, at least for the moment of our experiencing them. That is symbolism. But of course, there are other pleasures to appreciate in art - the technique of the painter for depicting light, or that writer for combining words in such a way that you were successfully transported to an unfamiliar place. Those can be satisfying reasons to appreciate a work of art too. I hope that, if you don't enjoy reading, that it's not because your experience of learning about it made you feel excluded from the world of books, as though you didn't have the talent to be a "good" reader. In my opinion, if you can find some pleasure in a book, that's good enough.
I really enjoyed reading this -- great answer. And the picture is fabulous.
I love "trying to get you to learn to invest in the experience of reading and get beyond either the superficial events of the story ..."
Like the mirror metaphor! Literally!
Symbolic, I say!
Symbolism in writing
I agree that you need to enjoy what you are reading.
Great answer, Ted!
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.
Terrific response, Ted. You are an astute reader/observer of human nature.
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