Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Symbolism of Symbolism

Today's Booking Through Thursday question is a good one:

"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?"
Here's the answer to this bloggist's husband: Every book is one giant master work in symbolism. Award-winning YA author John Green said it best on one of his YouTube video blogs when he stated that symbolism is important in literature because symbolism is important in life. When a boy asks you, "Do you like anyone right now?", really he's asking, "Do you like me right now?"

But let me say this (because lots of people are "scared" of symbolism): When symbolism is used properly, you shouldn't be scared--you can miss it altogether and still enjoy the book (although the chances of enjoyment may be less likely). Let's take for example the classic (and high school curriculum stalwart) Lord of the Flies. Why would William Golding write a book about a plane crashing and 12-year-old boys running around in their underwear? He wouldn't because that's just... well, stupid. It's not about the plane crash, the underwear, the pigs, the hunting, people dying (well, not really anyway), it's about the inner nature of man and our interactions with each other. It dissects human nature and asks the question, "Which is better: rationalism, duty, nature/spirituality, or being true to your inner self?" Yet the book has endured in spite of "only being a book about a plane crash and tween boys turning into cannibals."

Let me bring this out of the realm of high school English. In my February book club at the local library (where the women are all well above high school age) read Bridge of Sighs and I picked up symbolism regarding water (very often a cover for themes of truth) and the motif of pictures/painting (as a cover for themes of perspective on life). I was the only one who did that, but still eight of the nine of us liked the book, and all those other people who hadn't caught that in their reading said comments such as, "Hmm, I didn't pick up on that, but that's a really good point. I think I'll re-read it with that in mind."

One last thing: If you want to start "getting" symbolism, pick up How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. It changed my life.


writemeg said...

Excellent answer! I totally agree with you. And I agree with, and love, John Green... symbolism in everyday life. Saying what we mean to say without saying what we mean to say. Brilliant!

mattviews said...

Great answer. I think different symbolism from the same book can appeal to different readers. It all comes down to one's own experience.

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.