23 April 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Symbolic? Or Not?

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?

I can very much sympathise with Barbara’s husband! I’m of the opinion that I love books in spite of high school English. To my mind, reading is meant to be fun; and I never could see the point in reading a perfectly good book and then picking it to pieces. I couldn’t see how one could be sure that there even was symbolism, much less whether the item under consideration had been intended as a symbol, or had the significance that the teacher said it did. Surely every author didn’t load their stories with hidden meanings? (Though given that my high school’s compulsory reading consisted of equal parts Shakespeare and YA novels, plus To Kill a Mockingbird and a few short stories, I don’t have the widest range of symbol-hunting experience. In fact, I can only recall looking for symbols in one YA book and one speech from King Lear, which may explain why my love of reading emerged intact.)

Looking for symbolism when reading isn’t something I do, which is probably why I rarely see it. (Actually, that would be an interesting challenge - read a few book with an eye for symbols, and see what I can find.) I don’t think mystery novels, of which I read a lot, lend themselves to symbols the way classics or literary fiction do, and I don’t think all authors deliberately put symbols in their works. I’ve been trying to think of anything in last year’s NaNo project that would qualify, and can’t - I guess I’m not by nature a “highbrow” or “literary” writer. Though I did just think of something that could easily be interpreted as symbolic, though I didn’t intend it as such and the character responsible had far more important considerations than the deeper meaning of what she was doing.

Now I’ve made myself sound totally unqualified to answer this question! Symbolism in novels is like hidden messages in the Bible or music played backwards - search hard enough and you’re bound to come up with something. Whether or not you’ll be correct is anyone’s guess.If you like symbolism and think that looking for it enhances your understanding of a book, fine, and I’m sure there are plenty of authors putting symbols into their works. But if you can’t enjoy a book when you’re simply reading for pleasure, what’s the point? The best-thought-out symbolism in the world is nothing if there isn’t a good story to contain it.

As for English teachers - I’m quite sure those classes are capable of killing students’ love of reading, not only by over-analysis but by inappropriate choices of book. Expecting a roomful of 14-year-olds to appreciate Shakespeare makes about as much (or as little) sense as expecting a 17-year-old who spends her lunch hours with Austen, Atwood and Eliot to like studying a book written for teenagers. (Bad memories there!) I don’t blame the teachers entirely, though - they’re largely at the mercy of the Education Department in that state or territory. And Education Departments come up with some real gobbledygook in their curricula!


  1. You know, my high school English classes only helped enhance my love for reading.

    And symbolism is there everywhere. We need only keep our eyes open for those!


  2. You must have had better English classes than I did. I'm coming to the conclusion that a lot of people had better English classes than I did!

  3. I've never been one to pick apart a book for its symbolism either, but I suppose that's why I never went into college for English. I'm much more of a pleasure reader. :)

  4. You definitely can't force symbolism.



Newer Posts Older Posts Home
Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776