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, I can understand how the hubby felt, but I think if you asked most authors of fiction today, they'd definitely tell you they use symbolism in their work. I don't know of many writers who "just tell the story." For one thing, that would make for some very boring, pedestrian writing. They'd most likely say the symbolism is there – we just haven't looked deeply enough. Of course, there's symbolism and symbolism, and not everyone is going to agree on what's a symbol and what's not. Authors are sometimes reluctant to step up and say whether or not symbolism exists in their stories – they prefer to let their readers discover it for themselves. And some genres don't really lend themselves to the use of heavy symbolism; thrillers and whodunits, especially. But even there, I think if you do enough digging, you'll find some symbolism in most of those works, too.
Of course, modern authors don't use symbolism in the same way writers used it in the past. And also, I think, the way we read now doesn't really encourage us to look for things like symbolism, foreshadowing, coincidence, and other literary devices. We read on the go. We listen to audiobooks. We read with the TV on. We read fast so we can finish a lot of books in a certain amount of time. A lot of the time, it's the reader rather than the author who's just concerned with getting the story told, and not with enjoying methods of plot design or language usage.
OK, enough preaching. Frustrated author that I am. And I'm not going to offer any examples - this is already running on longer than it should. If I started offering up examples, we'd be here all day, and I'd never get that nap I'm thinking of taking.
However, I do have just one more totally pointless thought. This topic reminded me of an incident way back in my high school senior English class when we were slogging our way through Hardy's The Return of the Native. And our young teacher (who was slogging her way through her first year of teaching) told us about one of the "brainy" kids in her other senior English class – who had come up with this really wonderful description of the symbolism in one of the passages of the book. She was pleased – and surprised – that any of her students could have done the deep thinking and sophisticated research it must have taken to achieve that kind of understanding. It was something even she hadn't picked up on. Now the rest of us all knew the brainy student hadn't done any research or deep thinking – he'd just made it all up on the spur of the moment to impress the young teacher. Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean that the symbolism wasn't there – and goodness knows, if there was a symbol to be found, Hardy would beat it to death – it just wasn't terribly obvious to most of us normal readers. I'm not really going anywhere with this – but that brainy student? Well, reader, I married him!