Thursday, April 23, 2009

Booking Through Thursday: Symbolic? Or Not?

This week's BTT topic:
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!


  1. Wow! That's some awesome literary allusion you ended with!

    I like your answer. :-)

  2. Thanks for commenting on my blog and I enjoyed your response. I agree with the fact that we read with less of an attention span than we used to. Its as though if we aren't multi-tasking at all times, we are wasting time.

  3. lol Oh, you've got me chuckling at that brainy student story. I remember my first year of teaching, and I could put a face on that brainy student. I'm so glad you married him, but I'll bet you wonder at times if he's conning you too! lol

  4. I like the idea of the author letting the reader determine the symbolism, seeing that we all perceive things differently.

  5. Oh, that's a great story! I agree that the symbolism is there. We're just not looking for it. Maybe they killed our desire to read more deeply in high school.

    - Meghan @ Medieval Bookworm

  6. Well said. I like your brainy student example!

  7. 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.

  8. That's a good point about how we read on the go and we're not really looking for symbolism, the same way we did back in the day.

    Great answer.

    ~ Popin

  9. I loved your little story about the brainy student :>) I enjoyed reading your post. Happy BTT

  10. Thanks, everyone, for dropping by.

    Miss Weber (Webber?). I think she might have been Mrs. Somebody by the time you got there. M and his pals used to delight in playing little mind games with her. They were sort of intellectual hoodlums.

  11. that's so funny that you married him. :)

  12. Congratulations on marrying the smart one :)
    I have a bit of a different take. I have taken creative writing classes and one in particular I had to read my short story alond and listen to the discussion without responding. I could not believe some of the symbolism and hidden meanings they came up with. - I felt like I was listening to them talk about a different author! Sometimes symbolism is there and sometimes it wasn't intended even if you see it :)
    That's a thought-provoking topic and a great post!

  13. "He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it."

    I'm not sure where I fall on this topic, but I tend to think that many writers are not writing with symbolism in mind. I would think you would have to be very talented to work a great deal of symbolism into a good story. I tend to think many authors set out to tell a good story and the things that are important to them, and the story, may just happen to work themselves out in symbolic ways. The truth is that there is probably a lot of both going on.


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