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 think part of the seeming disconnect between ‘older’ fiction and ‘modern’ fiction is that often you are simply not reading the sort of books that will be the high school canon of the future. Is every book rife with symbolism? No, of course not. And just because there is symbolism in Moby Dick, doesn’t mean that every book from the mid-19th century was rife with it either.
That being said, very few books are completely devoid of symbolism. Looking back to my recent reviews, the most obvious thing that pops up for me is in the book “The Cradle.” “The Cradle” begins with the story of Matt and Marissa, who are about to have a baby. Marissa sends Matt all over Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, and Indiana on a quest to find the cradle she used herself as an infant, the one her mother took when she left the family. Clearly this cradle is not just a cradle, but is symbolic to Marissa of a time when her family seemed secure, of a sense of wholeness instead of being fractured.
I also think that there is a lot of unintentional symbolism in books. Oftentimes I do not think authors necessarily sit and think about what symbolism they should infuse into their writing, but if they have a well-developed idea of their story and are good writers, they will include symbolism without realizing it. Sure, sometimes it seems like people (and English teachers) are stretching to find the symbolism, but if it is there for you it is there, whether the author knows it or not.