BTT: How Symbolic

bttQuestion 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.

5 comments to BTT: How Symbolic

  • You’re right about that, we don’t really know what’s going to be studied in English classes. It’s easy to assume what we’re reading now no longer has the same sort of literary value because we’re not seeking it out. I definitely think it’s still there, though.

    Meghan’s last blog post..BTT: Where’s the Symbolism?

  • I think in 150 years there will be plenty of symbolism in what we term modern writing.

    Bluestocking’s last blog post..Symbolic? or Not?

  • Symbols are often unintentional because they appeal to different readers.

    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.

    Matthew’s last blog post..Reading Beyond the Words, On Symbolism

  • I usually had trouble with the whole symbolism thing when I was in high school (and my mom was a HS English teacher, imagine the shame?)

    I think there is symbolism in today’s books and I seem to catch some of it, but continue to miss much of it, too. When my husband and I discuss books, I’m usually fascinated on his few of symbolism. I seem to appreciate the more obvious symbolism out there.

    Nicole’s last blog post..The Big Girls — Book Club Pick

  • When I was writing my book, I noticed that in every scene where something spiritually profound was happening (although it wasn’t always overt) there were birds. And that was the only time there were birds. And I realized that those birds were symbolic, but I had not done it deliberately. Just as well; if I’d done it deliberately it probably would have been heavy-handed.

    Janet’s last blog post..Aggressive ignorance is hurting the American image and a lot more than just image