Booking Through Thursday: So symbolic

booking_through_thursWith this week’s question for Booking Through Thursday, I feel like I’m right back in the Susquehanna Building at the University of Maryland, sipping an iced coffee and talking about pretentious nonsense in my English classes . . . and I think that’s a good thing!

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?

When I was in high school, this topic was always of serious debate amongst my classmates in my Advanced Placement Language class. We were all hunched over at our desks, paging listlessly through The Right Stuff  or The Woman Warrior and talking about the meaning behind the words — what was, literally, “between the lines.” I had an awesome teacher, Mrs. Sanders, who always brought us where we needed to be with the work without ramming it down our throats . . . or hitting us over the head with it. She’d ask pointed questions — “What is he really saying here?” — and we would respond, scratching our little adolescent heads, with questions of our own. Our favorite was this number:

“But did he/she actually do that on purpose?”

That was everything we were deriving from books like Ethan Fromme and The Joy Luck Cluball the symbolism, everything the author seemed to be saying without actually saying. To be fair, most of these books weren’t exactly “modern” reads — not in the traditional sense, anyway. But many of them were contemporary. And I think they had plenty of symbolism.

Here’s my take on literature: great writers write. I’m not saying it’s necessarily effortless, but I think that many of the “classic” books we all love and are taught in school were written by someone so talented, the “symbolism” we find in their work is subconscious. I don’t know that they purposely bury it in the work, burying it for students to come through with pick-axes and hammers to free. Sure, many of them have a plan — the books have great plots, after all — but I can’t say that I honestly believe that works like The Great Gatsby and Frankenstein were meticulously graphed out ahead of time to make sure just the right measure of symbolism was in there! It’s just . . . there.

But yes, I do think there’s as much symbolism in books as our teachers have long suggested . . . because the great thing about literature is that we all get from it what we want. We read what we want — we see what we want. That’s how books are able to garner both the really glowing reviews and the horrible ones. When I crack open a novel, I bring to the book all of my life experiences — all of my hurts, fears, dreams, loves, anticipation. I will find a symbol in a book to represent something to me that the next reader behind me won’t ever detect, or want to find. And vice versa. As readers, we have the power to discover anything in the pages of a book . . . so the symbolism is, to me, whatever we want it to be!

I hope that makes sense! I want it to — I just get a little wordy . . . it’s one of my many fine qualities. Ha!

And symbolism in my current reads? It’s everywhere. Since the Knitting Club Book Club is tonight (yay!), I’ll rock out now  with Kate Jacobs’s The Friday Night Knitting Club. Just look at the simple act of knitting! The entire novel runs like a tapestry . . . the stitches gathering together, bringing five very different women to the same place at the same time to work through life’s many struggles, heartbreaks and victories. And in a women’s fiction novel all about — well — women, we see a debate about “antiquated” practices, like crocheting and knitting, and whether or not they have any place in today’s society. It is about the knitting . . . but it’s not about the knitting. Capiche?

12 thoughts on “Booking Through Thursday: So symbolic

  1. It’s amazing how some authors manage to write symbolism into their stories so seamlessly. I think that’s why we wonder so often whether it’s intentional or not. I mean, how can it NOT be intentional if it feels like it just fits so well, right?


  2. 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.

    I took a course with Maxine Hong-Kingston and she didn’t even allude to any of the supposed symbolism when lecturing on Woman Warrior! 🙂


    • That’s hilarious! The author herself didn’t talk about the symbolism in the work?! A room full of 16-year-olds talked about it for days, haha. Classic!


  3. I think I agree… as a writer myself the stuff I write just comes out. I don’t even think about stuff like symbolism. But people usually come out with symbolism that I didn’t intend to put there… not a bad thing though.


  4. I heartily agree… authors want to tell a story to affect the reader (otherwise, why are they spending hours alone making up imaginary characters?). To do that affectation (not the correct use of that word), they have to subconsciously use symbolism. If they just said, “Life sucks!” that would: 1) Be an incredibly short book; and 2) Wouldn’t be nearly as interesting as The House of Mirth which Edith Wharton wrote during a dark period in her marriage that made her question the entire institution. (Her later books she said were an apology for the darkness of House of Mirth because she wasn’t entirely “Life Sucks,” and she was admitting that that’s what she’d been saying with the book.)


  5. We have a very similar answer. 🙂

    “the “symbolism” we find in their work is subconscious.” – I couldn’t agree with you more. I think we learn about symbolism as a technique and then over time and practice, it becomes natural.


  6. Symbolism is DEFINITELY subconscious on the part of some authors. In high school, one year for English academic bowl we read The Joy Luck Club as our novel. One of our coaches pounded the symbolism of it into our heads, week after week. She rhapsodized about the four corners, the four directions, the four seasons, the four mothers, blahdiddyblah.

    And then our team captain found an interview in which Amy Tan was asked about all the “four” symbolism, and she said she hadn’t ever noticed before, and certainly hadn’t done it on purpose. We were vindicated!


  7. personally, i encourage my students to look beyond the literal meaning in the works we read to help improve their critical thinking and analytical skills.

    in works like ‘the glass menagerie’, ‘of mice and men’, and ‘a raisin in the sun’, the symbolism and imagery is strong and easy for them to detect.

    it’s not really about reinventing the story but about doing a close reading and recognizing that literature should provoke discussion and interpretation.

    as long as a student can support his or her theory, i think it’s valid, whether or not the author intended the meaning the student takes from the work.


  8. I think it’s a good think for teaching critical thinking, but I believe most of it is/was subconscious. Write a story, have a class discuss it, analyze it to death, and then you will realize that most of the time it is the reader looking for something and not necessarily what you, as the author, intended.
    I love this post!


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