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’m laughing as I write this- not too loud of course because I’m sitting on the train next to a woman who would probably not appreciate it. Yeah, college professors are famous or infamous for squeezing symbolism out of every word in a text. I got lost frequently in college. I understand literary devices like point of view or foils to illustrate a point or to advance the plot. I’m even cool with discussion of how historical events contemporary to the author plays a huge part in their writing. But whether “killing the elephant was symbolic of English colonialism?” you’ve got to be kidding me. Unfortunately I don’t have any of my old essays or I’d let you read them.
I think authors just wrote a story. Heck I know Dickens did. They reason his books ramble on and on is because he sold his stories in serial format to newpapers. David Copperfield would have been a much more bearable read in smaller segments. Then there is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who started writing the Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries when he became low on funds. So I think authors had very economic reasons for writing. Speaking of symbolism, in the Sherlock Holmes’ mysteries after he was brought back, there is a materialism present in Holmes’ that was lacking in the first set of stories. Holmes’ actually begins to care about getting paid. You could say that was symbolic of the financial pressures Doyle was experiencing. I think modern writing has less description because people today don’t read enough to have an imagination. They wait for books to become movies or read a book because of a movie. So the description is already done for them.
The most recent reminder of how professors read symbolism into everything was a course I took in law school called Law and Literature. We read Octavia Butler’s Blood Child . That was a freaky deaky read. The premise of the story is that humans ended up on a world with sentient slugs (huge slugs) who breeded in a parasitic fashion. These slugs realized that their off spring would be bigger and stronger if they used human males as surrogate mothers. Anyway, this story was about a teenage boy who had been promised to this important slug. The day in the story is when the slug comes to impregnate the boy. Honey, it was role reversal, deflowering, not to mention a touch of incestuousness involved. Email me for complete details. That story was the segway into a discussion on abortion and how pregnancy is parasitic for women. Well if you read this story, it is quickly apparent that human pregnancies are nothing like the story portrayed. Besides, any Star Trek scholar (like yours truly) knows the hallmarks of a parasitic relationship. In case you were wondering I did in fact deliver the Star Trek speech. No one responded to my remarks. I can’t imagine why. I digress.
I think symbolism is something like hindsight- it can only be done to stuff in the past. I’m sure that in 150 when J.K. Rowling is dead and buried, some literature Ph. D. will probably say that Harry Potter’s eye are symbolic. Green after all is a verdant color- the color of grass. It represents renewal and hope thus symbolizing that Harry was the Chosen One. The fact that his mother also had green eyes plus a powerful witch is symbolic of the fact that she would bear the Chosen One. I’m sure someone will make the connection between Lillie and Harry and The Virgin Mary and the Messiah. Mark my words.
So what do you think about this question?
New Hatchette Giveaway: Testimony by Anita Shreve