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?
This is one of my favorite pet peeves — and one I evidently imparted to my children.
I tend to think English teachers/professors, literary critics and others often find symbolism in fiction just because they feel an obligation. Maybe this is just a story like one you might tell a friend? Maybe this or that character looks, talks or acts like that because he or she is simply a composite of people the author knows or saw somewhere? Why must particular actions, settings, etc., be symbolic? Maybe the fact balloons blew out of a child’s hand simply indicates it was a windy day or a poor grasp on the string, not that it represents a loss of innocence or some such muck.
Granted, there are situations where symbolism is intended. But sometimes, if not most frequently, I’m not looking for and may not even want deeper meaning; I’m just looking to enjoy a good read.
My now 20-year-old daughter wrote something to this effect in a column she did for the high school newspaper several years ago. She said it in the context of the focus of what is taught in English classes. The result? Her teacher threw her out of the accelerated English class she was in at the time. That situation was relatively promptly remedied when we met with the high school’s principal and assistant principal and asked them to point out any school rule or regulation she violated by exercising her right to express an opinion. Still, I evidently haven’t forever ruined my children. My 23-year-old daughter has a joint B.A., with part of it being English. (Add in the political science half of the degree and she is eminently employable!)
Although the foregoing is nonfiction, look for all the symbolism you want. I’m just relating a story.
There isn’t any symbolysm [sic]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit.
Ernest Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway Selected Letters 1917-1961