Booking Through Thursday: Symbolism — or not


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

4 comments to Booking Through Thursday: Symbolism — or not

  • It’s terrible that your daughter got thrown out of class for an opinion she expressed outside of class. To me, that’s not what education should be about.

    I don’t totally agree with you on symbolism, but my post is up here: Happy BTT!

  • Times haven’t changed since the late 60’s when I used to get thrown out of English class for expressing an opinion which ran contrary to teacher’s. I thought politicization of literature was past, but apparently it’s alive and well. OTOH, had I not had those arguments, I might not have become a lawyer.

  • It was maddening to have students come into college literature courses and insist that there had to be a key symbol to unlock the hidden meanings of literary works, or to resent such applications of symbolism but expect that is what literary study was all about. While some writers do use symbolism in their work, that doesn’t explain why so many teachers think that the materials in a work must stand for something else. There is some history as to this. In the scholastic tradition, poetry, fiction, and other belletristic writing was considered unworthy, if not sinful. Teachers who liked literature and wanted to teach it came up with the argument that many works of literature were symbolic renderings of scripture, hence the terms like “Christ figure,” “epiphany,” and so on. This intensified about 30-40 years ago when literature became defined only as fiction, poetry, and drama. The non-fiction genres were dropped from the general textbooks and were no longer taught as literature. A reason for this is that it avoided having to deal with direct rhetorical confrontations and could leave literature as a kind of Rorschach blot onto which could project all manner of symbolic interpretation. As happened to your daughter, some people could not stand to have their interpretations of the verbal inkblots challenged. That episode indicates teachers with very shallow and limited educations in literature. The other extreme was the deconstructionists who contended that there is no common meaning to be had from word constructs.

    While we bemoan that our education system lags in mathematics and science, few people notice how far we are falling behind in the teaching of verbal communication and art.

  • Like wow. Like a real like er deterioration or like not so really like rad?

    More seriously, in one of those mandatory tests high schools to show performance were giving a few years ago, the “essay” question was to write what you liked about your home town. My son was not particularly impressed by anything in Winner, SD and wrote that. He failed to properly outline his rather terse commentary. Needless to say, they subjectively whacked his score for that.

    I don’t have time for finding “deep meaning” in shallow writing. If somebody wants to communicate something, say what they mean and mean what they say. Sometimes a cigar just stinks up the room.