Booking Through Symbolism

btt2Today’s Booking Through Thursday question was 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 actually think symbolism is still in use in today’s literature, at least to some extent — if nothing else, what about poetry? I’m recalling Field of Blood by Eric Wilson, for one — it’s full of symbolism.

Perhaps instead, the modern reader is at fault. I’m recalling a comment I saw on Twitter yesterday. Someone, I think it was Vasilly, said it sometimes takes more than once through a book to be able to review it well. Perhaps, in our modern hurry, we simply don’t notice symbolism.

I actually liked most of my literature class discussions about symbolism. I think they helped me read with more comprehension. (Classes about Shakespeare, The Scarlet Letter, some Irish lit …)

One classroom discussion where I do remember feeling like symbolism was being shoved down my throat was about Emily Dickinson. Sure, whatever poem we were discussing had some symbolism. I just didn’t see the whole long list of things the teacher thought we should. I’m sad to say, I place my dislike of Dickinson squarely at the feet of that class. For a time, it led me away from all poetry.

Do you find symbolism in modern fiction?

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12 responses to “Booking Through Symbolism

  1. Funny, I’m all against symbolism in writing, but Emily Dickinson is possibly one of the only writers whose symbolism I really enjoy.

  2. Well, I think generally the best use of symbolism doesn’t draw attention to itself. If they’re successful, literary devices just enhance your enjoyment of the work you’re reading. But it’s really a shame that you had such a bad experience with Dickinson. She wrote such wonderful poetry!

  3. I think that a second read is good for some books, but I think it’s also the speed we read books, as well. I know that, with my goal of 75 books this year, I was reading like mad, hurrying through books to get to the next. Now that I know that I’ll hit 75 before October, probably, I can slow down… but momentum is hard to overcome. Some recent books, like The Book Thief and Empire Falls, were ones that I took slower (not on purpose, though, the book just seemed to make me), and I think I got a lot more out of them because of it.

    I agree with you that the lit classes def help with appreciating books.

  4. Honestly, I think that you’ve touched on something when you talked about group discussions about symbolism. I find that I have difficulty finding it on my own, but have little or no trouble at all discerning it when I’m trying to explain something to someone else. I think that’s where most of my good thinking happens.

    I also think that symbolism is an entirely personal and subjective thing; it works for some people and it feels forced and ridiculous to others. Sometimes, too, it depends entirely on my mood: I can be absolutely thunderstruck by the symbolism I see in stories, but I can also roll my eyes and think that someone’s completely loony for picking out THAT bit to focus on. Sometimes, a snake in the grass is just a snake in the grass, and we in academia occasionally get a little too enthusiastic about picking out symbolism.

    • Very true (symbolism being subjective and personal).

      I like this: “Sometimes, too, it depends entirely on my mood: I can be absolutely thunderstruck by the symbolism I see in stories, but I can also roll my eyes and think that someone’s completely loony for picking out THAT bit to focus on.”

  5. I definitely think it’s still floating around in modern work. I think many of us just don’t pick up on it and books are usually still good enough that we don’t feel the lack! Some books deserve to be savored. I know I’m guilty of not doing so, but sometimes I do find a book that needs a closer, second look.

  6. I thought Frank Peretti’s The Oath contained fabulous symbolism. Granted, I was a bit of a youthful reader when I ingested it, and am not sure in retrospect if I would be so keen on the way the book was written — although I think the symbolism would still hold up.

  7. 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.

  8. I honestly thing people sometimes try to hard to find the meaning of things – and that English teachers (or anyone who teaches books) can very easily destroy the fun of reading for students by pushing the meaning of things down their throats.

    Like someone said above – symbolism is subjective and personal and if you force it you risk making people not want to continue reading because apparently a book about a boy and his dog can’t just be a book about a boy and his dog – it HAS to have some deeper meaning. And if the student can’t see the deeper meaning they’re going to get frustrated and give up on reading because they’re being told (no matter how indirectly) they’re doing it wrong.

    Of course it really has to do with HOW the teacher is teaching the book/explaining the symbolism – but I think even well intentioned teachers can very easily push too hard especially if they have a student who views things more literally than other students might.

  9. I definitely think there is symbolism in modern fiction (speaking as a reader who finds it and a writer who writes it). I think much depends on the genre, too. Great answer!

  10. Often, when I notice symbolism it’s because it’s obvious enough to be annoying.

    On the other hand, the symbolism in, say, My So-Called Life has kept me endlessly fascinated. Perhaps I tolerate it better in television because the whole genre is more stylized.

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