Booking Through Thursday: Symbolic or Not?

April 23, 2009 at 3:29 am (Memes)

BTT: 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 sympathize with Barbara H’s husband: Sometimes, I just want to enjoy the reading, and not think overlong or hard about what it is that I am reading. At times, the constant need to analyze literature has frustrated me and left me screaming, “IT’S JUST A F*CKING BOOK!” (This often has happened in Women’s Studies classes; I am nothing if not contrary and pugnacious.)

However, not only do I not think that close reading is outmoded, I also feel that it has its place. I’m currently re-reading The Secret History, one of my all-time favorites for reasons I am sure I will soon discuss here. But just one of those many reasons is the intricate layering of allusion–classical and modern–and symbolism in the tale and the telling. As much as I enjoy simply reading TSH, my enjoyment of it is enhanced and increased by close reading and critique.

That is not to say that I don’t speed merrily along through my novels; I don’t hunch over annotated copies–though I do assiduously read every endnote–and rack my brain for meaning. But in the times when I cannot read, or in quiet moments, when I put the book down for a moment and reflect, I will consider every layer of meaning I can identify, to increase my comprehension, for I believe that a greater understanding of a novel will lead to greater enjoyment.



  1. gautami tripathy said,

    I agree. A greater understanding leads to better enjoyment. Maybe that is one reason, I love the works of Atwood, I call her work prose poetry. And poetry is filled with symbolism, be it of any age!


  2. Janet said,

    You make some good points here. I think the best books are rewarding without close analysis, but can still stand up under it.

  3. Jessica said,

    I definitely take time after a novel to reflect on the theme before writing about it on my blog.

  4. Barbara H. said,

    Good answer. I love when symbolism is employed as you described, and I think at its best it comes to you on reflection — it’s not something you have to search out with a fine-tooth comb, killing the enjoyment of the story in the process. And I do think a lot of times the author’s message is in the story itself, not the symbolism underneath the story.

  5. Bluestocking said,

    I think we all must have had this same teacher.


  6. Matthew said,

    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.

  7. rugelach said,

    I don’t think symbolism is reserved for only the meticulous, careful reader. One might say the best books have a universality, that their underlying symbolism–or much of it, anyway–can be understood and appreciated by many, particularly casual readers who make up the majority audience. This holds true for many great writers of the past, who wrote for a mass market appeal, such as Dickens, Zola, Balzac, etc.

  8. LDP said,

    “Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think?”

    I’m going to side with your husband and say that there probably wasn’t.

    So many people have insisted that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory for the events of WW2 and that The One Ring is symbolic of the atomic bomb, but Tolkien denied this and basically said that people can read whatever they like into it. Still, people seem to buy into the WW2 idea and you can’t blame them, since it’s a good fit.

    Another, non-literary, example is Night of the Living Dead. I once read several pages of an very in depth analysis that a film student wrote about NotLD, in which he pointed out hundreds of subtle examples of the film’s comments on race relations and civil rights, including the different ways the character of Barbara reacts to Ben and Tommy. The way this kid wrote about it, it all made perfect sense, but, while I love Romero, the guy is not and has never been that subtle. Any points he makes, he makes with a sledgehammer and while the movie did employ some symbolism, in order for it to fit this kid’s ideas, the whole thing would have to have been written to that end and we know it wasn’t. In fact, the only reason Ben was black, was because Romero wanted the best actor he knew to be the lead and that happened to be Duane Jones. Romero has stated that in tons of interviews.

    Hell, just recently, I’ve convinced myself that the inkblot on the cover of Watchmen #6 ( ) was intended to resemble a vagina, since that issue deals with the origin of the Rorschach character, who has some problems with misogyny and the inkblot, used throughout the issue, conjures up some horrific images for the character, images that he equates with the birthing of his Rorschach personality. It makes sense to me, but neither Alan Moore nor Dave Gibbons have ever claimed that to be the case.

    Me and a Catholic look at the same cloud. I see Frankenstein’s Monster and the Catholic sees Mary. The cloud is completely indifferent and was never meant to resemble either, because it’s a fucking cloud. It’s in our nature to find hidden meanings or patterns in things, including our fiction. With a handful of decades, or even centuries, of people interpreting something one way, with the original creator of the piece long dead and unable to correct anyone (or alive and unwilling, since it makes them seem so much more clever than they actually were), plenty of people (who also want to think of themselves as being smarter than the average bear) are going to latch onto those ideas of allegory and symbolism. So, like I said, I agree with hubby. Sure, there’s some, but often it’s just a damn book.

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