Booking Through Thursday: Symbolism


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 think that an author’s use of literary devices, such as symbolism, is what separates literature from fiction.

This is the problem I have with a lot of YA literature, I don’t think it is truly literature.  Don’t get me wrong,  some definitely are.  The Book Thief, definitely.  Twilight, not so much.  But hey, I read Confessions of a Shopaholic, so if you want to read a vampire book, go ahead.  Just don’t call either “literature”.

Okay, but to get back to the question as hand.  Excessive description?  Do you mean imagery?  Again, a device that is used for a purpose.  Often imagery connects to symbolism.  Look at The Great Gatsby.  The imagery associated with Daisy Buchanan is symbolic.  Everything is white, billowing, breezy, her laughter has a charm to it that draws men toward her, her voice is “full of money”.  The green light at the end of Gatsby’s dock?  Don’t even get me started on what that symbolizes. In The Catcher in the Rye you have a main character who wants everything to same the same, he wants to preserve the innocence of all the children everywhere.  Is it a coincidence that his favorite place to go is the museum where nothing ever changes?  Is it a coincidence that he wrote his history essay on mummies?  I don’t think so.  This my dear friends, is symbolism.

So, to answer your question.  No, I don’t think there is as much symbolism as English teachers think there is.  I THINK THERE”S MORE!!!


6 thoughts on “Booking Through Thursday: Symbolism

  1. I enjoyed your answer. And I think it’s very often true that deeper meanings may exist in the writing even though the writer doesn’t realize it himself.

  2. I always wonder how much of the symbolism the authors intend, and how much of it creeps in on its own. When I’m writing, I often find myself going back and realizing that an image or conversation I put in without giving it much thought actually works really well thematically with the rest of the story.

    Much as I like imagery and symbolism, though, I also really love this cartoon:


  3. I agree, I seem to think there is symbolism everywhere. Then I think that I am projecting my own ideas of what is symbolic and then in turn can not be right.

  4. As an English teacher I think you’re right. I teach middle school so I do use a lot of young adult literature and there is nothing more exciting to me than when a student points out a symbolic meaning or connection in the text that I never thought of before.

    It’s also true that I pick and choose when I explain the symbols in a text to my students. I use Midsummer Night’s Dream with my 7th graders, but I do not try to cover all of the symbolic meanings, etc. in it. I just try to do enough so they come away from the experience wanting more Shakespeare.

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