Thursday, April 23, 2009

Symbolically Speaking

It's that time of the week again! Here's today's question:

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 one's a pretty challenging question. It's hard to know what to think sometimes. I do think English teachers, particularly English PhD's, sometimes go a bit too far. For example, you don't even want to know what Hermione's magically enlarged satchel from the last Harry Potter book is supposed to symbolize. There's all kinds of scholarship on it, apparently, but I'll leave the reader to Google it for him or herself. You may wish you hadn't.

At the same time, though, I always disliked those whose sole contribution to class was to assert "It don't symbolize nuthin'. It's just a story." That's not exactly the truth of it either. In graduate school, we had to read the Melville short story "Bartleby the Scrivener." I was pretty surprised to be the only one in the room who grasped that the story was about alienation and that Bartleby was a symbolic character. After classes were over for the week, a friend and I argued about that all the way to Friendly's (nearly a 40 minute drive; school was in the middle of nowhere). He was a very black-and-white sort of person and couldn't understand how to tell the difference between a symbolic character and one that's more like a real person. I just couldn't figure out how to explain it, either, though. "You can just tell, they don't act quite right," was the best I could do.

As far as symbolism in modern fiction, I would say that it's still there. It's not trendy in the popular stuff that's meant to be digested easily. But I guess it probably never was. My absolute least favorite use of symbolism is when the writer kills off an animal. I read a short story where a woman and her brother were visiting their family for a holiday. They'd grown up in a rural area that was being developed. They got drunk and rode their horse to a local Wal-Mart, where it fell in a construction pit or retention pond and drowned. They watched it, knowing there was nothing they could do.

When I read that story, I understood intellectually that the horse was supposed to represent the conflict between the rural life they'd grown up with and the development that was threatening it. I think it also symbolized something with the brother's life -- my memory's a little hazy, but I think the sister felt he was drinking too much or in some kind of trouble. But I couldn't get past the horrible image of the horse drowning like that, struggling to get its footing, to keep its head above water, and looking to its owners for some kind of help the entire time.

I have to admit, though, that I'm not usually on a very sharp lookout for symbolism while I'm reading. I mostly read for enjoyment, or in the case of nonfiction, to learn something specific as well. The best writers will write on both levels, so that readers can enjoy the story without getting all the symbols. And at some point, maybe it stops mattering whether the reader makes symbols out of nothing or whether the writer put them there. One of the members of Pink Floyd was once asked about the meaning behind his songs. He replied that it no longer mattered, that now that they were out in the world, it was what the listener took from them that counted, not what he put there. Perhaps that's true of books to an extent, as well.