Thursday, 23 April 2009

Booking Through Thursday-Symbolism

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?

It's been a very long time since I've had to think about literature in this way, and it's starting to hurt my brain a bit to do this! I think part of the reason for this is the way I read has changed over the years. I remember when I was studying, I would be reading everything with a fine tooth comb, always looking for deeper meanings within the words. I tend to read a lot more for pleasure now and so probably miss a lot of the symbolism anyway.

I think symbolism is usually secondary to the story anyway, and can add meaning if you look for it, but is not essential enjoying the story in any way. I sometimes think that at school, teachers can put people off reading by focusing too much on the symbolism of literature, rather than on the way the author conveys his ideas, characters and what he's actually trying to say. And symbolism is arbitrary anyway, because by definition, it requires a knowledge of biblical, literary or cultural traditions, in order to be able to make the connections. Surely telling a story is uppermost in an author's mind, and although the symbolism is placed there to enhance the story, it's not essential.

A prime example is Shakespeare. His work is full of symbolism, but he wrote his plays to be enjoyed as performances, and dissecting his plays word for word, especially at a young age, is detrimental to what he wrote for! Fine, go ahead and look for all the symbolism in his work if it grabs you, and get a deeper meaning from his work, but never forget that first and foremost, they are entertainment, just as novels are.

As for examples of symbolism, I can't think of any in any modern fiction I've read, but that may well be because I don't look for it anymore. Maybe it's there and I absorb it on a subconscious level, rather than being able to pick it out. I think that's probably it. It underpins what I think and feel about a novel without me realising it. And that's fine. I don't need to know exactly why I enjoy a book, as long as I do!

And as for classic literature, the most obvious to me would be the symbolism of the river in Huckleberry Finn. It symbolises, Huck and Jim's escape, Jim from slavery and Huck from his abusive father. The flow of their life follows the flow of the river, as their personal journey's become more treacherous, so does the flow of the river. And in Hardy's Tess of the Durbervilles, Tess is at one with nature and the landscape, her environment symbolising her state of mind at each part of the novel. Talbothays is a happy place, and she is happy, being courted by Angel, yet Flintcomb Ash is a desperate, god forsaken place, just as Tess feels god forsaken at that point in her life.

And I think I've rambled on enough now! I hope this makes sense because I can't say any more. My brain really hurts now!


gautami tripathy said...

You gave some very good examples. Hardy's works were always so symbolic, be it his novels or poetry.


Janet said...

"I think symbolism is usually secondary to the story anyway, and can add meaning if you look for it, but is not essential enjoying the story in any way." Well said! And I agree that getting too focused on analysis can spoil things.

JLS Hall said...

I think I sort of agree with you when you say you don't need to know why you enjoy a book. I read mostly for pleasure these days, so I don't do a lot of analysis of the work. But I do believe that most writers intend their work to be read on many different levels, even though it's up to the readers to decide how deeply they want to investigate.

Jess said...

Great answer and wonderful examples.

Charli and me said...

I enjoyed reading your post and agree. Happy BTT!

barbarah said...

Great answer. I think symbolism is one tool, and if the author used it on purpose, it will be fairly obvious without having to be stated. If every part is symbolic, then it is an allegory. And I do agree nothing kills the enjoyment of a book more than examining it for symbolism that may not be there.

Bluestocking said...

I considered Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


mattviews said...

Lovely answer.

I think only careful, meticulous readers could read into these symbols, which seem to abound in classics literature. In most cases, readers would understand the story fine 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.

Savidge Reads said...

Great answer, it made my head hurt too but in a good way.

reviewsonbooks said...

I agree - symbolism isn't primary to the story but it sure felt like it was the most important thing on Earth in high school lol.,