Commercially, symbolism gets a bit of a bad rap these days – possibly because of literature lessons delving far too deeply into why the curtains in a certain scene were blue. Does this choice of color represent the tranquil stillness of the homeowner’s mind at the time the scene takes place? Or did blue just fit with the overall décor?
As with just about anything artistically led, much in writing is both subconscious and open to subjective interpretation – a fact that ensures many an author has been left scratching their head at the scrutiny their books have received. Sometimes, a coat is just a coat and not representative of anything else…
But these things aside, getting to grips with symbolism is something that any author would be well served to do.
Poetry is often laden with symbolism, but with prose fiction, a lighter touch tends to work best – if only for matters of clarity. Overwhelming the reader with an endless stream of metaphors can lead to dense and uninviting passages that feel less intended to deliver a story and more to satisfy the writer’s own sense of cleverness.
Done properly, symbolism enriches a story, layering it with added meaning. That’s why, in this article, we’ll look at how you can get started with using it to treat your readers to some extra food for thought.
There are many famous examples of symbolism in literature. Books chosen by schools for study are often resplendent with deeper symbolic meanings. Some well-known examples include:
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding – the island setting here is a micro world, where almost everything stands as a symbolic representation of something else. The conch shell, for example, represents civil power and democratic order. Piggy’s glasses, used to light the fire, represent scientific advancement and rationality. Check back through your high school literature notes and prepare to absorb it all again. There’s loads of symbolism in this book!
- Animal Farm by George Orwell – a powerful, but not especially subtle, allegory of communism’s decay into tyranny. Animal Farm may seem cute on the surface, but it’s far from a nice bedtime story.
The point of symbolism is to use an object, person, or event in a story to represent a larger theme or issue. Topics authors often choose when taking the symbolic route are weighty issues and concepts such as death, war, love, peace and so on.
If you’re thinking of giving a highly symbolic story a try, it helps to begin by determining what your key theme is. Boil down your major plot points and conflict into a few words. What is your story about? Redemption? Vengeance? Social decay? Friendship? Love?
With your primary theme in mind, consider how you would represent this abstract idea with an image. People often think visually, attaching imagery to words that our mind quickly conjures when we hear something spoken – a representative idea that pops into our head. Sometimes we consciously catch them as they appear; most of the time, we do not.
For example, love might be a flower blooming, hate a loaded gun. Spend a little time concentrating on the key words representing your theme, and note down the immediate images it brings to mind.
But sometimes we’re left scratching our heads, no matter how hard we try. How do you represent acceptance or grief with symbols? To solve this problem, try turning to a trusty friend – Google images. Type your abstract theme into a Google search, hit the images option, and see what comes up.
We tried this with ‘acceptance’ to see what Google generated. There are a lot of irrelevant pictures – that’s to be expected – but there are also a lot of pictures of people grasping and shaking hands. There are many more of people flinging their arms open to welcome the world. There’s also a picture of a banana wearing a kiwi fruit, which might make for an interesting topic of study back in those English Literature classes!
In the end, it’s up to you to select the image that works best for the story you want to tell – but if you’re struggling for inspiration, get out there and find it. In the case of acceptance, you might wish to settle on hand-based imagery. Perhaps an object – an heirloom, or a child’s finger painting. When the item is angrily destroyed by a character during the story, the act is representative of there being no hope of acceptance or forgiveness of past transgressions.
Remember that you’re never restricted to just one symbolic setup. As mentioned, Lord of the Flies is an exemplary case for this. In his study of civilized youth degenerating into savagery, Golding picks out each separate major component of a functioning society and assigns them symbolically to different characters and objects. All of these things are intrinsic parts of the greater concept – civilization, and what it is to be ‘civilized’ – and need to be included and understood if the story is to work.
But even when your tale features many symbolic aspects, it remains (generally) best to be covert. Place your imagery carefully and lightly – allow it to be natural within the context of the story, instead of banging it loudly on the table in an attempt to drive your point home, screaming “See? Do you see what I’m doing here?”
When a person reads a book, they tend to pick up more easily on the symbolism that relates to them, and it’s not unusual for two people to see the same story in different ways. We all make our own interpretations and build symbolic links, so don’t be too disappointed if a reader doesn’t spot the symbolism you so carefully placed but instead finds their own meaning.
What do authors think?
There’s an open discussion (particularly among English Literature students) as to whether the symbolism their teachers point out is intentional or not. In 1963, 16-year-old student Bruce McAllister was so tired of his teachers referencing the symbolism of the books they studied, he wrote a letter and sent it to 150 published authors. In the letter, he asked them directly:
“Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing? If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”
The replies he received are enlightening. Some authors said they did add symbolism directly:
Joseph Heller: “Yes, I do intentionally rely on symbolism in my writing, but not to the extent that many people have stated.
Others felt any symbolism in their work was an unconscious effect:
Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”
Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing… The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”
Other writers were emphatic and blunt with their answers:
Jack Kerouac: “No.”
How much these answers are to be trusted is up to the reader – try reading any of Kerouac’s books and NOT seeing any symbolism.
However, some may argue that this is the very point – once your novel is published, it’s up to readers to determine what means most to them, and any symbolic values they can personally detect. The best thing to do is ensure you tell the finest story you can, and let the critics and professors determine the symbolism. Novelist Norman Mailer said it best:
“Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work.”
Oh, and just in case you were wondering – that disgruntled 16-year-old student grew up to become an author and Professor of English at the University of Redlands, California.
What do you think about symbolism? Do you actively try to work it into your stories, or just go with the flow and catch it afterward? What are some of the most striking uses of it that you’ve come across as a reader? Share it all in the comments below.