The weekly Booking Through Thursday question for today is:
Suggested by Barbara:
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?
Wow, I was surprised to see my question pop up today! Unfortunately it’s a day when I don’t have a lot of extra time to deal with it, but I’ll look forward to see what others had to say when I can.
I haven’t read a lot of modern fiction, but it does seem to me that, just as there is more free verse poetry now than the more heavily structured kind, fiction seems more “free verse” as well, employing fewer literary devices than it used to. I mentioned description as well — many older books are filled with minute descriptions of places and people, whereas today, if the description doesn’t advance the plot line or have some telling necessary detail, people get impatient with it. I think many modern readers want their books served like their fast food — something quick and simple that fills the need of the moment. That is not a bad thing in itself: I enjoy fast food as well as home-cooked multi-course dinners just as I enjoy both the quick and simple fiction as well as the old classics. But one is certainly a lot richer than the other.
Interestingly, I did a quick search on “Symbolism in literature” and found articles at polar opposites: “The Silliness of looking for symbolism in literature” by John T. Reed, which, as you can tell by the titles, espouses that there is no, or at least very little purposeful symbolism (I do disagree with his harsh words against English teachers), and “Symbolism in Literature” by Karen Bernado, which seems to be saying in one part that it doesn’t really matter if the author intended symbolism or not; it is all open to interpretation, and if something symbolizes something to you, that’s great. Personally, my views would be somewhere between those two. I do think there are times, especially these days, when an author writes a story just to write a story with no symbolism intended. But I do think a degree of symbolism can greatly enhance what the author is trying to convey. On the other hand, if I were to write a book, I think any symbolism I used would be specific and purposeful: I would not want Bernado’s approach that what I had written was open to interpretation and anyone could see any symbolism they chose.
One good example of symbolism I’ve seen was in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. I said in my review of it:
The symbolism of the tree in the title and in the story is clear: the tree that “liked poor people,” that grew in “sour earth” where it wasn’t given much inducement to grow, that continued to grow even after it was cut down, is parallel to Francie’s life.
Another excellent example is The Chronicles of Narnia. You can enjoy the story without understanding what it symbolizes, but when you realize the symbolism in it, you’re blown away by the depth and beauty in it.
This discussion ties in somewhat with another question I submitted and hope we get to some time, which is whether our experiences with literature in school enhanced our love of it or interfered with it. I have had both types of English teachers. Some were very clinical and academic, losing the excitement of the story in examining its parts, and others used the academic study of literature to enhance the enjoyment and learning from it.