Booking Through Thursday: Symbolic? Or Not?

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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.

8 thoughts on “Booking Through Thursday: Symbolic? Or Not?

  1. You’ve raised my interest in the question of how contemporary writers fit in on the whole symbolism issue. I’ll be paying closer attention to the subject as I read!

    Hope your busy week sails to a smooth conclusion! Thanks for the great question.

  2. Barbara, your post reminded me of my college English Lit and American Lit classes (decades ago) and how much I loved some of the books we read and discussed. It was where I became acquainted with James Herriot, for one, and I still enjoy reading and re-reading his stories. I read other authors, too, and vowed to never read them again after the class, but all in all it was a rich experience that I’m still glad I had.

    A favorite author of my husband’s is Zane Grey, and one of the reasons he loves Grey’s novels is the minute amount of detail written about each story’s setting. My husband, Art, had many of Grey’s works when we met; they had been passed along to him by his father and are still on our bookshelves. Art truly enjoyed how Grey could paint the scenery with words and the reader would end up “seeing” the sunsets and deserts described. Grey would take pages to help the reader visualize the setting. If the reader didn’t savor that experience, it would be very tedious to read.

    Perhaps one reason modern fiction has less detail is that we have so much imagery already planted in our minds due to the impact of television and cinema. A century ago, we may or may not have seen photos of a subject, so the author would “paint” the pictures for us. Now we have a wealth of imagery to draw on, so perhaps today’s authors rely more on simple keywords or descriptions to elicit those images.

    I enjoy reading some modern fiction. Recently, however, I realized that if someone didn’t know the context of a few keywords sprinkled into a text, it would be hard to understand the author’s meaning. A dictionary isn’t sufficient, either, as some words are new, such as current media buzzwords. Sometimes I have to investigate the meaning using an Internet search engine in order to answer my question and create that imagery. Quite a different reading experience!

    Another possibility is that many people prefer to do things at a faster pace, so a quick read is preferred to something that takes more time and effort to digest. It’s quick entertainment, like watching an hour of television. Not that that’s bad, it’s just a different experience than delving into Narnia or other classics.

    I often read aloud to our children when they were young, and we still talk about the symbolism and rich imagery of books we enjoyed together. Those were special days and I look forward to picking up that habit again when our little granddaughter is old enough to read “chapter books” to. 🙂

    Currently, I find myself choosing a book based on what’s going on in my life and how much time I have to read at the moment. If life is particularly full and busy at the moment, I’m apt to choose modern fiction because it is quick. When I take Mama to the doctor’s office or a hair appointment nowadays, I tuck that type of book into my bag and read for a bit while waiting.

    When I know I have some quiet time coming up, I look forward to reading something long and rich. I usually have that book all picked out and waiting in the wings!

    Thank you for giving me a chance to think about this, Barbara! In the meantime, happy reading.

    Caregiver at Home

  3. I guess when I read I just read to read basically. I don’t look for symbolism of any sort. My brain can’t mutitask LOL. You do bring up good food for thought I must say 🙂

  4. How weird! Just three nights ago Amoeba and I had this conversation at the dinner table. We are both of the mind that such writers as Joyce, O’Henry, et al, may not have intentionally mapped out their symbolism, but that it came as an organic part of their writing.

    People used to be much more cognizant or word meaning and usage. The common man’s vocabulary used to be much larger than it is today. Words used to be used in much more practiced and deliberate ways.

    Much is being lost as words loose their richness of meaning.

  5. I think only careful, meticulous readers could read into these symbols. In most cases, readers would understand the story 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. Symbols can also be very subjective entities. Sometimes I cannot read into any symbols in a book just simply because I lack the personal experience that would put me in tune to the author’s meaning.

  6. When you say modern fiction, do you mean anything written recently? Or do you mean fiction where the story takes place in the present day. I read many many books a year, most are written in recent years but not all are modern. I recently read “Sarah’s Key” which was set during the time when Hitler was rounding up the jews.
    I disagree about description. Some of the books I read describe the scene in such a way that I am there in another time and place. They describe in such a way that each sense is awakened to the scene.
    Now, I know there are books which you can read in a few hours which are like fast food. They are good to read after a book such as War & Peace. Or after the Clan of The Cave Bear, when the reader has spent too much time in another era or involved in very technical, scientific surroundings.
    I joined a book club and we read such a variety. Books I wouldn’t normally read. Loving Frank was such a book. It, along with Sarah’s Key sent me for furthur research on subjects I am unfamiliar with. Was this post about symbolism? Guess I got off the subject.

  7. I think that symbolism is alive and well in today’s literature. I agree with Mathew above when he implied that some symbols, identified by readers, just enhance the story. I know they do for me.

    “The writer provides one half and the reader the other.” – Paul Valery

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