I remember high school English days when I had to write papers about certain symbols found in literature. The whale in Moby Dick. Mirrors in Dangerous Liaisons. The list goes on.
Many times, I scratched my head at the questions of my teachers. Like, what? That was symbolic? And other times, I jumped at it internally, knowing that the author/film maker had tried to convey something to me and I wanted to grapple with it.
It seems that a 16-year-old boy also had my questions...back in 1963. Bruce McAllister was a confident Californian, sick of hunting for symbolism in English class, so he sent a survey to 150 famous authors, 75 of which actually responded. Ayn Rand. John Updike. Ray Bradbury, and many more. You can read about his survey and even see pictures of actual responses here.
He asked them 4 questions, and their responses were as varied as I felt about symbolism in fiction. :
1) 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?