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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Interpreting Symbolism in Fiction

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?

2) Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)

3) Do you feel that the great writers of classics consciously, intentionally planned and placed symbols in their writing? … Do you feel that they placed it there sub-consciously?

4) Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?

I think these are great questions for us all to wrestle with. Symbolism can be overkill, or it can be so subtle that only a few readers even pick up on it. At least, this has been my experience with it. I've had a few books where I felt the symbolism was just perfect...mentioned enough to remind me of its importance, but not harped on.

One such book where symbolism is handled very well is Wildflowers from Winter by my friend Katie Ganshert. The name/concept behind the title of her book alone is symbolic, which helped to get me in the frame of mind to receive what she was saying. She used her setting and character arc of her heroine to really bring home her points.

I searched around for a list of symbols used in fiction (because I thought surely someone else had done all the legwork before now) and I hit jackpot and thought I'd share:

Symbolism in Literature

Let's Analyze

What do you have to say to McAllister's four questions?