15 December 2011

Symbols in Literature

It has been common in many school classrooms for teachers to direct children to look through a story and find the symbols, selecting out colors or objects or expressions that are supposed to have greater meaning.  And when it is time for composition, it sometimes occurs that teachers direct children to insert some symbolism into their writing.  They might say, "But what is the meaning of the bowl of fruit on the table?  Fertility?"

This is not a good practice, and badly misunderstands the role and genesis of good symbolism.

Mary McCarthy, a sage of literature and an author in her own right, once found great offense in a student's attempt to cram symbols into an already-completed short story.  The student thought that her message had to be encoded into the thing, along the lines of "green curtains indicate envy."  McCarthy was astonished to realize that this view of symbolism was becoming increasingly common at the time (1954) and wrote an essay for Harper's that remains one of the best set of ideas on the subject.  An excerpt from her "Settling the Colonel's Hash":

In any work that is truly creative, I believe, the writer cannot be omniscient in advance about the effects that he proposes to produce. The suspense in a novel is not only in the reader, but in the novelist himself, who is intensely curious too about what will happen to the hero. Jane Austen may know in a general way that Emma will marry Mr. Knightley in the end (the reader knows this too, as a matter of fact); the suspense for the author lies in the how, in the twists and turns of circumstance, waiting but as yet unknown, that will bring the consummation about. Hence, I would say to the student of writing that outlines, patterns, arrangements of symbols may have a certain usefulness at the outset for some kinds of minds, but in the end they will have to be scrapped. If the story does not contradict the outline, overrun the pattern, break the symbols, like an insurrection against authority, it is surely a still birth. The natural symbolism of reality has more messages to communicate than the dry Morse code of the disengaged mind.
The rest of the essay is very much worth your time.  McCarthy expertly picks apart the faulty approach that sees reading and writing symbolism as a procedure divorced from actual reading and writing, and proceeds to give a brilliant exegesis for a better way of thinking.  Symbolism is recognition and implementation of a pattern in a work that highlights, contradicts, or complements a theme of the text - not a special secret code, like the Victorian Language of Flowers.

McCarthy was not alone in thinking this way.  In 1963, a boy in San Diego, Bruce McAllister, got into an argument with his English teacher over her advocacy of the crude notions excoriated by McCarthy.  After publishing his first short story, he decided to settle the disagreement and began mailing off a questionnaire about symbolism to numerous famous writers, with such questions as "Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?"  Some big names wrote back, including John Updike, Jack Kerouac, Ray Bradbury, and Norman Mailer.  Almost universally, they avowed that they did not willfully insert symbols.  Only Ayn Rand differed, refusing to answer the questions at all and instead replying with a terse admonishment about terminology ("This is not a definition, it is not true - and, therefore, your questions do not make sense.")

Ernest Hemingway famously scorned deliberate symbolism, declaring about The Old Man and the Sea:

No good book has ever been written that has in it symbols arrived at beforehand and stuck in. ... I tried to make a real old man, a real boy, a real sea and a real fish and real sharks. But if I made them good and true enough they would mean many things.
 There are exceptions to these sorts of codes.  In her essay, McCarthy rightly notes the deliberate and obvious symbolism in Ulysses.  But this is an advanced and unusual thing, and no more suited for everyday use than the blank and unpunctuated verse of E.E. Cummings (not that such difficulty ever stopped a grade-school poet from abandoning rhyme at the earliest opportunity).  Hemingway, for example, did sometimes engage in acts of premeditated symbolism, as when Santiago (the titular Old Man) sees the sharks in the water:

"Ay," he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.
But I believe that the reason why all authors, Hemingway especially, decried the practice is not that they did not find it occasionally useful, but that it was part of a runaway trend that they couldn't help but find distasteful and offensive.  They didn't want to encourage a view of literature that reduced it to a game of hide-and-seek or an elaborate code.

That leads me to my conclusion: the literary technique of symbolism is like most other literary techniques.  Anyone can do them, but they are very difficult to do well, and are better achieved through an organic effort to just write the best you can.  Nor should a reader be trying to decrypt a story by identifying the meanings of colors or the bowl of fruit on the protagonist's table: instead, read the text and find the meaning and themes, and only afterwards try to work out the techniques that got you there.  That's symbolism done right.

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