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?
As a reader, I relish the experience of glimpsing beneath the surface of a novel and seeing its structure; it's not something English teachers made up, and it's absolutely something that authors continue to do. I also think it's perfectly fine to enjoy the story for the story's sake, and not stress out about it. But if you're inclined to do that little bit of extra work to see what might be going on on another level, it can be very, very rewarding.
As far as examples, authors like Margaret Atwood and Iris Murdoch (and many, many others) create rich layers of meaning and metaphor in their work. Atwood's Alias Grace, for example, uses the story of a woman in prison for a murder she may or may not have committed as just the basis for a study of women, sex and power in early Canada. Her The Robber Bride has Biblical undertones. And on and on. You really don't have to look far to find it, and you don't even need to go highbrow. Most, if not all, good authors craft their work carefully and use metaphor and symbolism to some degree.