Thursday, April 23, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

Question suggested by Barbara H:

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.


Brooke from The Bluestocking Guide said...

I think each reader brings symbolism to the text. I don't know that I neccessarily believe symbolismnis in evey book though.


jlshall said...

Exactly! I suppose there are writers out there who don't pay attention to their craft, and "just write." But they aren't the writers I care to read.

Anonymous said...

I always read into the underlying meaning. It's hard to believe that a book could go on for hundred of pages without even one symbolism.

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.

Anonymous said...

I totally agree. Great post. Happy BTT.

Marie Cloutier said...

Matt, I think I'm taking the term "symbolism" less literally than some. I think a lot of times when people say "symbolism" in books they really mean metaphor and the various indicators of theme and structure. Sometimes these take the form of literal symbols with direct meaning, and sometimes authors are a little more subtle.

Karen Harrington said...

I think you are that rare breed of reader who brings a lot of her experiences to the page, enhancing the story. On behalf of all humble writers, I thank you. :)

Marie Cloutier said...

Karen, aren't you sweet :-) thank you! :-) you totally made my day!