Thursday, April 23, 2009

BTT: Where's the symbolism?!

This week:
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?

Ugh, symbolism. I think that my senior year English Lit teacher, Ms. Rose (yes, Ms. not Miss, not Mrs., MS.!) totally ruined the idea of symbolism for me. She would make us over-analyze every book we read and "find the SYM-bolism!" and then if you were "wrong" should would let you know it with a loud, harsh "NO! That's not it AT ALL!" I think I still have nightmares...Usually I could luck out and go with the easy almost always right answer of light=knowledge, understanding and dark=the unknown, confusion.

I do think that most literature tends to be over-analyzed in hopes of finding all the symbolism. I guess that since now I solely read for pleasure (and of course I gain knowledge through it...but that's not my reasoning behind reading something), I don't even think about finding the symbolism in a book. I'm sure that there's lots there (some that the author put in intentionally, and probably some that the lit crits just SAY is there...) but I just don't need to find it to enjoy the story. I do get some "wow, author, I see what you did there!" moments when I'm reading, but I just don't really go into deep thought about it.


  1. personally, i encourage my students to look beyond the literal meaning in the works we read to help improve their critical thinking and analytical skills.

    in works like 'the glass menagerie', 'of mice and men', and 'a raisin in the sun', the symbolism and imagery is strong and easy for them to detect.

    it's not really about reinventing the story but about doing a close reading and recognizing that literature should provoke discussion and interpretation.

    as long as a student can support his or her theory, i think it's valid, whether or not the author intended the meaning the student takes from the work.

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