Thursday, April 23, 2009

Booking Through Thursday--Symbolic? Or Not?


Today's Booking Through Thursday question was 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?

I love the question that Barbara's husband brings up--whether or not authors meant all that symbolism the English teachers made us hunt down and analyze when we learned about literature. I remember my high school English teacher making me look for water images in A Passage to India, and thinking at the time that Forster couldn't possibly have purposely written in every symbol. Now, knowing more about the writing process, I think some writers put symbols in their work subconsciously, and others work very hard to put in symbolism.

But that said, I actually enjoy close reading, and analyzing symbolism, and whether or not it's intentional doesn't necessarily make it less meaningful.

I think much of modern fiction has plenty of symbolism. I just finished Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin, which has lots of overt symbolism in the sections of the book that relate the science fiction story that is being told by one character to his lover, where he's obviously inserting symbolism about their relationship into the story. It's a great book if you're looking for symbolism, but it's also a great story if you just want to read it and don't want to work that hard!

I guess I don't look for symbolism per se when I'm reading, but I do look for layers of meaning, and I do appreciate aspects of stories that invite analysis. In my book group last night, for example, we discussed Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog. We talked a little bit about how one of the characters, the elegant and sympathetic Japanese man Kakuro Ozu, who moves into the apartment building where the other two main characters live, is not so much a real person, but a means for the two main characters to get together. He's a catalyst, almost a plot device, rather than a real person--he is the mechanism that allows the other two characters to see each other. It was a great discussion! Plus, there was wine!

9 comments:

Library Diva said...

I enjoyed your post. I wrote about symbolic characters in mine as well. It's up here: http://yourlibrarycard.blogspot.com/2009/04/symbolically-speaking.html.

Great title for a blog, btw! Happy BTT!

mattviews said...

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.

Gentle Reader said...

Library Diva--visited your blog, and enjoyed your post immensely! Thanks for stopping by :)

Matt--I agree that Toni Morrison is a great example of one of the best creators of symbolism in her writing. I just finished A Mercy, which, though short, is full of wonderful symbolism. And I had never thought about it before, but completely agree that sometimes it's hard to read into symbols in a book when you don't relate from your own experience. Great point!

J.S. Peyton said...

I think the best stories are those that are chock full of symbolism if you want to look for it, but still a great story if you don't want to. That kind of effect is harder to achieve than most people appreciate, I think.

Great post!

Gentle Reader said...

J.S.--I agree completely! I think it's great to have the symbolism there if you're willing to look for it, but either way it doesn't detract from a good story if you're not in it for the analysis. I just went and checked out your post on the subject--which was great!

litlove said...

What a lovely response to the question! Marguerite Duras, who was one half of my PhD was very keen on symbols, and Colette, who was the other half, didn't bother with them so much. Both are fabulous writers, both wrote many, many books all very rich in meaning. It's like some writers use lots of metaphors and others don't; just a question of style. Like you, I love close reading but I guess it's something you grow into and less interesting when you are at school than at other times!

litlove said...

And I wanted to add - that sounds like a marvellous book club discussion! I do hope I'm present for something like that one of these days!

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--it's interesting, isn't it, how some people get turned off to close reading because teachers insist that they look for such particular things. My son is going through that now. His English teacher is making them annotate everything they read, but he's used to sailing through books, so he's a bit turned off to reading at this point. Which panics me, of course! But I hope that he'll appreciate what he learns to see in the books...

And yes, we had a great discussion at book group. I hope you find a group you like, as it can be such a great thing. But it's iffy--so many groups fizzle for lack of good chemistry! So my hope is you find some great folks with chemistry :)

verbivore said...

I'm big on looking for symbolism in the books I read, and I agree with you that most symbolism is probably be a mixture of author intention and unconsciously added - which is what makes close reading such an interesting way to approach a text.