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.
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?
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!