Why I’m Not Interested in Symbols in Literature

Discussion Post

In December, Samantha Shanker wrote a brief piece for McSweeny’s titled “Useful Things to Say in English Class.” One of the most common comments in the list is “X object is a symbol of Y.” For example, “The wine is blood” or “The water is baptism.” If you’ve spent a lot of time in literature classes, either teaching them or taking them, you know it’s funny because it’s true.  In high school (at least in American education), we teach students that interpreting literature is about minutia, that you look for symbols and metaphors and other items that can be summarized in a single line of the text.  So the “answer” to any literary analysis becomes “X is a symbol!”  But as someone nearly completing my master’s degree in English literature, I don’t care a bit about symbols in books.

Most of the time, a symbol encapsulates something the reader already knows about the book in a convenient image; the symbol itself adds practically nothing to the conversation or to the reader’s interpretation of the text.  If if tell you that mockingbirds in To Kill a Mockingbird are a symbol of innocence, I am telling you nothing new; it’s already clear that the book is about innocent people unfairly judged or killed. If I say that the green light in The Great Gatsby is a symbol of Gatsby’s hopes, I am not telling you anything that changes the meaning of the book. It’s clear from the rest of the text that Gatsby has dreams.

Symbols are interesting to observe in passing, but you can’t get much more out of them than a single sentence.  You wouldn’t, for instance, write a seven page paper about the green light in The Great Gatsby.  You could, however, write about the general theme that the symbol is symbolizing (say, something about the American dream) and mention the green light briefly to support your point.  Symbols are like Easter eggs: fun to spot, but not the point of the text by far.

I haven’t heard a single person talk about symbols in books since I left high school.  They may come up in lower-division college English classes (hence, the McSweeny’s article), but I don’t hear a lot of English majors talking about them, or grad students, or professors.  Published scholarly articles don’t make a big deal out of symbols either, unless as a minor detail to support a much larger argument.  I think it’s worth teaching students about symbolism in high school, but to give students the impression that symbols are the key component of literary interpretation is misleading.  I’ll smile and nod if someone points one out, but I think symbols are more artistic than anything else. They capture a key part of the book’s theme or message in a compelling image, but the reader should be able to comprehend that same theme or message even if they never even notice the symbol.

What do you think? Do you look for symbolism in books?

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22 thoughts on “Why I’m Not Interested in Symbols in Literature

  1. The Reading Bug says:

    Interesting post – but I think you overstate your case a bit. Symbols can be more potent that you claim – they can be the key to unlocking a different level of understanding within a text.

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    • Krysta says:

      I have to agree with Briana in that she seems to be considering the case from the perspective of a professional in literary studies. That is, instructors teach symbols in high school because they’re a fairly easy way to encourage readers to look closely at the text and to consider how specific words and imagery contribute to a deeper meaning working in that text.

      However, once an individual leaves high school, using the word “symbol” is almost a sure way to welcome contempt because literary professionals don’t work with them. If you read any published scholarship, “symbol” isn’t in the vocabulary. Literary professionals certainly do close reading and look for patterns within the text (such as, “Hmm, there seem to be a lot of words referencing urban and country spaces here”) but they don’t say something like “Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities with spilled wine to symbolize the future blood that will be spilled in the French Revolution” because that’s considered obvious and once students are out of high school the expectation is that they will pick up on heavy-handed imagery like that.

      So, I read the the post as “Symbols are effective learning tools for novices, but they are like training wheels that students entering the profession are expected to lose.”

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    • Briana says:

      I was just thinking more or less along the lines that the symbol has to symbolize something you would be able to know about the text even if you never noticed the symbol. So the symbol can be “bonus,” but it’s ultimately unnecessary beyond nicely encapsulating an already-present idea in a memorable image. Like Krysta mentions in some of her comments, you don’t really “need” to notice spilled wine in a book about the French Revolution to understand that the story is going to be bloody.

      And you always have to back up an argument that “X is a symbol for Y” with other evidence from the text anyway. If the symbol is the only thing that’s pointing to a theme, I find it unconvincing. I can read probably any book and find scene where a woman is holding a cup and say, “The fact that the woman is holding a cup is a symbol of the fact that she is objectified and seen only as a vessel for man’s seed.” But unless I can point to other areas in the text where that woman, or at least other women, are objectified, it’s hard to convince anyone else that the cup is really a symbol and that the text is really saying that about the role of women.

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  2. Literary Weaponry says:

    English major here as well. I always despised the “looking for symbolism” conversations. It just felt ridiculous. To me they always just felt like more of a callback to remind you of something that happened than a separate topic to merit conversation. Just like, “What was the author thinking when they wrote this?” I don’t bloody know. I’m not the author. Maybe he was thinking about puppies. Maybe he was thinking about his mother dying. How should I know?
    http://literaryweaponry.com

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    • Krysta says:

      I always thought it was silly in high school, but looking back I suppose it’s sort of like the five-paragraph essay–training wheels for students who aren’t sure how to start close reading a text. I’m afraid it’s probably also an easy way for teachers to grade. You can easily give out a multiple-choice test on “What does the spilled wine symbolize?” and grade it quickly. You can’t give out an essay or short answer assignment asking for a close reading of the text and grade it quickly. You’d have to engage more and consider the student’s argument and strength of evidence without being able to yell “Correct!” or “Incorrect!” with a glance.

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    • Briana says:

      Same. Symbols frequently seem heavy-handed in the sense that they’re often recurring or representing an already-present theme, so it often does seem to come with the unspoken implication that the author put it there. If it’s NOT that heavy-handed, it becomes harder to argue that it’s a symbol because you always need to point to other areas of the text as “evidence” that it’s a symbol.

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  3. Rachael Corbin says:

    I’ve never been a huge fan of symbols. Moreover, my english teachers’ propensity to drone on and on about them made each classic a more tedious read. We literally spent an entire class period evaluating the first page of To Kill a Mockingbird. The first page! Don’t even get me started on Scarlet Letter. I think they’re a nice thing to have in the background, but I think it’s pointless to meditate on them ad nauseam.

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    • Briana says:

      Yeah, I don’t know about other people’s high school English experiences, but it doesn’t really surprise me that people often find it boring. A lot of high school teachers seem to take the approach that analyzing literature is like an Easter egg hunt where you have to find the symbol, metaphor, allusion, etc. and then you win. Except just noticing that it’s there isn’t really the point, in my opinion, but many teachers make it seem as if it is.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The Reading Bug says:

    It looks to me as if you are at risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, just because of some crude teaching at school. Of course the X = Y approach isn’t useful, but are you really saying that authors don’t use symbols? Or that they do, but we should just ignore them because they aren’t that interesting? What about symbolism in poetry?

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    • Krysta says:

      Briana isn’t denying the existence of symbols. Charles Dickens comes out and says that the wine represents blood in the opening pages of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s obviously there and it’s obviously intentional. But that’s also why professionals in literary studies don’t sit around talking about symbols (and why the article referencing a student saying it like it’s an intelligent comment is funny). They tend to be obvious. Literary professionals prefer to work with things below the surface and to draw out the complexities of texts rather than point out things any general reader could catch on a first reading.

      So, yes, symbols exist and authors use them. But once you’re out of high school most people never refer to them again. Asking someone to point out the symbols in a grad school seminar would be like asking them if they could summarize Hamlet to check their reading comprehension or quizzing them on who said which piece of dialogue. It’s simply assumed that you’re at a level of understanding where you can comprehend texts and notice symbols.

      And Briana also notes that once you say, “The wine represents blood,” you’re pretty much done. There’s nothing else to discuss. You could use that as a piece of evidence in an article if you wanted, but it’s definitely not the point of reading literature, even though high school English courses often act as if any student who can catch “The blue symbolizes peace,” has mastered the art of literary discourse.

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      • Dennis says:

        I agree with the reading bug in that you are giving short shrift to symbols. The X=Y sort of symbolism is really nothing more than allegory. Two images come to my mind for symbols, both from Joyce.
        The first is the opening lines from Portrait. The initial lines talk about meeting a cow. Mixed with the character’s name of Daedalus we get the archetypal figure of a creator or an artist. The diction of a child suggests that these are the thoughts of the child himself, but the symbol resides only with the reader since the child is not capable of understanding the connection.
        The second is at the end of the Proteus chapter in Ulysses. We, the readers, have been subjected to a long (possibly boring) rumination of death, Ireland, poetry, etc. At the very end of the chapter Stephen Daedalus sees a threemasted ship sailing into the harbor. It is a point at which we are frozen by that image by virtue of the page ending and it is incongruous because we (the readers and Stephen) had been expecting someone coming up from behind. It freezes the world in just the manner that Portrait gave as a rational for beauty, so we have some context for it to be beautiful. It also has some symbolic meaning in that its 3 masts mimics the 3 crosses on Calvary.
        Now, it is not the case that the ship is a symbol for the Passion. Rather, the ship provides context for us, allowing us to revisit his appreciation of Roman Catholic rite as a source of beauty and a guide for us to understand how such could be transferred to the mundane.
        The purpose of symbolism is to extend metaphor and allow a greater depth of understanding.

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        • Krysta says:

          I read Briana’s argument as not finding symbols interesting because of the way they are taught, seeing as she’s responding to the McSweeney’s article, which specifically mocks high school English classes. The core of literary studies is that you can’t just read a text for its surface meaning, you have to dig into it to find the other “hidden” meanings, so there’s no debate here about whether analysis can be done, no argument that we should read only for comprehension and then call it a day. Unfortunately, the types of analysis you’re doing here aren’t really the types encouraged in American high schools, which are big on “What does the spilled wine in A Tale of Two Cities mean? It’s blood!! Blood will be spilled!” Because Dickens actually comes out and says it’s blood there’s only one “right” answer and teachers don’t have to bother evaluating the literary analyses of all their students. They can just put a multiple choice question asking “What does the spilled wine symbolize?”

          You, on the other hand, just wrote a lengthy and eloquent argument for hidden meaning you see in a text. Imagine a teacher having to read a bunch of those. Nope! Bring out the Scantron! They want to work with symbols, not textual analysis.

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    • Briana says:

      I am saying I personally am not interested in them. It’s just a personal opinion discussion post. I am not denying symbols exist or saying that other people should not be interested in them.

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  5. Paula Vince says:

    I like this post, and the conversations in the comments. I used to look for them during my English Uni days, because that was what we had to do 🙂 But they’re never a big feature for anyone other than English staff and students. When we discuss books with friends on social occasions, I doubt that symbolism ever really comes into the conversation at all. I’ve also come across the occasional author who has expressed surprise that others have found symbolism in his work, since he didn’t intentionally add any. I like your analogy of an Easter egg hunt though. They did used to be fun to find in a way, also a bit like the Pokemon Go game. “Got one! That’ll get me good marks, I hope.”

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    • Krysta says:

      That’s interesting. If anyone had said “symbol” or the dreaded “theme” in my English courses, the professor would have definitely said something about how we don’t do that. I’ve always assumed high schools are so big on symbols because it’s easy to grade a multiple-choice test on “what does the symbol mean” but much more time-consuming to grade an essay.

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  6. looloolooweez says:

    “Symbols are like Easter eggs: fun to spot, but not the point of the text by far.” Love this — great way to make your point. I am not exactly a Literature Professional so I don’t feel qualified to argue one way or the other on this, but thinking of “symbols” as Easter eggs is such an interesting idea.

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    • Krysta says:

      I think it can be fun to go, “Oh yes, the flower alludes to her blossoming as a woman” or something. But…it’s definitely not something I’d ever sit down and discuss. Maybe I’d throw it out there as an aside if I were talking about something related.

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  7. overstuffedbook says:

    I’m not interested in symbols, either. I agree that they really don’t have any function other than just being there. I think using symbols as a writer can give the story more depth, more detail, but other than that, it’s just there to stand for something we already understand from the rest of the text. They underscore the writing, they don’t add a new layer or theme.

    I hated talking about symbols in school. And now, as a reviewer for 5 years, I don’t think about them at all. I’d much rather talk about the way the book reflects our own society, or expands upon it, rather than wasting time trying to figure out what the symbols mean.

    Great discussion!

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  8. Cara Sue Achterberg says:

    I haven’t thought about ‘symbols’ in literature since collage English Lit 101. But a year or so ago, I was a guest at a book club meeting for a group that had read my book. This one woman was so excited to tell me how much she enjoyed the symbolism of The Wizard of Oz in my story. I was dumbfounded. She went on to explain, at length all the ways I’d used symbols in my tale that connected with the Wizard of Oz and the theme of going home. I nodded and smiled and let her talk. I learned a lot, but I never once thought about a symbol or the Wizard of Oz while writing that story.
    I hated the analyzing literature for the author’s intended symbols/theme etc., when I was a student. I always thought (about the teacher) – how does he know? did he ask the author? Luckily, this very nice person never asked me why I used the symbols I did. I would have felt terrible if I’d had to ruin her triumph of analysis!

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    • Krysta says:

      I think this is why academia has moved away from authorial intent. We don’t know what the author intended in most cases (especially if they’re, well, dead now) and it is quite possible that readers can find meaning authors did not intend. I vividly remember an author visit when I was in college. The professor made a remark about something she had seen in the text. Rather than engage with it, the author just said, “No, it’s not there. I didn’t mean to put that there.” The professor (who is also a novelist) then suggested that the great thing about books is that they belong to everyone in a sense and readers can find new meanings. The author denied this. Awkward silence ensued.

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    • Briana says:

      I don’t really see it as a question of whether the author intended it, but as a question of whether you can back up your interpretation with reasonable evidence from the text. What the author intended is not interesting to academia in general, to be honest.

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  9. Ravenclaw Book Club says:

    This is such an interesting post! We have mentioned symbolism quite often in my classes so far, but I’ve just started uni, so that might be why. 😛 I personally don’t mind symbols, what I can’t stand is when people try way too hard to be deep and over-analyse a text! Sometimes a text just isn’t that deep haha.

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