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?