In January, Briana wrote a post on symbolism inspired by a McSweeny’s article by Samantha Shanker titled “Useful Things to Say in English Class.” If you read the article, it’s a comedic take on the way high school classes are taught in the United States. Even if a student did not read the book, even if they did not understand the book, even if they really were not paying attention and have no clue what is happening, they can basically go back to a few catch phrases and make it seem like they’re offering a deep thought. How do they do that? Symbolism of course! The water is baptism, the wine is blood, etc., etc.
I did attend a high school where English was taught this way, so I personally found Shanker’s piece all too real. Too often high school teachers, overburdened with large class sizes and not enough time, fall back on multiple choice tests or short answer tests because asking students to write, to engage with the text and make connections and arguments, would mean they would then have to read all those essays and actually evaluate each piece one by one. Is the argument original? Is the evidence convincing? Does this interpretation of the text work even if it’s not the interpretation the instructor favors? That’s a lot of work. It is much, much easier to spend class time pointing out symbols so students can regurgitate them later on a test. That way, there’s only one right answer.
To my surprise, however, a few commenters answered Briana’s post by implying that Briana was arguing that there’s nothing below the surface of a text. We can read for content and comprehension, be able to summarize the text, and call it a day. But Briana’s post is exactly arguing exactly the opposite. She says she’s not interested in symbols because the symbols, as defined by Shanker’s article, are not good literary analysis. Why? Because they’re obvious! Dickens himself comes out and says the wine in A Tale of Two Cities represents blood: “and one tall joker so besmirched [with wine], his head more out of a long squalid bag of a night-cap than in it, scrawled upon a wall with his finger dipped in muddy wine-lees–BLOOD. The time was to come when that wine too would be spilled on the street stones, and when the stain of it would be red upon many there” (25-6). You don’t need any training in literary studies to figure that one out. You just need to be able to read English.
To counter Briana’s post, several commenters offered some literary analysis to demonstrate that reading below the surface of a text can be rewarding. But that’s not symbolism, and definitely not the type of symbolism the American high school system teaches students to recognize. That’s a close reading, an interpretation based in textual evidence. Of course Briana supports that! The number one rule professionals in literary studies recognize is that texts are not obvious and that you have to dig into them to find hidden meanings. And that’s the difference between professional work and the type of work high school students are mislead into believing professionals do. Professionals need to read a text several times, carefully look at the phrasing and the details, and then connect their observations back to an argument about the wider project of the text. Professionals never sit around and play “spot the symbol.”
Briana and I certainly appreciate the lively dialogue surrounding symbolism that the post generated. It didn’t seem like the kind of post that would be controversial! However, I think it’s beneficial for us here to distinguish between the symbolism referenced by Briana (as defined by Shanker’s article–we have to keep in mind that her post is a response to a larger conversation and not a personal “misunderstanding” of what symbolism is) and the literary analysis others are promoting and that Briana obviously supports. If you enter a graduate seminar and start talking about symbols, you will certainly be laughed at. If you offer a close reading with analysis, you will have demonstrated that you understand the values of the literary community.
Dickens, Charles. A Tale of Two Cities. Bantam Books, 1981.