On Symbolism, Part I: What I Learned in English Class

This five-part series argues against both blue-curtain symbolists and anti-symbolists. If you are a blue-curtain symbolist or don’t believe in symbols at all, I ask you kindly to read to the end of all five parts before dismissing my argument.

This argument draws primarily on symbolism in writing, but also uses examples from movies, architecture, painting, and even linguistics. Thus, the terms “author,” “artist,” and “creator” are used interchangeably.

Summary of key points:

Most symbolism analyses taught in schools are imaginary and on par with conspiracy theories. 

Real symbolism exists, but it takes a back seat to blue-curtain symbolism. If the author’s symbolism is invisible, then that is bad writing.

Much symbolism is accidental on the author’s part or serves a different purpose.

English teachers don’t make use of what they find.

Blue-curtain symbolism analyses are not harmless: it distracts from and sullies the name of real symbolism, undermines great works, taints potential authors, and is just simply an opportunity cost.

 

In early middle school, we began annotating our books for metaphors, imagery, similes, and character development. Once we’d reached the 8th grade, it was time to stop identifying the elements of a story and start identifying symbolism. We began by picking apart The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. Did you know that Santiago was a Christ figure? Or that the fish was also a Christ figure? No, you never noticed that? There’s a reason for that: that religious symbolism likely isn’t really there. At best, most of the symbols we analyzed for the next five years were analogous to conspiracy theories. At worst, they were completely imaginary.

I remember complaining to my parents about how much I hated the The Old Man and the Sea, and they were shocked. They’d loved it! They asked me what I didn’t like about it, and I told them simply, “The religious symbolism. It’s too pedantic.”

They looked at me with utter confusion. “I don’t remember any religious symbolism. That doesn’t sound like Hemingway.”

This narrative kept repeating itself over the next five years. My absolute favorite example is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Even our history classroom taught that The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was written as an allegory for the political events of the Gilded Age. Yet this Ted ED video illustrates how this interpretation came to be, and how it was not originally intended by the author. And, of course, there are several different,  interpretations of the same book, none supported by the author.

Symbolism, according to my English teachers, can be found in Tarzan: Lord of the Apes, Mark Twain novels, YA novels such as the Divergent series, and pretty much any book worthy of being taught in schools. It doesn’t matter whether the author himself ever wrote anything political or even so much as mentioned symbolism: it must be there. After all, it was literature. How could something be so good and not have Easter Eggs in it hiding its true meaning? How could it not have been written by a manipulative genius of an author who purposefully slipped messages into your subconscious mind?

For example, this video analysis of Spirited Away searches for great meaning in something that is popular and has appealed to many people. One particular line from the video stands out to me:

"Like any great film, Spirited Away has a number of possible interpretations."

No, not all great films have a number of interpretations. Firstly, not all great films have an intended message or theme. Secondly, plenty of great films have an intended message or theme that is explicit enough for the audience to understand. The narrator of the video is supposing that, for something to be great, it must have ulterior messages that the plebs can’t understand just by watching the film. This is where I believe much of the false symbolism in the world comes from: people want to believe that there is an objective intellectual reason that a work appeals to them.

Now, you’ve likely noticed that this entire post has not had many clear arguments about why I don’t believe in this breed of symbolism. This first installment only intends to give examples of the sort of thing I learned in English class — to clear up exactly what sort of symbolism I’m talking about when I call something “blue-curtain symbolism.”

In fact, I have an example that hits the “why are the curtains blue” nail right on the head: A Tale of Two Cities. Like most Dickens novels, it is filled to the brim with social and political commentary. When our class was discussing the novel — the social climate at the time of its writing; how the French nobility could have potentially avoided their situation; and overall questions about the nature of human power, rights, and propensity for violence or revolution — our English teacher interrupted us and said, “You’re all getting off topic. Let’s focus on the symbolism. Dickens said that the flies in the courtroom were blue. Odd color for a fly, right?”

Evidently, Dickens put the color blue everywhere that goodness and peace abounded (such as the oh-so-peaceful murder trial), and the color red everywhere that violence and unrest predominated.

There is real symbolism out there, which is what Part 2 is about. But this post is about blue-curtain symbolism. The main feature of the blue-curtain brand that we were taught in middle and high school is that it emphasizes the idea that everything has a purpose. And technically speaking, that’s correct. There is a reason for everything. There have been a series of small, undetectable influences in my life that led me to like green tea; there are subconscious psychological reasons why an author might feel compelled to describe a character’s hair color instead of the shape of their jaw line; there’s a reason why my mother’s curtains are blue, or why her favorite color is blue in the first place. And yes, there is some reason out there why Dickens made the flies blue. Is blue his favorite color? Did he see a blue fly while writing this? Did he spin a color-wheel to pick a random color when his editor asked him to describe the flies more (I know that seems ridiculous, but you can’t tell me that Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde wouldn’t have been tempted.) Does he subconsciously associate murder trials with the color blue, while revolution gets red?

Technically speaking, there is a reason for everything, because everything in the world was caused by something in the past. But does that make it worth analyzing? Does that even make it a symbol?

Well, let’s take a look.


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