On Symbolism, Part 2: What is a Symbol?

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.

 

One of the biggest downsides to how symbolism is taught in English class is that it gives students the wrong idea of what symbolism is. By graduation, students are split into two camps: one camp where all symbolism is a myth made up by academics and another camp where the blue-curtain brand of symbolism is sacred.

Symbolism is a real thing, but its name has been so warped by public English classrooms that I’m more tempted to call it something like “associative meaning,” “connotation,” or “object emotion.” But the most basic definition of a symbol is something that has meaning beyond what it is in a literal sense. The key here is that the meaning has to be understood in order to be an effective symbol, even if that understanding is subconscious.

In other words: people don’t need to be taught how to find symbolism. If it’s an effective symbol, then the intended audience should register on some level that the symbol is important. If rolling a die to randomly change the color of the curtains has no effect on the audience, then it isn’t a symbol. Symbolism analysis, then, should focus on articulating the feelings that one already experiences when coming across a symbol, not digging to find made-up symbols.

For a long time, I was in the “symbolism doesn’t exist” camp because English class gave me the wrong definition of symbolism. I thought to myself, “What’s the point of hiding the true message of your work?” Hiding your theme or lesson in an Easter Egg hunt would only ensure that a large portion of readers will not get the message. And that, to me, was simply the mark of a bad writer.

But in my fourth semester of college, I realized that conveying the true message of your story is not the point of symbolism. What five years of daily English lessons failed to tell me was elucidated in a forty-five minute lecture by my architecture professor: symbols are largely unconscious and subliminal, which is why they’re normally horrible at conveying intellectual messages. What they’re great at, however, is conveying feelings and emotions.

The fine arts (painting, architecture, sculpture, etc.) are all about the subliminal because, well, they doesn’t use words. They’re purely visual. Writing, on the other hand, uses words and is primarily interested in telling a story, but symbols can be there to back it up.

The first time I really noticed this was in The Lion King when I rewatched it a year or two ago. The most moving scenes didn’t have any plot or dialogue or even characters, they just had some great music and visuals: the scene after Simba’s presentation ceremony when it rains in the Pride Lands; the rain after Scar is defeated; Simba racing across the desert that had nearly claimed his life as a cub; the lions standing above all the other animals atop Pride Rock. None of these things add to the plot or character development, but they feel important. The movie would be worse without them because, on some level, that rain means something besides just rain. The Pride Lands turning into a desert during Scar’s rule means something to us apart from bad luck/desertification/climate change beyond Scar’s control. And while these meanings can and will differ from person to person, these symbols are effective because a good portion of the intended audience innately understands them and doesn’t need to put in significant thought to understand them. I’ll go into whether or not this subconscious symbolism is intentional in the next post, but for now I’m simply describing what real symbolism is.

Real symbolism is like humor: if you have to explain the joke, it isn’t funny. Likewise, if the presence of a symbol needs to be pointed out to you, it’s probably not a symbol. What English class could do is ask the class what scenes in a book really gave them the feels. What action or possession seemed to tell you about someone’s character, without anything being explicitly stated? And why? Why does a student sitting at the front of the class indicate that the student is a teacher’s pet? Why does a king who lives in a humble hut automatically seem more virtuous than a king living in Versailles? Why does Bolt dropping his toy carrot onto the ground make people cry like a little baby? Why is the Gryffindor common-room “cozy” while the Slytherin common-room is “regal”? Why did Claire and Jaime’s relationship seem so strained before, and then suddenly become my OTP after that particular sex act?

Real symbolism is like spoken grammar: something you already knew subliminally but couldn’t put into words. You know that “the ran” is an incorrect phrase, and you don’t need English class to tell you that. But English class teaches you that it’s incorrect because the is an article and ran is a verb, and articles do not come before verbs. Likewise, a symbol should be something that you feel ahead of time but may have trouble putting into words, not something that you never registered, even emotionally. You shouldn’t need to be taught to find them. English class should analyze the subliminal associations that students already pick up on, even if it isn’t in literature.

Examples of Real Symbols to Analyze:

There was one boy who joined our class from another state and said that he’d been expecting Texas to be a one-horse, Old West dirt town. Apart from old westerns, the reason people in other states make this association between Texas and dirt towns is because it seems incongruous that a state with backwards laws would have metropolitan areas and a booming educational system: backwards laws are associated with a backwards living style.

I recall thinking that it was fitting that Nepal’s flag was mathematically exceptional: it seemed right because I already associated Nepal with scientific intelligence.

I had a lot of fun in architecture class when I realized that sharp, pointy spires almost always belonged to villains in movies and books. Toothless, a good dragon, is smooth, while Maleficent, a bad dragon, has jagged edges. I had a lot of fun trying to think of exceptions to this rule and thinking about why we might inherently say “smooth = good” and “sharp = bad.”

Why does it just seem right that Harry Potter characters have their names? Wouldn’t it be weird if the feeble house elf was instead named Bellatrix LeStrange, or if the genocidal, aristocratic woman serving Voldemort was named Dobby? And wouldn’t it be weird if cunning Slytherins had a lion as their mascot instead of a snake? Lions are brave because they’re apex predators! Snakes hide in the bushes because they have things to fear!

This post is meant for the anti-symbolists out there, because they’re reading this and thinking to themselves, “What? Those aren’t symbols! Those are just meanings we culturally associate with things! Those are just actions that we understand have more importance than their inherent value!” But that’s what a symbol is! It just isn’t what you were told was a symbol. It sounds so weird to say, “Bolt dropping his toy carrot symbolizes that he’s given up on Penny just as he became what she wanted him to be” and yet so natural to say, “Bolt dropping his toy carrot means that he’s given up on Penny just as he became what she wanted him to be.” In fact, those two sentences say the exact same thing. The only difference is that one sounds pretentious and fake while the other sounds so obvious it’s laughable.

All of these examples hold meaning that we innately pick up on, which is why they’re effective symbols. Why analyze them in class if everyone can already feel them? Because analyzing them makes us question why they seem to fit and why they feel right. Analyzing something somebody already feels can give you insights into how they think, how their culture works, what is normal, what is abnormal. Symbols are real associations that are caused by real phenomena and have real effects on the audience’s perception of a work and the world itself.

But blue-curtain symbolism focuses instead on objects and actions that most people glance over, like blue-colored curtains. Or even worse, some blue-curtain symbolists will go down a check-list and say “X always means Y” (e.g. “guns always mean power/phallus” or “blue always means sad”). No one gains insight into their own subconscious mind through this, and no one believes that authors are compelled to change colors based on their own.

Undetectable Intended Symbols:

But if a symbol is supposed to be automatically felt by an audience, then what if an artist puts in a symbol that the audience doesn’t pick up on? Well, to me, that is the sign of a bad artist.

If you are creating just for yourself and you aren’t trying to convey a message, then it’s fine if your message doesn’t get across. But if your goal is to connect with your readers or purposefully show them something, you can’t blame them if they don’t get it. It is your own fault for failing to get the point across. If the audience feels nothing, then the symbolism might as well not even exist at all. You could leave it out of the story and it would make no difference. It’s there, but it is useless. The only exception to this that I can see is if the reader is not part of the intended audience (for instance, modern middle-schoolers looking into works written centuries ago like Shakespeare will miss symbols that moved 16th century commoners).

Blue-curtain symbolism, however, would say that symbols that change nothing perceptible about a story are still important. While I’ll go into this question later, I will say this for now: just because some intended symbols don’t have the desired effect does not mean that everything without an effect is a symbol.

Why Hide Intended Symbols?

And let me ask you, what’s wrong with an author saying, “He held the gun, and thus he held the power,” if she really means to convey a symbol? Or “her intimidating opulence,” or “the orderly streets felt like a physical embodiment of their wealth and uniformity”? What’s wrong with saying that? Shakespeare did that kind of thing, where the narrator or characters mused about particular metaphors or imagery. That’s one of the only things that I enjoyed about his works. If you, as an author, think of a metaphor or symbol that just makes you want to squeal with delight, and it is no longer just subconscious meaning, then why not share it with your readers? Why hide it? There’s no need to say “it was a symbol for power.” Just say it as a poet would. Say it as a politician would in a speech. Say it like you’re actually good at writing! There are only three justifiable scenarios for an artist to intentionally hide symbols:

  1. To avoid censorship and have plausible deniability
  2. When using a visual medium (architecture, movies, etc.)
  3. To feel smarter and be pretentious

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