On Symbolism, Part 3: Accidental Symbolism

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.


If you find a symbol (either real or blue-curtain), did the artist put it in there on purpose?

This may seem like a small issue, but this is one of the things that angers and estranges students from symbolism the most: public high schools teach the idea that all symbolism is put in intentionally by the author.

Interestingly enough, blue-curtain symbolists appear to be in two different camps on this issue. Most high school teachers and students will argue that great works do not waste ink, and therefore nothing in a timeless work of literature is accidental. There are plenty of accidents in non-great works, because those works are bad and not as well-polished.

But the other camp, which I’ve found more popular among university professors and students, will actually agree with me on this particular post (or even on other posts, since this series is mostly reacting to the high school brand): symbolism might be accidentally put in by an author, and symbolism can exist outside of the ancient texts you’ll find in the literature section of the bookstore.

My last post hinted at this, but here I’ll spell out three different ways where detectable symbolism might be unintended by the creator:

Accidents Happen.

Case #1

The creator might not have put in symbolism, either intentionally or accidentally. My favorite example comes from Georgia O’Keith, specifically her enormous foreground flowers. While many critics saw the flowers as symbols (often for genitals), the painter herself said that she only wanted the flowers to be so big because otherwise no one would look at them. In this situation, the description of something that may seem like a symbol is there for another reason.

Perhaps the artist has a particular favorite color and thus uses it everywhere, or saw a particular species of bird while editing, or simply wanted to capture what it’s like living somewhere in all of its details. There is a reason for using up ink on these things, but ulterior meaning isn’t it.

Case #2

In Case #2, an author might intentionally put in symbols or themes with the intention of meaning one thing, but they get interpreted to be something else. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is my favorite example for this: it has a general lesson that sometimes powerful people aren’t what they seem, and this is an important lesson to teach to kids. But the old children’s book has been interpreted as having to do with religion and feminism  (along with other interpretations). Here, the meanings behind objects, characters, and actions in the story contribute to a very general message but are misconstrued to serve a very specific message not intended by the author. It’s fine if that’s how the work speaks to you, or if that’s how you feel the message applies to your own life, but do not say that it’s what the author intended.

Case #3

If symbolism’s effects are largely subliminal to the reader, then who’s to say that it wasn’t also subliminal to the writer?

I’ve always taken issue with how writing is taught in English class, mainly because it wholly embraces outline writing and acts as if discovery writing doesn’t exist. While that’s a topic for another time, there is a reason I’m mentioning it here: I believe that symbolism, like discovery writing, can be included by authors simply because they have a good sense of connotation and storytelling. This is as opposed to purposefully including the symbol or plot lines.

Let’s return to the Harry Potter names. Even small children can see the disconnect between what a character’s name should be and what its name is. A small child laughs if the monstrous three-headed dog is named “Fluffy” instead of “Maleficent.” Even a small child knows that Pride Rock should be set on fire during the climactic battle and that rain should appear when Simba wins, not the other way around.

Sometimes, an idea pops into your head and it just feels so right. The idea might even make you cry. That’s when you know that it’ll make your readers cry. But it does not mean that you thought to yourself, “Now, doesn’t that make a good symbol!” It is the same way that a street performer in Brazil can still make beautiful music on a guitar without any formal music theory training, or how prehistoric storytellers still managed to create the hero’s journey long before The Hero with a Thousand Faces was published. You do not need to understand symbolism or even believe it exists in order to use it effectively.

Psychoanalyzing My Own Work:

Let’s play a game and find “intentional symbols” in my own works. Let’s say that my dream comes true and I became a world-famous author immortalized in her works. This will convince English teachers that I am a literary genius and, therefore, must somehow be 100% in control of my story. What “symbols” might they find in my works?

For one thing, I always imagine comfortable/soothing places as dimly-lit, warm, wooden, and empty except for cushy, dark-colored pillows on the floor. This is my subliminal impression of comfort, and I extended that to the design of the therapeutic dwelling of a religious leader in one of my pieces. Just off the top of my head, a Freudian psychoanalysis of this place appears to be womb-like. And maybe that is why I associate comfort with these things, in the same way that dogs associate their crates with dens. But that does not mean that I intentionally thought, “Hmm, you know what my readers haven’t though of in a while? A uterus.”

And by sheer coincidence, that therapy building is located just below a memorial to innocents slain in a terrorist attack. Off the top of my head, if I had to write an analysis for English class about this, I would say something like, “The author is contrasting the turmoil experienced by the living and the tranquility of the womb-like underground, which both provide a thin facade of safety from the world only a few inches away.” But this isn’t an intentional symbol: I simply got the urge to have my main characters use a secret knock somewhere, so I needed a place where they couldn’t speak. Well, the last place in my life where I hadn’t been allowed to speak was at the memorial for the 2004 Madrid train bombing. That setting seemed perfect, so I placed the warm, comforting place right beneath a memorial. But someone analyzing my work would say that it’s no coincidence that the religious place is right below the memorial. Even better: the religious leader who lives there is female, which someone could easily use as extra proof of the womb argument. But in fact I made the religious leader female because I felt I had too many male characters in all of the positions of power, and this just happened to be the character that I designed immediately after realizing that. It’s that easy to misconstrue a complete coincidence.

As another example from a different piece, the main character visits a college where all the clubs table outside on an open road. By contrast, all the classes are inside uniform, ugly buildings. You could say that the sunny, beautiful, outdoorsy location of the unique clubs is meant to symbolically contrast with the conformity of the classroom…except I based these locations off of my college. You could theoretically stick with your hypothesis and argue that UT Austin decided to make their classrooms seem intentionally heartless and restrictive and forced its clubs to table in an open space; but the reality is that the building I’m imagining was built in a time when UT needed lots of mass-produced classrooms (aesthetics be damned) and the beautiful road has lots of tabling clubs because it is a well-trafficked area with lots of open space (It’s near the two biggest dorms and two of the biggest eating areas.). Why did I include that particular building for the fictional classrooms and not a more interesting building from my campus? Because it would take the least amount of time to describe and, being the most generic building shape, wouldn’t seem out-of-place in a foreign culture (where the story takes place).

Does It Matter?

All of this talk of symbolism, of course, is inspired by — or at least heavily orbiting around — a book by Thomas Foster called How to Read Literature Like a Professor. We were required to read this book the summer before my senior year, but we had been referencing it and reading select passages from it since the ninth grade. While I wanted to rip the book apart and burn it for the entire first half, I calmed down when I read this:

"Is That a Symbol?
 That’s one of the most common questions in class, followed by the answer I generally give. Is that a symbol? Sure, why not. It’s the next question where things get hairy: what does it mean, what does it stand for? When someone asks about meaning, I usually come back with something clever, like “Well, what do you think?” Everyone thinks I’m either being a wise guy or ducking responsibility, but neither is the case. Seriously, what do you think it stands for, because that’s probably what it does. At least for you.
 Here’s the problem with symbols: people expect them to mean something. Not just any something, but one something in particular. Exactly. Maximum. You know what? It doesn’t work like that. Oh, sure, there are some symbols that work straightforwardly: a white flag means, I give up, don’t shoot. Or it means, We come in peace. See? Even in a fairly clear-cut case we can’t pin down a single meaning, although they’re pretty close. So some symbols do have a relatively limited range of meanings, but in general a symbol can’t be reduced to standing for only one thing. If they can, it’s not symbolism, it’s allegory."

Most English teachers who read this seem to interpret it as: “Everything is a symbol!”

I interpret this to mean: “The author probably did not intend for this to be a symbol, but  make of it what you will.”

And that’s what I’ve heard from university professors and students: that symbolism can be subliminal. But why do I care? Why do you care?

Personally? I care because, as an author, I feel frustrated with myself when my readers don’t understand what I’m saying. After all, it’s my fault if they don’t understand. But hearing people deliberately put false words into my mouth? Hearing English teachers and students alike claim that “Dickens is proposing” or “Hemingway shows us” when they likely aren’t is absolutely infuriating.

Logically? I care because this leads us to the question of subjectivity. There are blue-curtain symbolists who say that every symbol is objective (therefore “my interpretation is the only right one”), and there are blue-curtain symbolists who say that every symbol is subjective (therefore “every interpretation is correct”). Neither of these are 100% true.

If symbols are often accidental and based on emotion, there is often not just one reason that they’re there. And some of the funnest symbols have a few different interpretations (ex. Why is lime green the color swirling around every Disney villain?). But sometimes symbols do have one explicit intent (whether intentional or not). The only reason I personally care about subliminal associations is their insight into our culture, so it’s important to look at the interpretation that the creator originally meant/felt if you’re going to understand where they’re coming from.

Is this a worthy reason to teach symbolism in schools? It can be…

If it’s done right.


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