On Symbolism, Part 4: Digging Deeper

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.


Unsuccessfully Digging Deeper:

I’ve heard blue-curtain symbolists say that it’s not about whether the symbol is really there, or whether it was intended by the author: it’s all about developing critical thinking skills. And while I think you could go further, I know at least some people who would be content with just the critical thinking aspect. It’s important to teach students to question why we do the things we do and why we like the things we like. Analyzing indirect meaning can show students how to analyze the world through a different lens, how to question their instincts, and overall how to better understand human nature.

But this blog series isn’t entirely about attacking blue-curtain symbolism. No, the unifying theme here is English teachers. The fact of the matter is that English teachers don’t go any further besides inventing identifying symbols.

When reading Othello, a Shakespeare play centered around jealousy and temptation, our teacher loved pointing out that Othello’s handkerchief had a strawberry design. Garden of Eden, anybody?

So from that quick class analysis, we learned that… Shakespeare was Christian? Seriously, we did not go any farther on this topic other than to say that the handkerchief symbolized the Garden of Eden. That’s it. Nothing more. No questioning the human subliminal or why it’s the “forbidden fruit” and not the “forbidden meat.” We identified the alleged symbol (since it’s Shakespeare, I give it 50/50 chance of being intentional), and then we moved on to look for the next.

The same goes for the Christ figure we noted in The Old Man and the Sea back in the 8th grade. For this post, it doesn’t really matter whether or not Ernest Hemingway (who is of course famous for his Christian symbolism /s) included a Christ figure on purpose or if anybody except a bored English major would ever even notice that. What matters is that public English classes teach people how to “find symbols,” but very rarely analyze them to confer anything useful onto their students.

Successfully Digging Deeper:

Both blue-curtain and real symbols can allow for critical thinking, so English teachers aren’t blocked from doing this because they’re identifying false symbols. In fact, one of the chapters of How To Read Literature Like a Professor, the book my English teachers worshiped, talks about sex scenes and how they always mean something besides sex. In my experience, this is almost always true.

Every sex scene that I’ve read in a novel has had some sort of extra meaning, most often for character/plot development. Maybe the book’s sexual tension has just been broken, and through sex the stoic character has shown she’s willing to let herself love again. Maybe the sex has changed from youthful passion to old tenderness after the couple endured something life-threatening, showing that the couple really care about each other and not just genital stimulation. Maybe someone in Game of Thrones is doing the deed because it’s a power-move (I’m looking at you, Theon). The only times when sex is there just for sex’s sake is if it’s meant to be erotic (e.g. Fifty Shades of Grey), if it’s just realistic for it to be there (e.g. Romeo and Juliet), or if it’s meant to be a plot device (e.g. The Alice Network).

The reason I bring up sex in particular is that there isn’t really a lot of reason to have sex in a book otherwise. Movies? It gets the horny people to buy tickets. But in books, I find pure erotic sex is a lot less common.

Sex symbolism is outlined in How To Read Literature Like A Professor, so my English teachers must have counted it as symbolism in class, right? Why, yes, they did. Did they dig any deeper into it? Why, no, they didn’t. Whenever we stumbled across a sex scene, we simply repeated the phrase, “Sex is never just sex” and then moved on.

Above, I mentioned the forbidden fruit. If I hypothetically saw a movie where the villain was tempting the protagonist with a shiny apple smack in the middle of the screen (e.g. Snow White), I would assume, “Oh, I already know there’s temptation here, but having this apple here makes me feel that more intensely.” Great, but a really fun exercise would be trying to figure out why fruit = temptation and not something else. Why does an apple make me sense extra temptation? All of you are screaming “The Bible” at me right now, but you need to remember that The Bible is also a book. Why did The Bible choose a fruit and not something else, like cake, meat, or veggies? Well, we can rule out cake because this takes place before baking was invented. We can rule out veggies because they’re not tempting. But meat? Meat can be tempting, but fruit is intentionally made appetizing by design. Plants give their fruits sugar and bright colors because they want their fruit to be eaten. Meaty things typically do not want to be eaten. It blew my mind when I realized this on my own, but English class never let us get that far.

Is it just the English teachers I had? I doubt it, because I loved my English teachers to bits, and they were all highly intelligent women. Is it the student’s responsibility to look for greater meaning, and it’s my fault for not looking deeper on my own? Well, I don’t think that’s the case. Why? Well, I got a 5 out of 5 on my AP English Literature exam, a nationally standardized test entirely dedicated to literary analysis. Let me reiterate that I didn’t even “believe” in symbolism until my sophomore year of college, and would not have put anything close to the analyses I’ve written in this blog series on the exam. And that test is graded by high school English teachers from around the country. So it’s obvious to me that high school English students in the entirety of the United States are not expected or taught to dig deeper into a symbol.

Symbolism is something used and passed around by artists and storytellers every single day. It has a huge impact on our lives, and we don’t need to fully understand it or even think about it in order for it to have that impact. But since I don’t think that authors and artists need to be taught how to use symbols, and I don’t think that readers need to be taught to recognize them in order to enjoy them, that leaves only two purposes for analyzing symbolism in English class: critical thinking and philosophy. And I don’t recall ever seeing, reading, or hearing about an English teacher doing this.


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