On Symbolism, Part 5: The Dangers of English Class 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.

 

Blue-curtain symbolists will say is that the author’s original intent doesn’t matter, and that all that matters is what the audience takes away from a novel. While I guess this is technically true, calling anything and everything symbolism (especially saying that the author consciously intended it) has negative effects that far outweigh whatever positive effects are gained from the current curriculum.

Now, this title makes blue-curtainism sound life-threatening, and it isn’t. I could be here writing a post about real threats in the real world that hurt of real lives, and my time would be better spent. But the point of this post is just to say that teaching symbolism the way it’s taught isn’t harmless. It does cause damage, even if that damage isn’t the worst thing in the world.

1) It imposes opportunity cost.

This is the one you’re all expecting, so I’ll get it out of the way quickly. Time could be better spent elsewhere. Grammar, reading more great works, learning how to write, the list goes on.

The list even includes teaching real symbolism. We could analyze why the flies in the courtroom are blue, or we could analyze how the author portrays villainy, how the dialogue of certain characters subconsciously inform us about their personalities, or why the villain’s castle is always sharp and pointy. We could allow people to understand why the image of rain falling in the Pride Lands brings them to tears, or why just looking at somebody’s house tells us a great deal about who they are. But we don’t, because looking into real symbolism, where we actually feel some meaning from looking at an object or action, takes a back seat to blue-curtainism.

2) It sullies authors.

This mostly comes from the twin high school beliefs that only great works of literature have symbols, and that all great works of literature have symbols.

I have met several authors, both old and young, who associate symbolism with greatness. On one hand, some authors I’ve met want to put symbols into their work and hide them, as they’re taught in English class. One friend of mine wanted to juxtapose a rose to a world leader planning war, and that can be a powerful image. But whereas an untouched author would want to share this with the world and say something like, “She delicately plucked the rose, killing innocence as all powerful people do” or “It was odd to look at her like this. Such a powerful woman, so bent on destruction. Yet here she was, admiring a flower,” he instead decided to just mention the woman picking the rose. Frankly, when I read it, I completely passed over this scene and found no meaning in the rose at all. The rose added nothing and made me feel nothing. He could have made his audience feel something with his writing, but English class had taught him that writing isn’t meant to be felt: it’s meant to be studied.

On the other hand, I’ve met a young author who was convinced that she shouldn’t put in any symbolism because she thought that she would never be a great author, and therefore symbolism didn’t belong in her work. It was heartbreaking to see her say this about herself, but it was also infuriating to see that her English teachers had so thoroughly brainwashed her that she didn’t even write what she was yearning to.

And then, of course, there’s me. Back when we first started analyzing symbolism in the blue-curtain style, I bought into it wholeheartedly. I became convinced that my writing would only become great if I put in symbols just for the sake of symbols. I put in motifs for the sake of having motifs because I was never shown that symbols and motifs have actual purpose. And if I hadn’t learned to think for myself, then my writing would still be like that today.

3) It sullies great works.

What’s the point of reading novels at all? What’s the point of understanding the author’s original intent? The fact of the matter is that our parents and all the parents that came before them felt so moved by certain books that they were willing to spend their tax dollars to have it taught in public schools. They said to themselves, “This book changed my life, and I think that everyone should read it.”

We all have that one book. That is a real force. Books and art do change lives and will continue to do so. But symbolism analysis, in my experience, only brings students to ignore the messages that our parents loved or to hate the books altogether.

We were being explicitly told to ignore the message of A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens didn’t want to tell a story of human nature! He didn’t want us to pay attention to the commentary in the courtroom! He wanted us to pay attention to the flies! OF COURSE!

And remember how I mentioned telling my parents how I hated The Old Man and the Sea? I didn’t just grow to hate that book; I grew to hate Hemingway (because this blue-curtainism was attributed to him by our teacher), and haven’t read any novel by him ever since despite recommendations from my family. My friends also grew to hate The Red Badge of CourageThe Importance of Being ErnestA Tale of Two Cities, and many more. I can’t prove for certain that we would have liked them if we hadn’t annotated every inch of them, but that’s certainly the reason that all of us give for hating them.

Early on, I learned to ignore what my English teachers were saying about symbolism, because otherwise I would have grown to hate a lot of great books. I learned it enough to ace my classes, but I also learned to hate the word “symbolism” itself.

4) It sullies the name of symbolism.

English class left people either as blue-curtain symbolists or anti-symbolists. Either students believed their teachers wholeheartedly, or they distrusted them completely.

Symbolism is a real thing, and it’s a useful thing, especially for artists. The correct use of symbolism can be translated into real monetary, emotional, or philosophical value. But every layman I meet who hears the word “symbolism” imagines a pretentious man in a tuxedo, wearing a monocle and trying to invent some sort of abstract meaning out of a painting in a modern art gallery.

We are told that only great literary masterpieces have symbolism, we are told that all symbolism is 100% intentional on the author’s part, and we are told that the average symbol is completely undetectable to the untrained eye. And in the process, we come to believe that analyzing symbolism is useless.

Blue-curtain symbolists say that symbolism doesn’t have to be felt, and its analysis allows readers to develop critical thinking skills or the ability to view the world through a different lens. But the fact of the matter is that analyzing real symbolism, be it accidental or purposeful, gives the same benefit. If Shakespeare plays have symbols that made audiences feel something back in the day but have no emotional effect on readers now, then analyzing that symbolism allows the students to see things from the perspective of a different time period. If the creators of The Lion King didn’t intend any particular meaning when they put in the rain, and they thought that it just felt right, and it still feels right to the audience, then it’s important to find out why.

“Why does Bolt dropping his toy carrot make us cry?” brings about the same benefits as “Why are the flies in the courtroom blue?” with two added bonuses. For one, it informs the students of how and why certain actions and objects can move them. But the other bonus is that it doesn’t make symbolism look like a joke paid for with our time and tax dollars. Because these symbols, these subconscious meanings, these actions and objects that illicit more emotion than they deserve, have real effects on people, make creators real money, and form insights into real phenomena and prejudices of our minds. So I ask you: why would we ever invent symbols with no effect when there are so many symbols with real influence to be found?


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