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Booking Through Thursday - Symbolic or not

Today's Booking Through Thursday is a question suggested by Barbara H:

My husband is not an avid reader, and he used to get very frustrated in college when teachers would insist discussing symbolism in a literary work when there didn’t seem to him to be any. He felt that writers often just wrote the story for the story’s sake and other people read symbolism into it.

It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?

I remember an English class I took in college in which the professor found sexual symbolism in every story we read. There was a story or maybe it was a poem about loggers and trees being cut down in the forest. How on earth can you find sexual symbolism in that, right? I wanted to get a good grade on the paper so decided to write it from his perspective, give him what he wanted (figuratively) and get an A. I wrote a paper about the tree being symbolic of woman and the cutting down of the tree, the loss of her virginity, etc., etc., etc. You know what, I didn't have the nerve to turn the paper in and rewrote it. Barbara's husband is right. Sometimes people just write stories and other people read symbolism into it, depending on their agenda, make-up, desires, etc.

Does modern fiction tell a story without much symbolism. Again, it depends on your definition of modern fiction. I'm about to take a modern fiction literature course and it only deals with fiction from 1890 to the 1940's. I do think there is a lot of symbolism that went into the stories during that period of time.

Is there much symbolism in present fiction? I generally don't look for symbolism in stories so wouldn't see it unless it was pointed out to me ahead of time. If I know the story is symbolic in some way, then I will see it. I just finished an Art History course that taught me quite a bit about symbolism in art, which I know will stay with me for a long time.

I read so many books, that at this point I really couldn't come up with an example of symbolism within one of the stories without taking a few hours to sit down and analyze it. Then I'd be so caught up in doing that, I'd be reading instead and never get this post written. So excellent idea for a future post - take one of my books, analyze it for symbolism and write a post. I just finished "The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman so this will be an excellent opportunity to examine the symbolism in my review.

The question of symbolism is interesting, because even though I don't look for it when I read,(but I may start doing so now) I do use a lot of symbolism in the stories I write. Which begs the question, will the symbolism be noticed or not. I wrote a dream sequence for "Floating on the surface" in which many of the objects have symbolic meaning for my character. But would the reader get it?

Gautami made a good point in her post: "
The present day reader is in too much of a hurry. He/She prefers it all in black and white. Reading through symbolism is time consuming."

What do you think? Do you look for symbolism in every story you read or just when you know the author usually uses symbolism in his work.

An interesting exercise to consider for fun - I will post the dream and you all find the symbolism. Let me know if you would be interested.


  1. This week's BTT raises good questions. I guess I am a modern reader - I just want to read the story. I was just reading Farm Lane Books and she suggests that writers who use symbolism should add "study guides" to their books so we understand what they were trying to say. If I know I'm supposed to look for symbolism I guess I could do that. Just so it doesn't get in the way of a really good story. Just as an exercise, I'd like to read your dream and see if I get it.

  2. I don't look for symbolism in everything I read, but sometimes I find symbolism and think -- did the author intend for the reader to pick this out or am I just projecting what I think the novel is about?

  3. I loved this question! Some people do read way too much into things.


  4. Good points! I too read for "instruction and delight" -- not as an exercise in detecting and interpreting symbols. I don't really consciously look for symbols, but I can sense when something's symbolically important... Often those are the scenes that stick with me after I close the book.

  5. Hi Robin,

    I shared a bit of your comment on my blog today (from earlier in the week). Thanks again for sharing!

  6. I'm not really into symbolism although I enjoyed The DaVinci Code.. still I prefer straight forward books :)

  7. I think only careful, meticulous readers could read into these symbols. In most cases, readers would understand the story without fully grabbing the symbols, but the level of appreciation would be compromised. Toni Morrison would be the prime example. Not all books are endowed with layers of meaning and implications, but symbolism can be a great device to describe things that are very intangible, like death. Symbols can also be very subjective entities. Sometimes I cannot read into any symbols in a book just simply because I lack the personal experience that would put me in tune to the author's meaning.

  8. I'm an English major. I look for symbolism everywhere and when it's not there, I usually make it up... sad, huh?

  9. I can relate to your English prof. example. Symbolism is very often in the eye of the reader. :)

  10. Symbolism is what turned me off from English classes, but now that I'm older, I think I might appreciate it more. Lots to think about with this question.

  11. Thanks everybody. This question gave us all a lot to think about. And now whether we like it or not, it has raised our awareness and we'll all be looking for the symbolism in our next reads. However elusive it may be - we may find it, we may not. Or we may find it where it wasn't meant to be. It is all a matter of perception.

  12. I usually miss almost all of the symbolism!!


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