Booking Through Thursday: Symbolic? Or Not?

From the Booking Through Thursday blog – a weekly meme about books and reading:

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 actually stumbled across someone else’s response to this question and left comment there before deciding to make my own post. You can see my original response on Word Lily’s blog. Below are some additional comments based based on those.

I honestly think people sometimes try to hard to find the meaning of things – and that English teachers (or anyone who teaches books) can very easily destroy the fun of reading for students by pushing the meaning of things down their throats. I don’t actually think people are intentionally trying to force the symbolism down anyone’s throat but rather that it’s very natural to want others to see things the way you do. The teacher has one idea in mind and they want their students to see it the same way they do – unfortuantly they often fail to remember that symbolism is subjective and personal and just because they see it one way not everyone else is going to see it the same way. Being forced to see the symbolism in a book is only going to frustrate some students and probably make them stop reading. I’m not sure that it should be a requirement for students to interpret the symbolism, especially if their grade is dependent on them interpreting it the way the teacher wants them to. Why should a student fail if they don’t see the religious context of Lord of the Flies? Maybe there is symbolism to be interpreted, but is it really wrong not to see it?

Back to symbolism being subjective and personal – I think that when someone reads a book (or watch a movie or a TV show or views a piece of art or listens to music) they should be allowed to interpret things however they wish to. I realize that in a school setting there has to be a method to teaching a book or music or whatever, and there has to be some exploration the meanings of things. However, I think it shouldn’t be done at the expense of the students desire to read on their own just for fun. If they can’t see the meaning the teacher is trying to show them they’re going to get frustrated and stop reading because they’re being told they’re doing it wrong. Yes it does have to do with how the teacher is teaching the book/explaining the symbolism – but I think even well intentioned teachers can very easily push too hard especially if they have a student who views things more literally than other students might.

I’m a very literal person – I’m going to read things literally in a book first. Yes I’ll also see the other meanings to things along the way but that’s secondary to my initial reading. I’d rather enjoy the fact that the characters are doing whatever they’re doing in the story than try to analyze why they’re doing or why the author might have them be doing it. I also get frustrated when I hear people say that an author MUST have meant something – unless the author had said it themselves somewhere – how does anyone know that the author MUST have meant something? We can’t read the author’s mind – we can’t KNOW what the author meant, we can only make guesses based on our own feelings and beliefs. Not to mention the fact that the author might not even know or remember what they meant when they wrote the book.

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