That’s right, folks, in just five easy steps – count them: five easy step! – you can be a literary snob just like the person who sells you coffee everyday!
In honor of the AP test score release (prayer circle for all you still waiting; get a VPN, it’s worth it), we’re going to talk today about something that baffles people the world over: literary symbolism and what it can do for you.
Before my Literature class this year, I will admit that I thought people who analyzed literature for “symbolism to find the deeper meaning” were full of it. Deeper meaning came from how the story impacted you, personally, and how you interacted with the text, not what the color of the drapes in the third chapter were. But that’s the beauty of it, the link that not many people uncover to connect: the color of the drapes in the third chapter (among other things) is what makes the story have impact.
Since the beginning of storytelling, with the Odyssey and even older, there have been things that act as a shorthand to convey what the author wants the reader to know. The biggest tragedy to befall literary analysis was the mistaken belief that symbolism can only be singular objects, or colors, or other, small things. This is so far beyond true. Yes, those things can and are useful symbols (Gatsby’s green light being the most famous of them) but we are not limited to just that. Anything can be a symbol. Actions, the way a character talks, characters themselves, or even entire scenes.
For example, scenes where characters eat together are riddled with symbolism. Yes, sometimes they can be a stand-in for sex. But sex isn’t the only type of intimacy that eating can portray – or even betray. As something that all humans have to do to survive, eating becomes sacred in text. In both Western and Eastern cultures, there is something almost religious about eating. As a general rule, people don’t eat with people they aren’t comfortable with. Would you go out to grab a bite with your rude coworker? Not typically, because meals are a time of recharging and trust. Nothing bad can happen at the dinner table, as it were, even if that dinner table is a McDonalds or as you’re driving or the floor of an abandoned warehouse. This is the same mindset that is applied in literature. If you, as a writer, need to show the strength of your characters’ bond, or you want to bring them closer together, or if you want a betrayal to sting just that much more: consider having them eat together.
In Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, throughout the entirety of the novel, Grover and Percy’s friendship is marked with one boy offering the other when they’re upset. When Percy first comes to Camp Half Blood, eating supper with the Hermes Cabin is when he starts to feel accepted into this strange world; when he’s moved to the Poseidon Cabin and forced to eat alone, he feels acutely cut-off.
In Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World, after Bernard brings John back to the “civilized World,” he parades him around at society dinners and other functions. The meals that the perfect people eat with John the Savage are encroaching, humiliating, and rude. They are forcing this intimacy by forcing his presence at meals, and John suffers for it. It’s intimate, yes, with John discussing the Reservation he comes from and the cultures that still survive there and his way of life, but it’s non-consensual – both John’s presence at the meal, and the “relationships” he forms.
Yes, one is YA lit and one is a classic English author; but that’s the beauty of using these tropes. They can be utilized by anyone, and in any circumstance, and there’s a depth of history and connection that nearly all readers will pick up on, usually without realizing it. When people talk about the magic of words, they either mean the literal rhetoric of the words and how they sound together, or they mean the ability to capture incredibly complex human emotion and experience in simple scenes. This is how they do it. Using symbolism is something a win-win, from a writer’s point of view: it’s faster to use a common human experience to show the depth of emotion that you mean to portray rather than to spell every inch of it out, but also, it creates a deeper connection than explicit storytelling ever could. It encourages the reader to draw on their own experiences – when they were told their grandmother was sick over dinner, or when they laughed so hard at a friend’s birthday party that water came out their nose, or even their wedding reception and the warmth of sharing a meal with their closest friends and family.
It’s would be a little conceited of me to pretend that I could make the whole sum of every possible literary symbol ever to explain what it is, how it’s used, how it could be used, how it could be subverted or inverted or combined with another symbol to create a new meaning, et cetera. Through this explanation, I relied heavily on the symbolism of eating, because it’s one of my personal favorites. But anything can be symbolic. And not everything in your story should be symbolic lest you end up like James Joyce, but having a few in your back pocket, ones that you’re comfortable with, that reinforce the theme and feeling of your story, is something that every writer ought to consider. So reread your favorite books, and look a little closer at them. How does it speak to the human experience? Make lists of things that you think are universal, and what sort of emotion they invoke in you. Remember, good writers borrow – we don’t steal.
If you want a little more in-depth guidance on symbolism, I’d suggest How To Read Literature Like A Professor by Thomas Foster. It’s thoroughly entertaining, and, ahem, I’m not telling you that you can find a PDF online of it but I will say that high school students dislike buying books almost as much as college students do. But if you have a few bucks to spare, it’s worth getting a copy to mark up. It’s a guide for students who need to read symbolism, but it’s very easy to reverse-engineer as a way to write it as well. Additionally, TVTropes is an online wiki that is both dangerously addictive and really interesting to look through for situations that just seem to keep popping up in literature, movies, and television. I’d recommend starting on the Older Than Dirt index or the Older Than Feudalism index.
Writing symbolism with intention doesn’t have to be scary. Just remember, we’re all making it up as we go. Your story is yours to tell. Use your experiences, the things you love, and remember that the rest of us – from me, to Rowling, to Shakespeare, to Homer, and even further – are using the same collective of stories that you are. Don’t be afraid to lean on it.
Next Thursday, we’ll talk about three forms of narrative structures and how they can be useful in your life. If it’s starting to feel like English class, good. You probably didn’t pay enough attention in English. It’s impossible to pay too much attention in English. See you then!
(And before you get too attached to the romance of living in an abandoned lighthouse – they’re almost always phallic.)