Symbolism and the Language of Literature
I was recently asked by a reader of this blog if I could answer the question, “How does symbolism enhance a story?” It’s an interesting question and I’ll do my best to answer it.
I remember very clearly from my school days (although they were now longer ago than I care to count) the sighs and moans which accompanied any mention of symbolism in English Literature class.
As I recall, bored and imprisoned in a stuffy classroom, it seemed to us the teachers must have been making that stuff up half the time. We could get our heads around ravens representing death and depression in Edgar Allen’s famous poem – that seemed fairly intuitive – and we could even handle the idea that the bloody spot Lady Macbeth bore in Shakespeare’s famous play wasn’t just a residual splash of blood from the murder of Duncan, but also a symbol of the stain on her conscience. But when we were told that Gastby from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great novel was a Christ-like figure, or that a sunflower in a poem by William Blake could represent all humanity, we were more than a little skeptical. The more obscure the symbol, the more we were likely to reject it.
We were completely wrong, of course.
Without symbolism of some kind, a story becomes nothing more than a thematic sermon, or a two-dimensional series of “this-happened-then-that-happened” events. Symbolism, in its many forms, weaves together all the disparate threads of a story into a coherent whole, while adding intellectual depth and emotional resonance. If you’re a writer, you ignore it at your peril.
Let’s just examine what I mean by that and give some solid examples to illustrate the point. Then we’ll take a look at how you can approach symbolism in your own work, with a few practical dos and don’ts to get you on your way.
Our Brains Think Symbolically
It’s highly likely when writing fiction of a reasonable length, such as a longer short story or a novel, you’ll end up using symbolism without even knowing it. One of the reasons why symbolism is so powerful is that it’s a natural part of human cognition. Human brains, for the larger part, think symbolically. That’s why even adults, unless they’ve been artistically trained, will draw three-dimensional objects as if they were two-dimensional and use stick figures to represent the human form. It’s not because that’s what they see, it’s because that’s a representation of the way their brains think about what they see. Symbolism is as naturally occurring a part of human communication as storytelling itself.
Our brains have evolved to be selective in what they perceive and to store and record only those elements which are considered to be important. This selectivity in the perceptual process combined with the ancient and visceral purpose of symbolic thinking (namely to survive – to quickly identify a potential threat, or an opportunity to mate, or to distinguish something poisonous from something edible) gives symbolism both its precision and its emotional power.
Symbols are therefore effective tools, when used consciously and with intention, to summarize a lot of information very quickly and to evoke powerful emotional responses. To communicate complexity in simple language which provokes emotion is the Holy Grail objective of the fiction writer. That’s why we use symbols in writing fiction. And that’s one part of the answer to the question, “How does symbolism enhance a story?”
The Artifice of Literary Symbols
I’ve said that anyone telling a story of any length will naturally use symbols. However, there’s a difference between a disconnected series of thoughtless symbols popping up in a rambling tale told to a few friends over a beer, and the carefully crafted, intentional symbols of the novelist.
How does symbolism enhance a story? Let’s take a look at five examples of the use of symbols in stories as diverse as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games.
The “damned spot” in Macbeth
Out, damned spot! out, I say! – One: two: why, then, ’tis time to do’t. – Hell is murky! – Fie, my lord, fie! a soldier, and afeard? What need we fear who knows it, when none can call our power to account? – Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?
~ William Shakespeare. Macbeth. Act IV, Scene I
The symbolism of blood – both as passionate and vengeful ambition and the inescapable torment of the guilty conscience – runs throughout Macbeth. It’s a potent way of using a symbol in that it appears again and again, pulling everything together, but nuanced with a range of meanings as the full and tragic significance of Macbeth’s fate is unraveled. It’s this symbolism within the story which enables us to access the theme of the play and to feel its reality for ourselves. Take it away, and the whole thing becomes little more than a blow-by-blow account of violent, historical events.
The Ring in The Lord of the Rings
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them, One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
~ JRR Tolkien. The Lord of the Rings.
In Tolkien’s seminal fantasy trilogy, the “One Ring” is the heart of the epic adventure. It’s the central symbol of the power of evil to play on human weaknesses and greed which directs, interprets and makes sense of everything that happens in the story. The foundation and fate of the Ring itself is a symbolic mirror of the entire story and the fate of any who become ensnared by its power. Clearly, without this potent symbol at its heart, the story would become a much more rambling and pedestrian affair.
The Pig’s Head in The Lord of the Flies
…in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood – and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition.
~ William Golding. Lord of the Flies.
All gods and devils are externalized symbols of the internal components of our own psychic machinery. On one hand, they represent all that we aspire to be; and on the other, all that we fear to become.
Golding employs this deeply ingrained religious symbolism to powerful effect with the pig’s head on the stick. It is the totem deity of Jack’s band of hunters. It represents the pinnacle of the boys’ descent into atavistic savagery. It suggests that such a potential exists in all of us outside the constraints of society, tradition and law.
The pig also draws heavily on the Judeo-Christian mythological tradition – as that is the most likely reference point for Golding’s audience. The pig is considered to be “unclean” in that tradition, and when Jesus cast out the devils, he sent them into a herd of pigs.
Take away this central symbol and the book loses much of its intellectual coherence and the impact of some of its most emotion-provoking scenes.
Atticus Finch and the Rabid Dog in To Kill a Mockingbird
With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus’s hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder. The rifle cracked. Tim Johnson leaped, flopped over and crumpled on the sidewalk in a brown-and-white heap. He didn’t know what hit him.
~ Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird.
The “mad dog,” Tim Johnson is a powerful symbol of the central conflict of the story – that of the struggle Atticus undertakes to defend Tom Robinson from the racist vitriol of the people of Marycomb. The incident in which Atticus is forced, reluctantly, to shoot the dog in order to defend his family foreshadows the lengths to which he is prepared to go in order to uphold racial justice even against the madness of the white folks of the town. The presence of the dog is seeded early on, but only really plays out its full symbolism in this slow-boiling and dramatic scene.
Fire and Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
“I want the audience to recognize you when you’re in the arena,” says Cinna dreamily. “Katniss, the girl who was on fire.”
~ Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games.
In The Hunger Games, the symbol of fire most often represents and reflects Katniss herself. The fire-symbol appears on her various dresses – including the one which actually does ignite in flames. By way of Cinna’s commentary, it also becomes a species of title for her in “the girl who catches fire.” Fire is a symbol of both positive and negative forces and works on many levels. It has a potential to destroy and purify, it is commonly associated with basic survival, and is also a potent image (as the hearth fire) of warmth, safety and “home.” As such, the fire symbol brings together and expresses the core themes of the book in a single image which also encompasses the inner passion and transforming power of Katniss Everdeen herself.
So if that’s the way symbols function in writing fiction, how can you apply that in a practical way to your own work?
How to Use Symbols in Your Writing
Let’s start out with what I think you shouldn’t do. I don’t think you should fix on a symbol or symbolic system before you begin writing your novel or your story. In my experience and the experience of many other professional writers it’s always better to begin your story focusing primarily on the main protagonist. In a first or even second draft I wouldn’t even begin to think too deeply about the business of theme. The symbolic elements in any story are always in service of the theme. So in order to start with the symbolic elements you would need to know your theme and your theme is something which will emerge and become apparent to you slowly as you tell your protagonist’s story. I very much doubt that any decent novel was ever inspired by a thematic concept.
Over-concentrating at the outset on the theme of your novel and the symbols which might represent it is likely to result in a characterless and rather dry text which may have more in common with an essay or a sermon than a work of true fiction. The symbols in the story, in order to work most effectively, need to be embedded in the story. You really need to have a story first. Something to embed the symbols in.
So get your first draft written without any concern for theme or symbol. Tell the story of your protagonist’s struggle and whether they win or lose. That will give you a story. Once you have that story, you can then read back over it to discover what its themes are. They will be there. It’s often the case that an author doesn’t really know what her story is about until she’s written it!
Having identified the themes in your story you’ll probably also notice certain symbols have naturally occurred in your writing. This is the point at which to put your critical thinking into gear and determine which of those themes you wish to work on, develop, and expand in subsequent drafts of the work. As you do that a core symbol, or a set of symbols, will suggest themselves. These are likely to be the most powerful symbols because they have arisen from your own deep unconscious as you respond emotionally to your protagonist’s journey. And it’s the depth of your own honest response at an emotional level to the story you’re telling which will determine whether or not you succeed in carrying your reader with you on that journey.
So what you should do, having allowed the theme and symbol to emerge organically, is then take that raw material and craft it carefully closer to your purpose. The symbolism at this stage becomes intentional as you make the editorial decisions about how the symbols are presented, linked, repeated, woven and embedded into the deep fabric of the story you wish to tell.
However, you needn’t overdo it. The symbol or symbols in your story should be all but invisible to the reader; they should become integral to the story itself; they should be more or less subtle so that they can work their magic on the subconscious mind.
If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. You will almost certainly have to work and rework your novel through several iterations; cutting and pasting, adding sections and scrapping scenes as you go. But I think if you want to produce a novel that has any chance of truly communicating its theme in an emotionally powerful and memorable way, then you really need to commit to this work.
How Does Symbolism Enhance a Story?
It’s surely no coincidence that every example quoted above, and any other enduring classic you care to name, has a rich and carefully integrated symbolic element to it. Ultimately it is the symbolism you use to enhance your story which validates it and transforms it into a profound, meaningful, and moving experience for your readers which will stay with them long after they have turned the last page.
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