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BTT: Where’s the Symbolism?

btt2My 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?

When I was in college, everyone asked me this question.  Symbolism is alive and well in modern literary fiction and the authors aren’t subtle about it either.  I got symbolism out of Stephen King in high school and my teacher complimented me on seeing stuff that no one else saw.  I used It and Carrie and all I remember is that it had something to do with circles.  The Remains of the Day is practically dripping with symbolism, right down to the title of the book.  The great thing about studying literature is that you can find things that the author didn’t intend that imbues the work with meaning for you and for other people.  It can have a wider meaning that the author never saw, or maybe one they intended only specific people to see.  It’s a little like how everyone’s experience of a book is different.  The author puts the book out, but everyone comes to it with different life experiences and interprets it in ways relevant to themselves.  Obviously, we’re going to pick it apart in ways the author didn’t intend.

Let’s take an example of this.  I’m sure the author of Firefly Lane didn’t intend for me to develop a burning hatred towards it because one of the characters got cancer and it hit a little too close to home for me (yes, other things bugged me about it, but I was very unhappy with the author’s plot development).  On the other hand, she probably did intend for women who are older than me to relate to Tully and Kate as they grew up over the decades, and from the reviews, they did.  Women who could relate tended to love the book.  The author just wanted to tell a story, but how we feel about it is always going to be our own experience.  Similarly, the way we interpret literature in an academic sense is always going to be more than the author intended, unless it’s one of those ultra-literary books that you practically need a class in to dig out all of the meaning.

Or we could go with Twilight.  There are all sorts of alarming messages screaming out from the relationships in that book, but women still love Edward.  Did Stephenie Meyer intend for us to interpret the relationship between Bella and Edward as harmful and abusive?  Probably not, especially given how often she describes Edward as “perfect”.

See my point?  The author’s intentions don’t carry as much weight as you might think.  As a result, I’m not sure we can say that because the author didn’t intend it, an interpretation isn’t valid.  In fact, I outright don’t think we can.  I love to know what an author intended and I think it’s very important, but I still feel the way I feel.

In fact, I know a few authors out there who read this blog, so if you’re reading, what do you think?

What about readers?  Am I wrong, is the author all-important and my opinion falls to the wayside once I know theirs?  Or is every interpretation (with supporting evidence of course) valid?

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12 comments to BTT: Where’s the Symbolism?

  • I think every interpretation is absolutely valid! My dad and I constantly debate who is the “authority” on a work — the author or the reader. I don’t think there really can be an authority… once the work is out in the public domain, it’s subject to scrutiny, praise, criticism, etc.! And there’s nothing anyone can do about it! :) Everything can be seen as symbolic, but it’ll mean something different to every reader. Hmm… okay, I’ve gotten too philosophical for my own good! Back to reading gossip blogs for me, hehe :)

    Megan’s last blog post..Booking Through Thursday: So symbolic

  • I think most authors would agree that, on some level at least, all interpretations of their work are valid – just not perhaps what the author himself/herself had in mind. But that’s OK. Every book will have different meanings for each and every reader, because each reader brings something different to the reading process. And some readers will be more diligent in discovering those meanings.

    JLS Hall’s last blog post..Booking Through Thursday: Symbolic? Or Not?

  • I think you will need the passage of time for symbolism.

    Bluestocking’s last blog post..Symbolic? or Not?

  • The great thing about studying literature is that you can find things that the author didn’t intend that imbues the work with meaning for you and for other people.

    That’s so true. I’m a devout postmodernist, myself; the author has intentions, sure, but I think the meaning ultimately lies with the reader. We bring our own experiences to the text, and they shape our interpretations. The author can’t possibly account for that.

    Memory’s last blog post..59. War and Pieces by Bill Willingham et al.

  • I think all interpretations are valid, although if an author of a text told me that my interpretation was 180 degrees opposite of what they meant, I would defer to the author. I don’t think you should totally surrender your opinion or interpretation, but I also think telling an author what their work means is dangerous and almost disrespectful territory. It’s definitely a fine balance.

    J.S. Peyton’s last blog post..BTT: Symbolic? Yes. Or…Maybe not.

    • Meghan

      I could never tell them what their work means definitively, I just think that my interpretation is valid, at least for me. I would never presume to tell an author that my exact interpretation is the only one. You’re right, there is a line there.

  • I think I see symbolism in things where it’s not meant to be sometimes, I love that!

    But yes we all have our experiences and filters with which we approach a book…or a book review for that matter. ;)

    Amy @ My Friend Amy’s last blog post..Which American Idol Judge Are You? (Book Reviewing)

  • I think that each reader brings a different set of ideas to every book they read, and that there definitely can be something seen or felt that the author did not set out in the design, just as I believe that sometimes readers can miss the symbolism or themes that an author tries to plainly depict. Great topic, btw!

    Zibilee’s last blog post..That Went Well: Adventures in Caring for My Sister byTerrell Harris Dougan – 224 pages

  • I agree with you that “symbolism is alive and well in modern literary fiction.”

    I also feel (as it seems you do) that if a book gets you thinking, whether or not your thoughts run along the lines the author intended, your thoughts aren’t “wrong”. That is, any interpretation is valid – how can we judge whether someone’s connection to literature is right or wrong?

    Bottom line – we’re on the same page on this BTT prompt!

    Dawn (sheIsTooFondOfBooks)’s last blog post..Book Review: *The Man’s Book* by Thomas Fink

  • I was actually just recently asked this question! A reader of my book wanted to know whether I’d intended a particular exchange between Trystan and Isolde, the two main characters, to be read as a symbol. (The book is Twilight of Avalon, a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend). At any rate, I absolutely loved this interpretation–but honestly during the writing it had never so much as crossed my mind. And that, for me, highlights one of the aspects of writing that I find most amazing and exciting and probably my single favorite truth about being an author: that a reading experience is truly a collaboration between the author and the reader. Once I finish writing a book, it’s no longer mine. It takes on a life of its own, and each reader who picks it up brings to it their own unique background and perspectives. Every reader’s response to and interpretation of the story is different, and I would consider each to be every bit as valid as my own.

  • I am still thinking about this question a couple days later and I still can’t come up with a “perfect” answer. I think you did a great job though. I think that every interpretation is valid, because we really aren’t ever completely sure what the author intended us to think. I also think that the most amazing thing about reading is that each person a story differently. Different symbols pop out at different people, and different characters are more identifiable to some than others. You really made me think!

    Also, I recently received my first blog award and I chose you to pass it on to!

    Ashley’s last blog post..Booking Through Thursday: April 23, 2009