Symbolism isn’t dead, is it?

23 Apr

Here is this week’s Booking Through Thursday prompt:

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?

So, I have to say, I agree that a lot of modern literature seems to lack symbolism, but it certainly isn’t dead.  I do think there’s a lot of symbolism in literature both old and new, some of it intentional and some of it maybe not.  As an English major, I had to be a symbol-hunter in college.  As an English teacher, I help my students find and work through symbols in literature.  But when I read for pleasure, I ignore the symbolism most of the time.  I just want to read the book, that’s all.

To provide an example, the Twilight series (for all its other good and bad qualities) has a lot of symbolism in it.  Even the titles and the covers of the books function symbolically.  Come to think of it, most vampire literature contains symbolism (we all know what those fangs really stand for, har de har). 

You can find symbols almost everywhere in literature, but you just have to look.  Or, in my case, to choose not to look.


6 Responses to “Symbolism isn’t dead, is it?”

  1. Olga April 23, 2009 at 9:31 pm #

    I tend to ignore the symbolism too. That’s probably why a lot of people think modern lit doesn’t carry it. But I bet if you really study novels written recently, they’re rife with the same thought-provoking imagery that we study in the older texts. It just takes awhile to see it, since studying modern literature isn’t really a common practice (other than for literary reviews, that is!) Twilight is a GREAT example, one that I probably should have thought of myself, but didn’t. When I think of literary symbolism, I think I go too abstract and fail to see the things that are right in front of me (like a cover image, for example).

  2. Bluestocking April 23, 2009 at 9:54 pm #

    I think symbolism in modern literature will become more evident in later years. mine

  3. gautami tripathy April 23, 2009 at 10:08 pm #

    Symbolism is not dead. But readers are in a hurry and don’t see it.

    Symbolism in writing

  4. Matthew April 24, 2009 at 2:18 am #

    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.

  5. Heather April 24, 2009 at 4:17 am #

    You know what stinks about the Twilight series (in this specific regard) is that Stephenie Meyer (in an interview after Breaking Dawn) denied ever using symbolism or having a “message” to her books. She claimed she was simply telling a story and didn’t have a lesson to teach. I find that hard to believe, but maybe I’m just cynical.

  6. monnibo April 27, 2009 at 3:26 pm #

    Symbolism isn’t dead, but theme seems more “in your face” obvious. Symbolism you have to look for.

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