April 23, 2009

BTT: Symbolism in Literature

Question suggested by Barbara H:

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?

First of all I want to say that this is a terrific question!

I am one of those in the minority when it comes to symbolism. While I definitely do not read a book seeking it out, it is fun for me to find it. A light will go off in my head and my immediate reaction is 'how clever of the writer', particularly if it is deeply ingrained into the story and not just thrown in for good measure.

Take John Steinbeck's The Pearl. The pearl is the main symbol of the story. Its meaning is never explicitly defined so the reader is left to interpret the meaning of the symbol for his/herself. That is my favorite kind of symbolism. You can have long discussions in your book club about the symbolism of the pearl.

Another example is The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I admit that I read this and did not figure it out on my own, but when I re-read the tale it was so obvious I couldn't believe I did not figure it out on my own. Dickens uses the story of Bob Crachit and his family to represent the underclass in Victorian England and the unfair restrictions placed on them by the government. Scrooge, therefore, represents the upper class: indifferent to the suffering of the poor and selfish in their gains. You can read about Victorian England's Poor Laws and understand more about the flaws that Dickens takes aim at in the story.

This was a great question and I enjoyed thinking this one over. BTT should have more questions that lend themselves to critical thinking and discussions.

NOTE: I just thought of Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I won't spoil the story for those who have not read it, but those that have know what I am referring to.


  1. I greatly enjoyed this question too! I couldn't wait to answer.


  2. I love symbolism but I often miss it. The Pearl is a great example.

  3. 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.


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