Symbolism is the single reason I disliked English in high school. Up until this time I had enjoyed pleasure reading from the time I was in pre-school - but somehow my high school English teachers managed to zap that joy, which unfortunately lasted a couple of decades. How ironic that I now find myself to be an English teacher - and attempting to teach students what I loathed myself.
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, let me say that I am really the "impostor" English teacher: I do not have the credentials (French and Political Science major with not a single English course taken in 4 years of college), but I do have the passion to learn - and to instill a love of learning in others. I do NOT have all the answers to the literary questions. Symbolism still often eludes me - but - I have a desire to learn and I am finding that the more I read, the more I discover hidden meanings on my own.
So, I think I have two items to share on this subject and then....I must go teach :)
When I was in high school I feel as though the teachers assumed that students understood symbolism. I do not remember being taught HOW to look for symbolism -- or that certain symbolic elements have been around for ages (I never head the word archetype until 3 years ago) -- or that novels have layers of meaning and how to discover those hidden layers. I just remember the teacher saying, "The river symbolizes life" and I was thinking "WHAT? The river is a river" No explanations were given. I felt like an idiot because I was apparently supposed to know this. So, I took copious notes in order to pass the class and gave up on any aspirations of reading the classics on my own.
In my attempt to learn from my past I truly try to TEACH symbolism and literary analysis. I start in the 7th grade introducing the basic terms - giving archetypical examples (students know symbolism - they just don't know it is symbolism) - and pointing out symbolism in the literature while explaining HOW and WHY it is a symbol. Each subsequent year I review and build upon this basic framework with the hope that once they reach 12th grade they are not afraid of the concept - and can actually identify symbolism in the classic British novels on their own.
Do English teachers (well, not me of course - but others - ha ha) read too much into a book? Could it be that the author just wanted the river to be a river? Absolutely!! I think humans can over-analyze anything. But...here's the thing....as long as the opinion can be supported by the text (which is absolutely key) --- then who is to say that the analysis is wrong? Does that mean that we can have (gasp) conflicting views? Of course --- and that is what makes the discussion of literature so fun and engaging. We need to learn to be accepting of others' views (again, as long as it can be backed up with the text) -- and learn to agree to disagree.
I strongly believe that the reading of a book is an ongoing dialogue between the author and the reader. The reader has a responsibility to be actively engaged (which is why I loved the concept of the readathon --- reading IS an activity not a passivity, which I preach to my students all the time). So if the reader discovers a hidden meaning that applies to his own life - that the author did not intend -- is that wrong?! Absolutely not. Fiction is a means to help us discover truth (not my words -- the words of Ted Dekker in his most amazing blogtalk interview). I will read a book from my Point of View -- which is a nearly 50 year old teacher living in the midwest. Isn't it understandable that I might find a different meaning in a book than say a 15 year old adolescent from the Bronx? I try to tell students that there is not one right way to interpret literature but this is a hard concept for them because they just want to be told the right answer and move on -- they do not like to try to discover answers for themselves. Those who DO get it, however, enjoy the times that they can find meaning that I failed to see -- and I also find great reward in their discovery.
I am not quite sure how to summarize my thoughts here. I think that symbolism needs to be taught -- I do not think it is an innate skill that comes to maturity when we hit 9th grade. I think that it needs to be taught because students need to learn to read on a deeper level -- they need to learn to think - to apply what they read to their own lives - to discover the potential layers of a well-written novel. Once students are given the skills, then it is up to them if they wish to hone these skills in their own pleasure reading or not. Is it ok to read a book for surface meaning only? Is it possible to enjoy a book without all the in depth analysis? Absolutely!! But....does the knowledge of these skills, however antiquated some think, add to the enjoyment of the novel? I believe that it does.