Thursday, April 23, 2009

BTT - It's symbolic

Oh my -- this Booking through Thursday question is quite the mind-bender!

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?

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.

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.'s the 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.


  1. You certainly don't sound like an "impostor" to me! Whatever credentials you might or might not have, sounds like you're doing a wonderful, conscientious job of helping your students to a much richer experience of literature. Good work and good answer!

  2. This is a great post, Molly. I do think we search for symbolism so much at times that we overlook the marvelous story in front of us. I usually got the symbolism in the stories we read in English until I took a poetry class in college - it was way over my head.

  3. I think that in some cases, authors are like your younger students - they insert symbolism without really intending it as a symbol. They describe things from their POV, but from another angle, it gives a very different view.

    Thanks so much for stopping by my blog! If you read the book, you'll have to stop back and let me know how you liked it.

  4. All I know is that my high schooler's English teacher about killed any love of reading he might have had last year. They spent 7 weeks analyzing The Lord of the Flies. SEVEN WEEKS people! I know there is symbolism in that book but enough is enough. Sheesh! (do you want to know how I really feel about it? ;) )

  5. Great point about needing evidence to back up analysis of symbolism.

  6. @Kim
    Ha ha....that sounds like my high school English class. We spend a similar amount of time on Lord of the Flies documenting every bit of symbolism that we could find. All that combined with the overall grimness of the book made the whole thing an ordeal. Nevertheless, it did teach me about symbolism and helped me in eventually reading "The Wasteland" and James Joyce.
    Nice post, Molly!

  7. Great post Molly. I had the same experience in high school. Until I got to poetry, I just didn't get it. But for me, poetry was all about symbolism and I loved it for that. In novels/literature I just want to enjoy the story. Then, as I think about the story, the symbols and hidden meanings start coming to the surface and it adds to the enjoyment of the story.

    On the subject of your teaching credentials: In my opinion teachers should be hired on the basis of their passion to learn. It carries over into everything else they do in and out of the classroom. Then they should be judged on the ability to work with people, little people and big people. So, in my opinion, you have what it takes to be a great teacher.

  8. How can you be an impostor with all your literary insights?

    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.

  9. I totally agree that symbolism isn't taught (which finding it is a learned skill). It wasn't until my Junior year of high school (and then never again) that I had a teacher who understood that.

  10. Molly- I agree with the idea that sometimes we can get so caught up in symbolism that we over look what really matters in a story. That's why I enjoyed my most recent read 'The Crying of Lot 49' so much. The main lesson at the end was that you could spend your whole life getting wrapped up in symbols and meaning, and miss the bigger picture...which is just a great story!

  11. When I was in high school I feel as though the teachers assumed that students understood symbolism.THIS! A thousand times this!

    @Kim - SAME HERE! Geez we spent so much time going over the religious context of that book I just wanted to scream, enough already we get it it's all about God and the Christ figure, can we move onto the next book please?!?!?!

  12. "I strongly believe that the reading of a book is an ongoing dialogue between the author and the reader." You really said it all right there. I agree. As a writer myself, I enjoy knowing that there will be connections a reader makes to my work that I didn't plan on or expect.

    "The writer provides one half and the reader the other." - Paul Valery

  13. personally, i encourage my students to look beyond the literal meaning in the works we read to help improve their critical thinking and analytical skills.

    in works like 'the glass menagerie', 'of mice and men', and 'a raisin in the sun', the symbolism and imagery is strong and easy for them to detect.

    it's not really about reinventing the story but about doing a close reading and recognizing that literature should provoke discussion and interpretation.

    as long as a student can support his or her theory, i think it's valid, whether or not the author intended the meaning the student takes from the work.

  14. I've left you something on my blog, too. You're the current book giveaway winner, actually.


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