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Was Your English Lit Teacher Wrong About Symbolism?


You always wondered if your college lit professor was just making crap up.

Turns out, maybe they were.

This article from The Paris Review offers a revealing take by many famous authors on how much symbolism played a part in their work.

Their comments were prompted by a letter from a 16-year-old Bruce McCallister in 1963. He was tired of the constant find-the-symbolism game in English class, so he took it upon himself to ask them what the big deal was with symbolism.

He mailed a simple four-question survey to more than 150 novelists. About half of them responded. The responses were varied, but most of the authors seemed to think symbolism is overanalyzed. Their comments were awesome:

The survey included the following questions:

“Do you consciously, intentionally plan and place symbolism in your writing?… If yes, please state your method for doing so. Do you feel you sub-consciously place symbolism in your writing?”

Jack Kerouac: “No.”

Isaac Asimov: “Consciously? Heavens, no! Unconsciously? How can one avoid it?”

Ray Bradbury: “No, I never consciously place symbolism in my writing. That would be a self-conscious exercise and self-consciousness is defeating to any creative act. Better to let the subconscious do the work for you, and get out of the way. The best symbolism is always unsuspected and natural.”

John Updike: “Yes—I have no method; there is no method in writing fiction; you don’t seem to understand.”

“Do readers ever infer that there is symbolism in your writing where you had not intended it to be? If so, what is your feeling about this type of inference? (Humorous? annoying? etc.?)”

Ralph Ellison: “Yes, readers often infer that there is symbolism in my work, which I do not intend. My reaction is sometimes annoyance. It is sometimes humorous. It is sometimes even pleasant, indicating that the reader’s mind has collaborated in a creative way with what I have written.”

Saul Bellow: “They most certainly do. Symbol-hunting is absurd.”

Joseph Heller: “This happens often, and in every case there is good reason for the inference; in many cases, I have been able to learn something about my own book, for readers have seen much in the book that is there, although I was not aware of it being there.”

John Updike: “Once in a while—usually they do not (see the) symbols that are there.”

“Do you have anything to remark concerning the subject under study, or anything you believe to be pertinent to such a study?”

Richard Hughes: “Some of them did (Joyce, Dante) more than others (Homer) but it is impossible to think of any significant work of narrative art without a symbolic dimension of some sort.”

Joseph Heller: “The more sophisticated the writer, I would guess, the smaller the use of symbols in the strictest sense and the greater the attempt to achieve the effects of symbolism in more subtle ways. “

Ralph Ellison: “Man is a symbol-making and –using animal. Language itself is a symbolic form of communication. The great writers all used symbols as a means of controlling the form of their fiction. Some place it there subconsciously, discovered it and then developed it. Others started out consciously aware and in some instances shaped the fiction to the symbols.”

Jack Kerouac: “Come off of it—there are all kinds of ‘classics’—Sterne used no symbolism, Joyce did.”

You can read more responses over at Mental Floss and The Paris Review.

In sum, it sounds like many of the authors dismissed the obsessive search for symbolism in their work. Is it in there? Yes. But it’s in there more subconciously than anything else. And it’s not in every sentence like your high school English teacher might have led you to believe.

I love Jack Kerouac’s answer to the first question. A simple “no.”

You might notice that I don’t talk a lot about symbolism and the like when I “review” the 101 Books and write about them. That’s purposeful.

Doing so would take me back to English class and thereby take all the fun out of writing (and consequently reading) this blog. I try to keep it light and, mostly, on the surface, maybe even more often than I should.

But this brief little survey from a high school kid in 1963 makes me feel like I might be reading these novels more in line with the way their authors intended.

If you’re a symbolism hunter, more power to you. Go for it. But it’s just not something I enjoy all that much.

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51 Comments Post a comment
  1. As a student, I too tired of the endless symbolism hunt. I wrote my senior term paper over the Christian symbolism in ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ Did I believe that John Steinbeck purposely included all the symbolism? No. BUT (and this is the English teacher in me speaking), looking for symbols can help students get a greater/deeper meaning out of the writing. To me, it’s the same as reading poetry – not everyone gets the same thing out of reading a poem, but as long as you get something out of it, I’m happy. :)

    January 29, 2014
    • I agree. I have no problem with looking for symbolism and talking about, as long as we’re also stopping and enjoying the story and letting it breathe a little.

      January 29, 2014
      • Totally agree. I remember reading a poem in college and discussing it in class. When stating what I liked about the poem and what it meant, the professor told me I had it all wrong and then proceeded to tell me what HE thought it meant, as if his interpretation was gospel.
        I decided right then and there that I would never, ever do that to one of my students. It totally ruined my enjoyment of the poem and the class.

        January 29, 2014
  2. As a former literature student, I have a love-hate relationship with symbolism! I agree with you that symbolism in literary works is often subconsciously placed by the author – however it seems sometimes as if there is too much focus on psychoanalysing the author and not on the actual novel itself!

    January 29, 2014
    • Exactly.

      January 29, 2014
  3. Amazing! Simply amazing! i’ve always been annoyed by all that symbolism hunting at school. In my humble opinion, we miss the point of the reading when we do that! Novels are all about life, and just like we do in our lives, we try to make simple things complex to show deep knowledge about it. But the truth is, the beauty is in the simple things. Being able to learn from the simple lessons within the readings is the big secret!

    January 29, 2014
  4. Reblogged this on literaryboners and commented:
    You may have already know this, but your English teacher is full of shit. All that symbolism they have you chasing just isn’t there.

    January 29, 2014
  5. This is a ridiculous article. Of course, there is symbolism in literature; there is symbolism in everything. For example, if a man is dressed in rags, that is a symbol that he is a bum. If a man is dressed in a suit, that is a symbol that he is a businessman. Learning how to read symbols in literature and in life is an exercise in learning how to be perceptive about the world around us. The kid who sent these letters out is about as unperceptive as they come. In fact, he will do anything to avoid learning how to be perceptive.

    January 29, 2014
    • Maybe the kid and I didn’t articulate enough. The question isn’t whether there’s symbolism or not. The question is whether the search for symbolism is obsessive and given too much weight by English professors.

      And, actually, if you read the Mental Floss article, the kid went on to be an English professor himself. The irony.

      January 29, 2014
  6. Reblogged this on facingyork and commented:
    This. All of this. I agree.

    January 29, 2014
  7. One of my proudest (?) moments in high school came while writing a paper about Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I discovered that the name Roger means “Spear”–which is significant since Roger is one of the most violent boys on the island and one who most welcomes the decay of civilization on the island. What’s a greater threat to peace and civilization than war and the spear? It impressed the teacher and I got an A on the paper. It was one of the moments I thought of when I went to college and decided on English as a major.

    But I remember wrestling with the same question in college: How often were the symbols placed there by the author, and how often are we just seeing what we want to see. And then I got to my senior Literary Criticism class and was confronted with the question: Does it really matter? With the book published, the author’s work is done and the reader’s work has begun. Anyway…Long story short: There are no easy answers :)

    January 29, 2014
  8. I’ve had symbolism drilled in my head so much that it naturally pops out when I read a book and also when I watch movies. I never have to search for it. it annoyingly appears like a persistent mosquito.

    January 29, 2014
  9. Reblogged this on iconobaptist and commented:
    Turns out that those who tried to read without looking for symbolism in great books may have been on the right track!

    January 29, 2014
  10. Reblogged this on theshamelesswanderer.

    January 29, 2014
  11. This is so refreshing to hear!!! I am currently a junior in high school, and it seems as though teachers expect us to completely analyze every single line of every book we read. It gets really tiring and irritating after a while, which is why I enjoy reading outside of the classroom setting much more. When I read by myself I feel like I am reading the story that is actually in the book, rather than the one that English teachers gather from the apparent “symbolism” in it. Awesome post!

    January 29, 2014
  12. Mabel #

    I’m a very (very) new literature student, so I’m not well-versed on this topic yet. But this article strikes me as ill-informed.

    The whole point of literary criticism (from what I’ve learned so far) is to train our minds to look deeper than surface, so we can sniff out a cultural message within what appears to be a flat commercial (for example), and start to see what is really being said under the surface. (Which is often not something the author said consciously.)

    We do this in literature as we do this in life.

    Students are taught not to make a symbolic leap. Picking out a green jacket as a symbol for a longing for Ireland and running with that when the text doesn’t support it? Would be a symbolic leap. I’ve never had a professor support that kind of thinking.

    Noticing that the main character simply accepts gender bias as the norm, and that the author seems to support this, and that all those oppressing the main character for her gender are sympathetic characters, and she is portrayed as unsympathetic (or vice versa) is more in tune with what English professors teach. We are asked what the author might be saying, not as a futile exercise, but to see beyond the text into the impact it has on the greater world, or the impact the greater world has had upon it. This trains us to look at the world with eyes wide open, and not simply accept (for example) a commercial about women which suggests that youth, beauty and money are the goal, and age is something to be ashamed of and hidden away by purchasing expensive beauty products. We start to realize the way the media warps our viewpoints. And we begin to see this all over our current culture.

    (Again, this is a point of view from the as yet very limited experience of a lit student. I also fully support reading novels as the author intended. Which is, I assume, in most cases simply as a story. “Enjoying the story and letting it breathe a little” (as Robert commented above) is my favorite way to read.) :)

    But English professors are awesome. x

    January 29, 2014
  13. Yes, sometimes there was no symbolism at all and no hidden meaning. They just wanted to write a story, that´s all. And also lit professors are hard to find. Livia.

    January 29, 2014
  14. Reblogged this on The Writing Catalog and commented:
    I am not a symbol-hunter myself, and I think talking about intentional symbolism, unless you are dealing with an allegory, is a waste of time. But I do agree with Asimov that’s its impossible to avoid unconscious symbolism, and I like what Ellison says about readers finding symbols being an indication that their mind is collaborating with the author’s work. I’ve said this before – there is a social element to writing that we do not talk about enough. “Composition” is a solitary activity, but it is only one component of what I think of as “writing.” Writing begins when you have an idea and doesn’t end until you have someone reading the finished piece. That is what I think.

    January 29, 2014
  15. Daniel Casey #

    Authors don’t control the symbolism in the work they produce. Symbolism grows out of a work through readers & critics.

    January 29, 2014
  16. Reblogged this on The Bob Zima Blog and commented:
    Got to love it. People always read into art and the simple things that collectively produce life moments.

    January 29, 2014
  17. Symbolism is part of the fun of reading. No, not everything in a work means something, no not every author is deliberate in their methods, but to dismiss it as part of the reading process negates the creative efforts of the author and deprives the reader of a rich immersion experience. I try to take a balanced approach. Whenever I get a little too high on the theory bandwagon, I recall these quotes that bring me back down:

    “Week before last I went to Wesleyan and read “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” After it I went to one of the classes where I was asked questions. There were a couple of young teachers there and one of them, an earnest type, started asking the questions. “Miss O’Connor,” he said, “why was the Misfit’s hat black?” I said most countrymen in Georgia wore black hats. He looked pretty disappointed. Then he said, “Miss O’Connor, the Misfit represents Christ, does he not?” “He does not,” I said. He looked crushed. “Well, Miss O’Connor,” he said, “what is the significance of the Misfit’s hat?” I said it was to cover his head; and after that he left me alone. Anyway, that’s what’s happening to the teaching of literature.” -Flannery O’Connor

    “All art is unstable. Its meaning is not necessarily that implied by the author. There is no authoritative voice. There are only multiple readings.”-David Bowie 1995

    Conversely, whenever i have the urge to dismiss meaning in a work when I know something is there, I remember that even beyond acclaimed works, even in the ‘fad’ of the moment arguably drivel work such as Twilight, authors use symbolism, I reflect on how long it took an author just to research the names of characters, or the research or thought process to create the right elements to reflect a person or a setting, and I marvel at the seemingly minute details that enrich my pleasure in reading.

    January 29, 2014
  18. Reblogged this on to be or not to be is not a question and commented:
    I find this very interesting. It is something that I have also always wondered about. I believe that symbolism has more to do with a readers interaction with a text. We give it meaning and life in our own form, and I believe that that life can come across in the search and recognition of symbols.

    January 29, 2014
  19. Most time a tree is just a tree and the author meant for it to be a tree. This exercise in the search for symbolism often ends a student’s love of reading. Or at least reading the books the teacher assigns. I never could figure out why literature teachers spend so much time trying to get their students to search for something that isn’t there, or if it’s there, who’s to say the tree meant this instead of that. Often the writer doesn’t even know what the tree means. And really doesn’t care. I think a better exercise would be to ask students to write their own stories based on the characters. Now that would be very interesting.

    January 29, 2014
  20. As writer of TheParisReviewBlog, I’m really glad to see this post. This is so insightful, and every writer should be aware of this truth. Great post.

    January 29, 2014
  21. It can be interesting to read something you wrote years ago and realize what your subconscious was trying to work through via symbolism, but I try not to do it too often as it can degenerate into pointless navel gazing.

    January 29, 2014
  22. Love this, thank you for illuminating something I’ve struggled with all my reading life. It reminds me of my Uni Art History professor who would bang on about certain paintings and all the symbolism therein. Maybe there was, but as an artist all my life, I know that when symbolism does appear in my work, it is not a conscious act. I thought Ray Bradbury’s was possibly the most important comment of all, ‘creativity is not a conscious exercise and it is most self-defeating’. Thank you!

    January 29, 2014
  23. Reblogged this on S. Thomas Summers: Writing with some Ink and a Hammer and commented:
    As an English teacher and a writer, I found this post from “101 Books” too good not to reblog.

    January 29, 2014
  24. As an English teacher and a writer, I admit that I am full of crap! Ha. Love this post.

    January 29, 2014
  25. Reblogged this on Exploring Classics and commented:
    I sometimes felt that my high school English teacher was reading too much into the books we read. Reblogged from 101 Books.

    January 29, 2014
  26. I reblogged this. Great article.

    January 29, 2014
  27. Reblogged this on a little bit me, a little bit you.

    January 29, 2014
  28. Thank you! I always felt this way, especially because searching for meaning in texts takes way from the art of the work. You should letting meaning come to you, instead of continuously asking well what does this mean?

    January 29, 2014
  29. Reblogged this on The Backwords and commented:
    This post is like a word for word transcript of the dialogue going on in mind. Every writer, aspiring or seasoned, needs to read this.

    January 29, 2014
  30. I’m in my final year at college and I have to say I’m leaning more towards your way of thinking. When I write, I never consciously think about symbolism, and when i read, I usually don’t consciously look for it. Sometimes it is there and I recognize it, but I am usually more interested in the construction of the story and the narrative and the more tangible elements than symbols. I don’t dislike them, but I’m increasingly turned off by the literary dissection that is inevitable in English classes. But maybe that’s just because I have serious senioritis.

    January 29, 2014
  31. MAM #

    May I just say that John Updike cracks me up? What a crazy New English mensch.

    January 29, 2014
  32. Martha Kennedy #

    I dunno. I’d rather look for symbols any day than be compelled to find politics hiding in every line.

    January 29, 2014
  33. Reblogged this on Whimper Man.

    January 29, 2014
  34. Nice to read this. I tend to miss symbolism in a lot of books. It’s only when I discuss a book with friends or on a book blog that I realize I missed stuff.

    January 30, 2014
  35. Reblogged this on Bobbi Scribbles.

    January 30, 2014
  36. Reblogged this on Roberta's Literary Ramblings and commented:
    I always found it annoying that teacher’s put so much emphasis on symbolism. That might be why I am so bad at finding it, but I love literature despite my inability to find symbols in everything. I’m more of a character analysis person myself. I mean, look at the works of Jane Austen. The real gold is in the characters and how they interact with each other. Instead of searching out symbols, I think it’s more fun to see step back sometimes and see the big picture.

    January 30, 2014
  37. Reblogged this on Literary Liquorice and commented:
    I’m more surprised that the authors actually answered.

    January 30, 2014
  38. Looking back, I think the goal of focusing on symbolism in English classes was less about finding a hidden meaning and more about forcing kids to look at literature a little deeper. Still, at the time it seemed a little silly, and the reactions these authors have to their own work does not surprise me at all.

    January 31, 2014
  39. Whilst it did quite often feel like the hunt the symbolism for extra marks, it was and is a game i quite enjoy so i’m not gonna complain!

    February 1, 2014
  40. It’s a shame Thomas Hardy couldn’t be contacted with this question.

    February 2, 2014
  41. Back in high school and in the university, our English professors were very sure that every book and every piece of writing have some sort of symbolism embedded in them. Now they could making that up.

    February 3, 2014
  42. Funny to read this now, since I often felt the teachers’ symbolism discoveries seemed far-fetched. Not to say it wasn’t good to really dive into a text and take a closer look, but I also felt that if you couldn’t find a symbol you shouldn’t be graded lower for it. It seems symbolism may be more subjective than teachers care to admit. Interesting read, though. Very cool post.

    February 3, 2014
  43. Reblogged this on Schools 4 Cools and commented:
    They are not essentially wrong, they just, most of the time, over-read into the things that were included in a literature. Anyone could assume that there are symbolism in a certain book or novel, but ultimately, the one who could shed light on their presence or absence is the author.

    February 4, 2014
  44. Vee #

    Thanks for this wonderful post! I’m not opposed to seeing and exploring symbolism. However, I don’t want to go on an endless scavenger hunt for it either. If it’s there then great. If it’s not then please don’t attempt to manufacture it for the sake of “literary exploration”. That can get a little tiresome.

    February 4, 2014
  45. Reblogged this on Constant streams… and commented:
    This was interesting. Personally I have deliberately placed symbolism in my writing, especially poetry. It’s funny how some of the writers who responded admitted symbolism in their writing, some denied it or said it was unintentional, and at least one said that readers finding it in his writing helped him understand his work better.

    February 11, 2014

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