Booking Through Thursday #32 – Symbolic? or Not?


Booking Through Thursday

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?


I think I’d have to agree with your husband on this one.  Sometimes closing the door is simply closing the door.  Not everything has an alternate meaning or hint of symbolism.  Now I wouldn’t say that is always the case.  I think there are some books that contain symbolism, that’s what fairy tales are all about, but I don’t it’s something we should be hunting for while reading a book.

This was a discussion that came up regularly while I attend university at CMU and discussed the Bible.  As a believer I wouldn’t say that the Bible should be read and taken exactly as it’s written.  There is symbolism in the Bible but there are other times we shouldn’t take any more from what is written than what is on the page.  

In the literary world there are times when the author is attempting to say more than what appears on the page.  Nothing is more obvious than when we read a script.  Playwrights need to be telling us more than just the dialogue. The action and the words combined often have a deeper meaning than what we see.  Take for example Shakespeare (who by the way is celebrating his birthday today!) if we take A Midsummer Nights Dream literally you’ll be missing the whole point.  And in case you didn’t already know faeries aren’t real and the chances you’ll enter the forest and get an asses head are at zero.  

I think I should stop here because I’m just rambling on and on saying essentially the same thing over and over again.  This is a great question by Barbara, thank you for the great question.


4 thoughts on “Booking Through Thursday #32 – Symbolic? or Not?

  1. Closing the door is closing the door. Awesome! 🙂

    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.

  2. Much of the time symbolic meaning is something I find when I read a book a second time. I’ve read Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea five or six times, and every time I come away with a different understanding of the fish and what it stands for symbolically. That’s one thing that makes it fun to re-read and one thing that makes it a great book.

  3. Matthew: I agree. Those books that do contain symbols, I would think, are purely accidental. I don’t think an author attempts to write symbolism in their works. And a symbol can only be noticed if a person has had an experience that relates to what they’re reading.

    CB James: I also find that I don’t noticed the symbols in a book unless I’ve read it a couple of times. And even there it’s all relative to the experiences I’ve had. I don’t think that symbols are obvious and are only known when you’ve an experience you can relate to in the novel

    Jessica: Thank you, it’s nice to know others agree with what you’re saying.

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