December 12, 2011
What can we learn from the great writers of literature about symbolism? First of all, to quit analyzing literature for symbolic value (the first rule of symbolism: do not talk about symbolism). As Sarah Butler reports in The Paris Review,
In 1963, a sixteen-year-old San Diego high school student named Bruce McAllister sent a four-question mimeographed survey to 150 well-known authors. "Did they consciously plant symbols in their work?" he asked. "Who noticed symbols appearing from their subconscious, and who saw them arrive in their text, unbidden, created in the minds of their readers? When this happened, did the authors mind?"
Amazingly, many of the famous authors wrote back. Ray Bradbury delivers a short, to-the-point lecture on the subject:
I never consciously place symbols 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 . . . .
If people find beasties and bedbugs in my ink-splotches, I can't prevent it, can I? They will insist on seeing them anyway, and that is their privilege. Still, I wish people, quasi-intellectuals, did not try so hard to find the man under the old maid's bed. More often than not, he simply isn't there.
Speaking of Bradbury, in the comments, "Kevin" sums up what a lot of us felt in our high school and college English courses (redacted a bit):
I remember reading Something Wicked This Way Comes in high school. The whole lesson was centered on the symbolic meaning of every single person, place, or thing in the book. I knew there was no way the author meant every little thing to be a symbol.
But perhaps Norman Mailer sums it up most succinctly: "Generally, the best symbols in a novel are those you become aware of only after you finish the work."
That actually happened to me writing Serpent of Time. Well into the final draft stage, I started noticing some quite unplanned symbolism in the text. I did my best to ignore it because I didn't want it dictating the plot. But it's still there, and I'm now fully prepared to discuss it at length.
Hey, I've got two degrees in the humanities. I can deconstruct the unintended symbolism in my own stories too.