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Symbolism

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Goudron



Joined: 03 Aug 2004
Posts: 2570
Location: near Cleveland OH
Symbolism  Reply with quote  

Does anybody care about it? My favourite novel is Catcher in the Rye. It's full of symbolism, or that's what my first semester grade 12 English teacher taught me. Considering the evidence, I'm compelled to believe her.

What place does it have in modern literature? I always feel if I try to use it, it's either to obvious and childish, or no one will notice, and it becomes an embarrassing inside joke. I'm betting I read pieces with symbolism all the time, but I'm oblivious to the effect, so why is it there? Anyone have comments or examples of successful and unsuccessful uses of symbolism in recent popular works? That sounds like it's worth at least 20 points, but I promise not to grade anyone. My first semester grade 12 English teacher always gave me a 79 on my essays, so that's as good as not grading anything.



OK! I lied, it was always 78. Happy?
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Post Wed Aug 04, 2004 9:04 pm   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
chris
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Joined: 02 Mar 2004
Posts: 3833
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The people here have heard it before, but once again, with feeling...

Sybolism, allegory, big themes -- often these are the things that will bury a young writer. Too many literature courses will bury a young writer. At a time when you have the passion and the blissful ignorance to tell stories, you just need to tell the best stories you can. Forget about symbolism and allegory.

Would you have enjoyed Catcher in the Rye if no one had told you about the symbolism? You're damn right you would have. So write the way you think will entertain someone.

If you are the one in a thousand writers who is capable of producing literature, you will. If you become a great storyteller, the symbolism and allegory will be things that you can incorporate into your storytelling, but right now, imagine yourself learning to juggle. Start with two balls, work up to three, get really, really good at three, then add another ball. Not for the whole routine, just for a while. For variation. You're starting out, so do your best to keep the balls of character and plot and pace in the air, learn to handle time and transition, get your chops down. Your rhythms. Learn how to break up long sentences, and to blend choppy ones. Get from paragraph to paragraph with your reader intact. Solve logistic problems. People will notice if your dialog doesn't work, your characters are thin, or your plot is illogical, but no one will come away from your story saying "Hey, where was the damn symbolism?"

We are creatures of symbols, icons, and archetypes. They will happen in your work because you can't help but have them happen, perhaps then you can say, "Yes, this is the perfect time to take advantage of this obvious parallell with Prometheus, or Jesus, or the Eternal Mother -- whateva. But my advice for now is learn how to get Bob from Main Street to Oak Avenue without having to describe every step. You're work will be better served. Learn how to get from this minute to next week, and from next week to two weeks ago. Learn how get inside Wendy's head, then across the room into Steve's head. Figure out how you're going to write about things that are happening while your character is sleeping after you decided to tell the story in first person. In other words, you have plenty to learn, don't let the burden of literature break your back. If you a meant to carry it, you will know.

For now, write.

Post Thu Aug 05, 2004 2:32 am   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
Boota



Joined: 09 Apr 2004
Posts: 830
Location: Kokomo, Indiana
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A couple of readers have pointed out symbolism in my book that I didn't realize was there. Of course, I took immediate credit for it, even though it was purely accidental.
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Post Thu Aug 05, 2004 4:48 pm   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
chris
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Boota wrote:
A couple of readers have pointed out symbolism in my book that I didn't realize was there. Of course, I took immediate credit for it, even though it was purely accidental.



Perfect!

Post Thu Aug 05, 2004 5:11 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
john palmer
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Hemingway on symbolism  Reply with quote  

...all those guys have theories and try to fit you into the theory...Carlos Baker really baffles me. Do you suppose he can con himself into thinking I would put a symbol into anything on purpose? It's hard enough just to make a paragraph.



John

Post Fri Aug 06, 2004 7:16 pm   
john palmer
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symbols  Reply with quote  

Listen: symbols are really, really cool, especially at the end of a long orchestral crescendo or in the national anthem...


john palmer

Post Sun Aug 08, 2004 9:45 pm   
Fairydust



Joined: 23 Aug 2004
Posts: 28
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Boota wrote:
A couple of readers have pointed out symbolism in my book that I didn't realize was there. Of course, I took immediate credit for it, even though it was purely accidental.


The same thing happened back when I wrote one of my many misunderstood horror stories in high school. I had a few things that I didn't catach b/c I always wanted someone read my story even if they thought it was weird of bad. My english teacher loved and the rest of the class had look of "WTF?" Rolling Eyes God I hated high school. Evil or Very Mad Apparently if write a zombie story kids don't like them too much.
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Post Wed Sep 01, 2004 12:07 pm   View user's profile Send private message
earthshoes



Joined: 17 Jun 2004
Posts: 213
Location: SW Missouri
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In other words, you have plenty to learn, don't let the burden of literature break your back. If you a meant to carry it, you will know.

For now, write.


Once again, well said.
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Post Wed Sep 01, 2004 3:36 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail AIM Address Yahoo Messenger
palmer



Joined: 30 Mar 2004
Posts: 1324
are symbols everywher?  Reply with quote  

Aren't symbols a part of our lives? If you buy into Jung, Campbell, et. al., we're awash in them, can't get away from them. Using them self-consciously, trying to create "literature" can be really constipation and sometimes downright silly, but I don't see how we can avoid symbols in a sense.

Post Wed Sep 01, 2004 8:55 pm   View user's profile Send private message
Unc



Joined: 18 Aug 2004
Posts: 300
Location: South of FRANCE
Re: are symbols everywher?  Reply with quote  

palmer wrote:
Aren't symbols a part of our lives? If you buy into Jung, Campbell, et. al., we're awash in them, can't get away from them. Using them self-consciously, trying to create "literature" can be really constipation and sometimes downright silly, but I don't see how we can avoid symbols in a sense.


I agree with AG 100% on this one -- if you haven't written a compelling story, who is going to *care* about all the symbols you packed into it?

But another distinction that probably should be made is between symbolism and imagery. Jung believed that symbols really "meant" something universal. Campbell was wiser -- he knew that symbols only "mean" something within a very limited context; a cross is not going to "mean" the same thing to someone brought up in the West as it "means" to someone brought up in a pagan culture, or a southeast Asain culture, or a Himalayan culture. So the conscious use of symbols is almost by definition limited. To make the symbolism work, you have to *assume* that the reader will interpret and react to the symbol the same way you do.

Imagery is freer, less limited. A great image can provoke a reaction in many different people from different backgrounds. And more important, it can provoke many *different* reactions.

The person I always think of when this discussion of symbolism vs. imagery comes up is Bob Dylan. Scholars have written mountains of BS analyzing the symbolism in his songs, and what these symbols "meant." Dylan himself, however, has been fairly consistent (for him Very Happy) in laughing at the scholars and saying that he really doesn't *think* symbols. He thinks images. The image of Cinderella smiling, with her hands in her back pockets Betty Davis style didn't *mean* anything to Bob when he was writing Desolation Row. It didn't symbolize Cinderella or Betty Davis or desolation. It was just an interesting image that popped into his head that seemed to perfectly describe a friend. And because the image really *is* interesting, it makes the character more interesting, even if neither the author nor the reader knows what it "means." In my opinion, the good use of imagery may make the character more interesting *because* neither the author nor the reader knows what it "means." A great image *frees* us -- both as writer and as reader -- from the need to associate the character with anything past, present or future; the characters are free to just be who they are. A character who is a symbol is kinda stuck in the "bag" of being a symbol. And that's almost always a less interesting gig than being yourself.

Post Fri Sep 03, 2004 5:00 am   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
palmer



Joined: 30 Mar 2004
Posts: 1324
Re: are symbols everywher?  Reply with quote  

Unc wrote:
palmer wrote:
Aren't symbols a part of our lives? If you buy into Jung, Campbell, et. al., we're awash in them, can't get away from them. Using them self-consciously, trying to create "literature" can be really constipation and sometimes downright silly, but I don't see how we can avoid symbols in a sense.


I agree with AG 100% on this one -- if you haven't written a compelling story, who is going to *care* about all the symbols you packed into it?


Yes. And I agree with him 100% also.

What I'm saying is that symbolism can creep into a story even if we do not set out to include it. Was the gig fish in The Old Man and the Sea a symbol? Hemingway insists that it was not, and who am I to disagree, but does it have symbolic value?

What about Piggy's glasses in Lord of the Flies? Better yet the conch? Are tehy symbols? I think so, but very natural symbols, not so heavy-handed and tedious.

Quote:
But another distinction that probably should be made is between symbolism and imagery. Jung believed that symbols really "meant" something universal. Campbell was wiser -- he knew that symbols only "mean" something within a very limited context; a cross is not going to "mean" the same thing to someone brought up in the West as it "means" to someone brought up in a pagan culture, or a southeast Asain culture, or a Himalayan culture.


Indeed. The swastika is a perfect example. Flip it 180 degrees, which most people wouldn't even notice, and to the Hindus it's something beautiful.

Quote:
So the conscious use of symbols is almost by definition limited. To make the symbolism work, you have to *assume* that the reader will interpret and react to the symbol the same way you do.


I think that there are symbols and there are symbols. Some seem to be more or less culturally dependant than others.

Quote:
Imagery is freer, less limited. A great image can provoke a reaction in many different people from different backgrounds. And more important, it can provoke many *different* reactions.


Yes. And if the image is repeated, sometimes possibly just because the writer uses an image he's just used and says, "Cool. I think I'll add that to my pallet for this story." It gets reused and sometimes becomes...symbolic. Shakespeare did it all the time, and I think it happened quite naturally.

Personally, I don't go looking for symbols to include. I have enough trouble trying to write a decent story.

Post Fri Sep 03, 2004 8:10 am   View user's profile Send private message
earthshoes



Joined: 17 Jun 2004
Posts: 213
Location: SW Missouri
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Robert Frost was one of the first two poets I read that made me (and a host of other people) want write poetry (e.e. cummings was the other, but that's another thread entirely). One of my favorites was "Mending Wall". I think it was the first poem that actually made me think about literary symbols, extended metaphors and similes.

Robert wrote a poem we all know and can probably quote the closing line to entitled "The Road Not Taken". We've all read this and probably had it explained to us as being representative of how difficult choices are and how those choices shape our lives. And how doing the hard thing is worth so much more in the end. At least that's what my high school English teacher told me--and my Lit 101 prof in college and at least one poetry instructor. What genious! What wonderful use of symbolism.

Hah.

The truth is--that was not at all Robert's intent when he wrote the poem. He wrote it for his best friend, Edward Thomas, a Welsh poet, and it intended as a bit of teasing. Edward would strike out on walks with Frost along, intending to show him one thing, then change his mind half-way there, then belly-ache over the fact that he couldn't show Frost whatever he didn't choose.

When Frost sent the piece to his friend, Edward himself didn't recognize the joke at all. Robert read it at a couple poetry readings in Britain. Still no one got the joke.

Must be a British thing, Frost concluded. So he published the piece in the Atlantic Monthly, hoping his American readers would get it. No one did. This was a source of frustration to Frost.

So what did I learn from this? It's no shame when no one gets the intent behind one of my own pieces. Sometimes someone can be too subtle in their attempt to be subtle when writing. Aaaaand . . .

Sometimes we see symbols where they weren't put by the writer. Best just to write your story and let the symbols take care of themselves. They work best when they strike subconsciously anyway.
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Post Fri Sep 03, 2004 11:49 am   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail AIM Address Yahoo Messenger
chris
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Joined: 02 Mar 2004
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Location: People Republic of Northern California
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Good story, Shoes. I hadn't heard that. Thanks.

Post Fri Sep 03, 2004 1:02 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
Q



Joined: 19 May 2004
Posts: 297
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my favorite e.e. cumming:


i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart)
i am never without it (anywhere i go you go, my dear;
and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)

i fear
no fate (for you are my fate, my sweet) i want no world
(for beautiful you are my world, my true) and it's you
are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;
which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart (i carry it in my heart)

Post Fri Sep 03, 2004 1:25 pm   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
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