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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » Symbolism (Page 1)

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Author Topic: Symbolism
Christine
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Yes, symbolism, that icky word from English class referring to something in a book or story that represents not only itself, but also something deeper. Blue is sadness. Spring is new birth.

I don't think there's anything wrong with symbolism in and of itself. I'd prefeer to make my own meaning rather than have someone else put it in there for me, be they writer or English teacher, but the other day I had a jarring experience with symbolism.

You see, I don't actively put symbols in my stories. Actually, I think the harder you try the worse they come across. Nevertheless, a critiquer recently explained to me what I had really meant by a man trying to help a sick girl....apparently he is her savior, representing Jesus.

I laughed out loud. I mean, in the end I put stuff out there and people can take whatever they want from it but I think that it's the implication that *I* put it there or meant it to be there that made me laugh.

Does anyone put symbols in on puprose? Or have you have someone point something out to you, thinking you meant it as a symbol when you didn't (at least, not conscioussly?)


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Crotalus
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My short story "A Key Turning" had a symbolic item that was intentionally so. This is the first time I'd done this and it turned out really well. With that said, I think it would have turned out badly if I had written the story around the symbol, rather than inserting the symbol INTO the story. In other words; Story first, everything else later (theme, symbolism, etc.) is a good rule of thumb. Which is how my story evolved. I had the story first, and then on the way home from work saw the lock in my mind's eye...recognized it as a seabag lock, and came up with the idea that it was a relic of the father who had abandoned his son...the only thing of the father that the son had to remember him by.

I then went back and intentionally put the lock in and changed the title to reflect the analogy of Closed lock = unforgiveness, open = forgiveness. So it was a pretty obvious symbol. Then, using a bit of writing advice that I gleaned from OSC's Maps in a Mirror, I went back and deleted every occurrance of the word 'forgive' or any variation thereof.

This isn't something I'd do on a regular basis. As symbolism and theme shouldn't be forced. They should flow naturally if they are there at all. And I think that is sort of what happens when a reader reads a story, they find connections that the writer doesn't even see or intend. In this way a story can be a dynamic thing, open to varied interpretations. Even wrong ones. Can be a good or bad thing. But it always kind of pleases me to see theme emerge from my writing when I had no conscious intention of putting it there.


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Spaceman
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OSC warned us against trying to write to a theme because it will usually fail. I think intentional symbolism falls in the same category. You might be able to get away with it when used sparingly, but for the most part, I think it will weaken any writing if not used sparingly.

In my first novel, I did use seismic activity to indicate an upset in the balance of nature, but one of my main characters was a geophysicist, and the earthquakes occurred in areas that are known to be seismically active.


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wbriggs
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My best symbolism came in a poem, and I was unaware of it until it was over.

I don't put much into stories intentionally, either, except when I designed Indian rituals for my WIP. Rituals are symbolism, so I had to do it then.

What I will do instead is echo themes. Put in something about how Frank doesn't relate to his dad, and then show him bumbling in relating to his son, and let the reader make the connection that it's the same dynamic.


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Elan
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People will read into a story what they carry with them. Tolkien was forever refuting the theory that Lord of the Rings was symbolism for WWI (and WWII). The joy of good writing is that readers DO relate to it in a personified way.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I've heard that people can do entire PhD dissertations on the symbolism in an author's work, and it can all come from the PhD candidate (instead of from the author).

In a way, you'd think the author would have some kind of control over what a reader finds in the author's work, but that doesn't appear to be so.

Every time a work is read, even by the same reader, it is possible for that work to be at least a little different. Experiencing a written work is actually a collaboration between the author and the reader, and the author has no control once the work is published. (Unless, as OSC has done a time or two, you can get a publisher to publish a revised edition.)

It can be a true adventure, and one that authors aren't really prepared for, to find out what a reader draws out of an author's creation. Authors can either enjoy the insights or be totally flummoxed by them, or anything in between. The danger is if authors let it keep them from writing for fear of what some reader will bring to their own reading experience.


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Robyn_Hood
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As a writer, I often look back to high school and junior high where novel studies are all the rage in the English and Language Arts curriculums. Even when I was going through them, I wondered how relevent it all was. Did the author really think all this stuff and put it in, or is there someone somewhere that just super-imposed their own thoughts, ideas and concepts on it?

I don't know. In grade 12, when studying Steinbeck's, "The Grapes of Wrath", I wondered a bit about the symbolism that was supposed to be there. There was a lot that I'm sure Steinbeck put there, but there was stuff that my teacher got completely wrong (or at least half wrong).

I know I don't often try to put symbolism in my stories. It does tend to come across heavy-handed and awkward. Looking back at things I have written, there are elements that I must have put in sub-consciously, put they work because they are part of the character or are needed because of the plot. Usually those "symbolic elements" are there because the characters and events are based on real people.

I could say more, but I'm alreadyt rambling incoherently, so I'll stop for now...


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BuffySquirrel
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I use symbols when I'm writing at novel length. It helps me keep an idea in the reader's mind without constantly restating it. For example, in my alternate histories, the protagonist's signet ring represents his family. Horses represent wealth (as well as being, well, horses). And so on. I think the important point is that these symbols are also organic parts of the story. They're necessary on their own account, not just thrown in to be symbolic.
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Robert Nowall
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I never overtly use symbolism (at least as far as I can recall), and sometimes I wonder how meaningful a symbolistic interpretation of a work can be.

I've read symbolic interpretations of Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" Been awhile since I read the story itself, though---high school. But I keep coming back to something I learned later, something that wasn't taught to me in English literature class. The storyline and characters might be fictional, but the background is quite real, it's something that really happened.


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J
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In counterpoint to what seems to be the general concensus here, writing to theme and with deliberate symbolism can create works of surpassing excellence. See, for example, The Old Man and the Sea.
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djvdakota
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Did Hemingway write The Old Man and the Sea with Symbolic intent? Or did you just learn that in a college literature class?

From what I understand, it's a matter of great debate, but here's what Hemingway himself has to say on the subject, from an interview with George Plimpton. Plimpton asked, "Would you admit to there being symbolism in your novels?" Hemingway's response:

quote:
I suppose there are symbols since critics keep finding them. If you do not mind, I dislike talking about them and being questions about them. It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well. If five or six more good explainers can keep going why should I interfere with them? Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it.

How's that for vague? Still, he lends credibility to the beliefs of Ray Bradbury who often finds symbolism emerging subconsciously in his work. He never meant to put it there, but it shows up nonetheless. Why? Because he grew up in a world rich with symbolism, immersed himself in literature steeped in symbolism. We can't get away from symbolism. It's so much a part of our lives, that, whether we intend to do it or not, it appears in our writing. And readers keep looking for it there--and finding it, whether we intended to put it there or not. As Hemingway said: "Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading." I LOVE that line! I find, however, that the harder the writer TRIES at imbuing their work with symbolism, the less effective it is.

I actually love it--and am almost always surprised by it--when a critiquer points out some symbolism in my work. It shows to me that subconscious at work.

But, IMO, when someone points out that a character is symbolic of Christ because he is a saving figure--that's just ridiculous. Then I suppose every hero that ever saved a damsel in distress is symbolic of Christ? I'm afraid our educators have taught too many readers to seek intentional symbolism in everything they read, when all writers are really doing is attempting to write an enjoyable and engaging story. At least that's MY goal.

[This message has been edited by djvdakota (edited September 12, 2005).]


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Christine
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dakota beat me to it...I was looking for a source on Hemmingway that suggested he might not have intentionally used symbolism. Guess I can stop looking now.

Looking for Chris in things seems to be some people's favorite passtimes. Now, if you're reading C.S. Lewis it's not so ridiculous. But even though I think it's a bit silly, and even though not even my subconsciouss meant for a savior to be a Christ-figure, it is still fascinating to see what other people bring to a story with them. It not only shows me their preconceived notinos, but also mine!


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BuffySquirrel
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I sometimes think that writers do very little intentionally. It always amazes me when people set out cold-bloodedly to write THAT to achieve THIS. Uh?

The symbolism of the ring representing protagonist's family was definitely there in the text before I became consciously aware of it. All I did was tweak it to make it work a little better .


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J
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To answer your question directly, I did not learn anything about symbolism in the Old Man and the Sea in college. I clepped out of the literature requirement alotgether, and a degree in chemistry didn't call for any more classes on the subject.

Hemingway hated talking about writing. His answer was ambiguous--it could indicate what you are suggesting, that he had no symbolic intent. Or it could indicate that it was loaded with symbolic intent, he just didn't want to talk about it.

But I put it to you directly, based on the work itself--can you really contend that there weren't deliberate symbols? That the marlin was just a marlin? That the dreams of lions were just dreams--hardly relevant to anything if taken literally--but for some reason important enough to end the story with? That the old man represented only himself? Without symbolism, the story is dry, boring, and pointless. With it, the story is one of the most powerful works in the English language. It's possible that the one element that makes the novella a classic for the ages was the accidental product of Hemingway's leaking subconscious--but that seems far less likely than deliberate effort.


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J
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I found this Hemingway quote:

"There isn't any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond what you see beyond when you know."

I refuse to believe that the symbolism was some kind of cosmic accident. However, since attempting to so maintain in a public forum confronted by the quote I just found above would be, at best, a losing battle, I'll withdraw to surly silence.


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Christine
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J, I'm glad you posted that. The truth is, trying to devise an author's specific intentions without hearing from his is, at best, an exercise in madness. Now that we can see a conclusive statement about what he thinks he did, I think we can continue to have an intelligent discussion here.

I find that brilliance, like heroism, is often misattributed. We look for greatness in our midsts and it's amazing, but when we go looking for something we tend to find it. I haven't read much Hemmingway, but from what little I did read (and I regret that the work in question is not on the list), I get the impression that Hemmingway is a simple man. I wondered if accident and sheer dumb luck made his work worthy of critical acclaim.

That's not to say that his subconsciouss wasn't at work the whole time. Some days I plod along, frantically searching for words. Other days my fingers fly of their own volition and I am shocked and tickled by what I read. I tend to think that's the true writer in me, and when it comes out I am loathe to make radical changes even after critiques because I know that voice doesn't often come out for a second draft. But it's in that mode, that stream-of-conscioussness mode, that I create my most interesting and believable characters, make significant points (you may call this theme) and draw attention to things in the environment that may have meaning above and beyond the words themselves.

Many greats have disavowed any knowledge of themes or symbols in their writing. Mark Twain did the same thing. That doesn't mean that those works can't be enjoyed on that level. It doesn't even mean that the authors didn't subconscioussly put them there. But I think that novels, in particular, are very complex works that require a writer to be more than a writer, more than just a person stringing words together, however coherently.


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JmariC
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This topic reminds me of the old joke you ask someone, "Do you still *beat your wife*?" (the part between the stars can be replaced with any other offensive action or such)

There is no correct answer.

If an author says yes even once to symbolisim it is taken as justicfication for all those literary critics and thesis writers for each claim of symbolism they've ever imagined and they will run with it. Not all, but enough will that the author will forever be plagued with questions like 'What were you getting at in chapter IV?' (maybe misquoted by directly stolen from the Unstrung Harp.)


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EricJamesStone
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In The Old Man and the Sea, I thought that some of the metaphysical imagery was really particularly effective. Interesting plot devices, too, which seemed to counterpoint the surrealism of the underlying metaphor of the humanity of the author's compassionate soul, which contrives through the medium of the narrative structure to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other, and one is left with a profound and vivid insight into whatever it was the novel was about.

(With apologies to Douglas Adams.)


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Ahavah
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I zoned through literature (Ok, I read Stephen King under my desk instead of The Old Man and the Sea...), so I honestly don't know much about symbolism and theme. I did go back and read some of the 'classics' after high school, and I understood them a bit better. I think a lot of time symbolism comes out without and conscious thought on the writer's part.

That said, I found the "Your Favorite Books on Writing" thread to be very helpful. I was just reading about Theme in Keys to Great Writing and so I tried to involve theme in my flash challenge this week. Only problem: I'm not sure if I did it well. Oh, well, it's all a learning experience.


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hoptoad
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I once had a potato chip that look like marilyn monroe and I can't look at the big dipper without thinking it looks more like a racoon skin cap.

Hmmm Christine, clearly your laughing at the symbolisim implicit in your writing is a subconcious identification to Sarah the wife of Abraham when she said, 'Surely this thing is impossible.'



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maria102182
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symbolism is pretty much bull. that said, you have to do it right when you do it. I that is what everyone is getting at.
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Doc Brown
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There are many symbols in my writing, but I didn't put them there.
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Jaina
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Symbolism isn't bull, and we're not saying that it doesn't have its place. We're also not saying that you should go through your story with a big red marker and cut all the symbolism out, because you won't have much of a story left.

But writing in order to project a specific symbol, well, most people just don't do it. It's hard to create a good story when you're too worried about injecting your symbols into it. Now, if you happen to realize that something in your story works as a symbol, and you want to play that up a bit, that's fine. It's writing symbolism instead of writing stories and letting the symbolism take care of itself that gives people problems. I can remember several modern stories that I've read for lit classes that had little to no plot or worthwhile storyline, but were bursting at the seams with symbolism.

That said, I think it is possible to write a story that is just full of symbolism, and do it intentionally, and still have a good story. I just think it's a lot harder than writing and letting the symbolism come out on its own. And, quite honestly, I'm just too lazy to do it.


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djvdakota
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Very well said, Jaina.

Eric, you're a HOOT! Either that or you're my old college lit professor--but you're too young, and too tall, and have too much hair on your head, and you're too blond, and WAY too humorous!

[This message has been edited by djvdakota (edited September 12, 2005).]


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maria102182
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That is exactly what I was trying to say!!!!
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Shendülféa
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I intentionally put symbolism into my stories, but what can I say? I write theme-driven stories. I do it because I've got some observations that I have made about the world around me and I want to do it in a creative way rather than writing opinion articles about them in the newspaper.

The way I put symbolism in my stories, however, doesn't really involve me sitting down for a while and thinking, "Gee, how can I work this into my story as a symbol?" What happens is that I come up with a theme for my story and then write the plot around that and the symbols start to appear. For instance, in my first novel, it could easily be argued that the cé'ahni race is symbolic of those Christians who are too afraid to tell others about what they believe. They just sit back and let the world go on as it will. Did I deliberate over that symbol until I found a way in which it would work? No. It just appeared as the story progressed and I'm sure readers will find some others that I didn't see before.

I think, however, there is a difference between writing based around a certain theme and intentionally writing in symbols. I don't think anyone intentionally writes in symbols--at least most of the time. I'll admit that I did for my second novel, but it's more that the characters represent people I know than that they symbolize anything or anyone specific.

That said, I think some authors intentionally write based around a theme, but I don't think they always try and put symbolism into their stories.


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djvdakota
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OK. So now how do we distinguish between 'symbolism' and 'borrowing story ideas'? Are we making a distinction here? I borrow from stories and history all the time. We all do. But if I borrow, say, the story structure of The Three Billy Goats Gruff to write a space opera, does that mean my story and its elements are symbolic of the story and elements of the Gruff story?

No. I don't think so. Am I right?

I think a clear distinction needs to be made between borrowing elements from other stories (which we all do, both consciously and subconsciously), and including symbolism (which some of us do consciously, but which we ALL do on some level subconsciously). Define symbolism. "The use of symbols to represent invisible, intangible, or abstract things." Symbol: "Something hat represents or stands for somthing else, as by resemblance or association."

I think it was Robyn Hood who wrote that awesome Gruff space opera to which I refer. While the goats were replaced by space ships, I don't think the ships symbolized the goats. Why? Hmm. I'm not sure. I'm asking, here, people. Is it because the connection between the goats and the ships wasn't important to the core of the story? Was it because understanding that the ships represent the three goats isn't integral to understanding the point of the story? Was it because the story had no 'point' as it were--it was just a really cool story with no intentional 'deeper meanings'? (At least I THINK it had no intentional deeper meanings. I won't speak for its author. If it DID have intentional deeper meanings, I'd LOVE to hear its author expound on them right now. )

Hmm. Food for thought.


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Jaina
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Well, if you want the standard English teacher response, as long as you can back it up with textual evidence and make a convincing argument, you can claim that the letter that Mr. Darcy writes to Elizabeth after she has rejected him at Rosings Park is actually a symbol for the mistreatment of goats in Regency England. Good luck backing it up, but if you can do it, it qualifies as symbolism.
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hoptoad
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Oh now Dakota, everyone knows that the Bridge is the symbol in the Three Billy Goats Gruff.

PS: That was a joke.

I would not deliberately symbologise.
Although I have had things pointed out to me. Some are valid some are not, or at least I am not yet ready to say they are valid. An example is one story in which all my bad character's smoked, all the good ones did not and the main character hated smoking. It was unintentional and a coincidence. Or am I wrong to assume that there is such a thing as coincidence in fictional worlds?

Maybe some readers are addicted to symbols. (We could start Symboholics Synonymous and develop an eleven step program -- not twelve because that is the number of apostles and certainly not thirteen because that's just plain unlucky, so it will have to be eleven. Nothing symbolic about eleven... I think.)

Searching a story for symbols can be like examining sheep entrails to divine the future.

[This message has been edited by hoptoad (edited September 13, 2005).]


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Christine
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quote:
For instance, in my first novel, it could easily be argued that the cé'ahni race is symbolic of those Christians who are too afraid to tell others about what they believe. They just sit back and let the world go on as it will.

Is this actually symboli? I'm not 100% sure how you use the race in question, but it almost sounds more like an element of theme in which you use one of the powers of speculative fiction -- the power of not directly naming names -- to create a parallel group of people to do something you've seen and want to address in the real world.

I've done this myself in certain political and moral situations, but I don't think it's the same as using a symbol. Symbols tend to be more elusive, more abstract in their representation, less direct. The red "S" in the scarlet letter, for example.

I could be wrong, though.


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BuffySquirrel
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Umm, no, symbolism is not bull. There's what the writer puts into the story, both knowingly and unknowingly, and what the reader gets out of the story, and they are NOT THE SAME. To read the story as the author wrote it, you'd have to be the author at the time they wrote it, and even then you'd have to look deeper than they probably did.

Writing is, to a greater or lesser extent, an unconscious process, and reading is enjoyed often on the unconscious as well as the conscious level. Literary criticism, however, is a conscious process in which the text is examined with a minuteness that may well exceed the attention it's received from anyone else involved with it--the writer, the editor, the proofreader, etc. Traditional literary criticism involves examining the text in its social, cultural and historical context, as well as delving into the life experiences of its author. Modernist lit crit said "the heck with THAT!" and examined the text purely in the light of what it brought to the reader, including allowing interpretations and associations that could not have been made by the author or their contemporary readership.

You pays your money and you takes your choice .


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Robyn_Hood
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quote:
Nothing symbolic about eleven... I think.

The two ones that make up the eleven are symbolic of the support given by one person standing by another. As in most recovery programs, each addict is paired with a mentor -- someone to stand by them and help them through. Thus the symbolic eleven step program.

quote:
(At least I THINK it had no intentional deeper meanings. I won't speak for its author. If it DID have intentional deeper meanings, I'd LOVE to hear its author expound on them right now. )

The ships in "Gruffs' Bluff" represent self -- even the troll ship. Parts of our self are trapped, being chased by the enemy (i.e. fear-this may be an external or internal force, but whatever it is, it forces your true self into a bad position internally). In the end, you are the only one actually standing in the way of your true self. It may take more than one effort, and may even require some inventive thinking to free your true nature from the troll-self that is keeping it captive inside. That is why the final "goat" does not actually destroy the "troll". While your troll-self may try to prey upon, rape and pillage your true "goat" selves, it still serves a purpose and will always be a part of your universe.

Actually, no. Dakota was right, it was a fun space opera and nothing more. The plot was borrowed but that's as far as it goes.


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Corky
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No fair, Robyn! Other people are supposed to have the fun of coming up with "inner meaning" for your story.

Though since it's a borrowed plot, I guess you could say that you were actually divining the "inner meaning" of the original story.

And here I always thought that the "inner meaning" was that if we let our greedy selves (the troll) put off accepting the small opportunities that we can handle, and trying for things that we really aren't ready for (because we're greedy), we'll finally be handed something we can't handle and we'll fail miserably.


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djvdakota
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LOL!!!
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wbriggs
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Let's distinguish some different things that might be called symbolism.

A rose is a symbol of love: yes, it often is. So if you have John give Mary a rose, it means something. If you have them meet in a garden and there are roses, it might mean love (or something else).

Valentines are symbols of love: yes.

Valentines are symbols of roses: this is getting silly. And that's what reviewers who claimed LotR was about WWII were doing. They're taking two things that can symbolize good v. evil, and having one symbolize the other. Maybe WWII symbolized LotR!

I think allegory is often "valentines symbolic of roses," but done intentionally. John Christian has a journey; it symbolizes a Christian's life. But at a deeper level, both symbolize life, journey, struggle, etc.

BTW, I have a great book on symbols in Western culture, which I bought for dream analysis. A Dictionary of Symbols, I think it is. Lots of symbols that sort of make sense. Here are some for numbers.

1: unity, of course.
2: opposition or complimentarity
3: structure -- the Trinity, or body/soul/spirit
4: stability ("foursquare")
5: devilishness (pentagrams)
6: mankind; short of perfection
7: perfection, holiness
12: perfection, holiness, the church (12 apostles), Israel (12 tribes).
13: better than perfection; bad luck (I don't know why!)
Numbers like 17 or 65 might be 1 and 7, 6 and 5
1000: A whole bunch
So in Revelation, 144,000 means the church, incorporating Jewish believers, and a whole bunch of them.

Wouldn't work with Oriental stuff, of course. For the Japanese, 4 means death, because it's pronounced "shin" (and so is their word for death). For American Indians, often, 4 is the structure (the 4 points of the compass).


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Varishta
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I'll admit it. I'm a big sucker for symbolism. Maybe it's because I wasn't an English major, but I just love seeing patterns and archetypes in stories.

Last night I finished, Lord of the Flies a story which, I'm happy to report, was never forced on me in school. While reading it, I only vaguely sensed some symbolism, but as I started to drift off to sleep, the connections my mind made were so many as to be almost overwhelming. It was an amazing, unsettling experience.

I don't think an author needs to consciously insert symbols, but it's rather gratifying when a reader can find something deeper, something that they can recognise. It's a way of "owning" the story.

That's why insisting upon a symbol's meaning can be harmful (especially in a classroom setting) or even pointing out that something IS a symbol, unless the author has explicitly said, "Why yes, the ocean in my story is, in fact, a metaphor for the collective subconscious."


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Corky
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Varishta, did you experience the paradigm shift near the end of Lord of the Flies?

I did read it in high school, and I was so into running for my life near the end that the paradigm shift at the end nearly gave me whiplash.

Hmmm. Come to think of it, POV shift might be a better description of what happened. And someone here lately has been asking about putting a POV shift at the end of a story. Have to mention that book to them.

Now I have to think about whether it was a good thing or not. It really made an impression on me, for sure.


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Robyn_Hood
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We had to do a "Lord of the Flies" novel study in grade 7. Apparently everything in it is a symbol for something. Even the boys.

I liked the novel. It was really good and did explore some interesting issues.

I don't mind alegories or even light symbolism, but I don't usually like to be hit over the head with it.

One of the only exceptions is poetry or lyrical writing. I love reading Shakespeare and part of the reason is all the symbolism and metaphors. Why does it work? I don't know exactly. Poetry is meant to be interpretted. So a story told in poetry ought to have symbolism.


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Robyn_Hood
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quote:
John Christian has a journey; it symbolizes a Christian's life. But at a deeper level, both symbolize life, journey, struggle, etc.

And because the MC's initials are "J.C.", he is a symbol of Jesus Christ...

(At least that would be the explaination if you had my English 30 teacher...)


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Christine
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If I had to hear about that silly shell they found on the beach in "Lord of the Flies" one more time...almost ruined the whole dang book.
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Robyn_Hood
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I think if it wasn't for novel studies, a lot more children would grow up to enjoy novels. I'm not saying don't encourage critical reading skills, etc., in school, but be careful how you do it. Not every story is going to contain symbolism, and even the symbols that can be identified, might mean different things to different people. The ways novels were "taught" to me in school, it was more like the teacher saying, This means that, and there aren't other interpretations. The concept that there might not be a symbol or metaphor was foreign to them.
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rickfisher
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To me, there are two types of symbolism, or more accurately, two extremes on a continuum. At one end is the "x stands for y" type, where the connection between x and y is totally nonexistent except for the symbolic connection itself. At the other end are the symbols where x is so closely tied to y by the story that it may become more of a metaphor than a symbol. The first sort is totally worthless. The second sort is neat partly because (and this is the important point) the reader doesn't even have to "get it" for it to be effective.

As far as I'm concerned, any symbol that must be understood to be useful is simply a symptom of poor communication skills: the writer HIDING what he should be DISPLAYING. It really irks me. Now, I won't say that there's no value at all to this sort of symbolism, because there is. Some people enjoy looking for and finding it. Hey, enjoyment is always good. What bothers me is when the people who enjoy it take the attitude that stories with this sort of symbolism are somehow superior to, more "meaningful" than, works without. Hogwash. They're less meaningful, because the meaning is hidden. They're more FUN (if you find it fun to look for such symbolism), just as a mystery is more fun (if you find it fun to try to figure out who did it). But the VALUE of those symbols is no greater than the VALUE of the clues in a mystery.

The other symbols (those towards the other end of the continuum) are valuable because they really ARE meaningful. They communicate ideas and relationships (sometimes very complicated ones) without having to spell them out, without rendering the entire thought process down to mere words, descriptions, and arguments. Not all thoughts are formed in words, and symbols help communicate at a more basic level than language. There is some value in studying literature to find these symbols, because once you DO see them, it can enhance their ability to communicate. But if they don't work to some extent even when you don't notice them, there's really no point looking further.

[This message has been edited by rickfisher (edited September 14, 2005).]


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Corky
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I just know when I learned about looking for symbols in literature it became a whole lot more fun for me. I loved finding stuff, and I had an English teacher who got a kick out of what I'd come up with.

I don't remember the shell on the beach in Lord of the Flies.

Guess I need to add it to my To Be Read Again pile.


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wbriggs
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I think the English teacher who said John Christian represented Jesus Christ missed the point of the story. John is traveling to the City of God. Jesus is from the City of God.
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Robyn_Hood
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Ahh, but that would mean the symbol has to make sense! When studying "The Grapes of Wrath", we were "told" that the preacher with the initials "J.C." (can't think of the name, only the initials) was a Christ symbol.

Of course we were also "told" that the journey west and the subsequent desire to return home were both symbols of, or analogous to, the Isrealites exedus from Egypt. Tom was supposed to be the Apostle Paul. And the title of the book came from "The Battle Hymn of the Republic".


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thexmedic
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I think that part of this whole notty (knotty? sp?) problem is that there are two types of symbolism that are virtually indistinguishable: intentional symbolism and unintentional symbolism.

Any symbol has to be interpreted by the reader, and because everyone has a different frame of reference, then a lot of people are going to interpret different symbols differently. What's ovious to one person (often the author) may be totally obscure to someone else. An author has some control in how people interpret intentional symbols but even they can be miscommunicated, or they may be undermined by the unintentional symbols.

As for author's comments, going by what an author says assumes that his/her intentional symbolism (or lack of) is more important than the unintentional symbolism. But who's to say that that's the case? A lot of unitnentional symbolism may come from the author's subconcious and can inform a reader's opinion of a novel. In fact, once a book is in the public domain what it means is effectively out of the author's hands. What they intended to mean doesn't carry a lot of weight - its what a reader thinks it means. And because it means that thing to them, again, who's to say they're wrong? That's how they've experienced the story, you can't change that retrospectively.

It can also reveal a lot about what the author was really thinking. Of course some symbols are accidents, but arguing about what is and what isn't is what's fuelled English Literature courses since they began.


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djvdakota
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Corky? You don't remember the conch? You don't remember that scene where Piggy stands up, holding it in his little chubby hands?

"I got the conch!"


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J
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Sucks to your asthmar.
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Corky
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No, I don't, djvdakota. Was it before or after the adult (I hope that's not a spoiler) shows up on the beach?

I really need to reread that book.

[This message has been edited by Corky (edited September 14, 2005).]


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maria102182
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I never read that book. I came home from work one day to find my sister shaking in her bed after having seen the movie. I saw part of it on my way out, and just remember legs and a fire. I don't know, but my sister was scared and scared good. I'm not a big scardey cat, but I never got around to reading it. Maybe I should.
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