Subbing in a high school language arts classroom recently, my thoughts turned toward symbolism in literature. And the fact that I don’t use it heavily in my own writing made me ponder a few things.
For those of you whose stint with literature in high school isn’t as recent as mine, let me refresh your memory.
The teacher would stop the reading of a story, play or novel and stare over the tops of reading glasses and ask, “Why was the room blue?”
Most of the time, I’m guessing the author made the room blue because they liked blue. Or maybe it reminded them of their character’s eyes or the bright orbs of the husky next door.
“Because the woman’s getting depressed.” This from the geeky person who always raised her hand when the teacher asked a question. (Hermione Granger or even me back in the day.)
Blue often symbolizes depression. Which I totally don’t get because a blue sky can make me content and happy faster than just about anything else.
The two freshman classes were reading “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst.
This story of two brothers is set in the 1910s. It’s narrated by the older brother, and chronicles the brothers’ journey to make the sick and invalid younger brother “just like all the normal boys” when he starts school.
You might guess from the title that the symbol is the ibis. What the heck is an ibis? Glad you joined the freshmen in asking such an important question. An ibis is a tropical bird.
However, if you look up different meanings for the color red or scarlet, you might see that it is often used to symbolize things: like blood, for example.
In the story, a scarlet ibis shows up in the tree outside of the boys’ home and drops to the ground: dead. The younger (invalid) brother is highly affected and decides to bury the bird. His mother warns him that to touch it would bring the death curse on himself. So he manipulates it with a rope.
This is foreshadowing, of course. And when the final image of the story in the younger brother bleeding from his nose beneath a red bush, it’s clear that the author used the bird and the color of its plumage as a symbol.
Sometimes the symbols are obvious. Other times they’re more obscure.
If they’re obscure, I tend to wonder if they are reader created rather than author intended.
After all, if I’m going to use symbolism, wouldn’t it be most effective if it was clear and plain?
Literary fiction is rife with symbolism. The genres I write? Not so much.
This reflection made me wonder if readers enjoyed the odd symbol now and again. Would they want the woman to be wearing a green shirt when she learned a new skill? Did they understand the plot and arcs better when symbols were used?
I can only speak for myself. A well-done symbol is fine, and even interesting or enlightening when it’s well-executed. Making the murderer wear black just because black is the color of death? Not so much.
There must be a point to it. A point other than using symbolism for the sake of symbolism.
Is symbolism important to you when you read? Does it add to your enjoyment? Does it add extra dimension to the story? Or is it something you pay very little attention to?
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