Meaningless Symbolism

Reading a novel, there are some elements that stand out more than others. Very vividly created characters, for example, may stay with the reader long after the last page. Immersive scenery depictions may leave a reader wishing they were somewhere else. And sometimes, recurring thoughts or trinkets will haunt the reader in the same way. These recurrences, sometimes metaphorical stand-ins for larger, more complex ideas, are often written in by the author: intentional symbols for the reader to subtly observe and dwell upon. But sometimes, the same symbolism is not intentional, merely a recurring physical object of no importance to the author, but the reader picks it out from the text and attaches a value to it that the author had never intended.

A sixteen-year-old in 1963 sent a series of letters addressing the issue of symbolism to 150 well-known authors, including Ayn Rand, John Kerouac, and Ray Bradbury. He asked them about symbolism in their own work as well as symbolism in others’ works. Of the seventy-five that did respond, the general consensus seemed to be that symbolism is more of a subconscious act, though many acknowledge the deliberate care that some authors, such as Joyce and Dante, clearly took with their symbolism in their writing.

Some of the authors in this questionnaire also expressed their distaste in readers finding symbols they never intended as such. All the same, some indicate their understanding that symbol-making may not necessarily be the role of the writer. “Have you considered the extent to which subconscious symbol-making is part of the process of reading, quite distinct from its part in writing?” wrote Richard Hughes.

This understanding takes some weight off a writer who believes they need to create and implant symbols in a book—readers will naturally find their own, quite independent of the author’s intentions. In one of his responses, Bradbury likens fiction to a Rorschach test. He goes on to say succinctly, “There are other things of greater value in any novel or story…humanity, character analysis, truth on other levels…Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing…and as unobtrusive.”

Read more on the story here.

As a writer, do you consciously choose to use symbolism in your work, or do you just hope it happens naturally? Let us know!

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