Symbolism is a subject that I have a lot of interest in. I like finding it when I read (which was the only thing that saved me when I read MOBY DICK), and I love using it when I write. Obviously, not every story will have a place for symbols, but I like looking for places that I can include them, even if it’s very subtle and limited.
A symbol, as described by Robert Di Yanni in Literature: Approaches to Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, is any action, object, person, or event that conveys a meaning beyond the literal interpretation or significance. An author will make a symbol known either by giving it emphasis, repeating is use in a story, by giving it detailed description, or by placing it in key moments within the story. These techniques may (though not absolutely always) indicate that the element in question is being used symbolically. Throughout literary tradition, symbolism is used to enhance and add meaning to a story; to bring the reader to a deeper understanding of the story.
Here’s an example: In Eudora Welty’s short story, A Worn Path, the main character’s name is Phoenix Jackson. The name Phoenix is a clue to the personality of the character – someone is resilient, determined, and perhaps mythical. The color black features prominently in the story as well. Phoenix is a black woman, she expresses her admiration for a large black dog that takes on the dog of white man who threatens Phoenix. And there are other examples. This story also features an assortment of birds, everything from little bobwhites to a buzzard among big dead trees which remind her of lynched men. Throughout the story, the symbolism is woven into plot, building upon critical moments, showing us more about the place and time where Phoenix lives, and giving us a greater insight into aspects of human nature.
In my own work, I’ve used these techniques as well. Though it isn’t easy to spot (because I limited the use and held back) the shiny red dog collar in Kiss Kiss Bark serves as a symbol. Mattie sees the collar as everything that is wrong in her life: her unfair babysitting responsibilities; how her brother gets away with things she would never get away with; and ultimately, of her love for her brother and her acceptance of his role in her life.
In a much more obvious attempt at symbolism, The Deepest Blue uses several symbols throughout the book. The first, most obvious symbol is the color blue. Because it represents depression, it is an appropriate color to use at key moments in the story when the main character, Michael, is feeling the loss in his life. But a blue sky can also represent hope, the lifting of a storm, or the start of a new and better day. Another symbol I used was the storm. It builds at important moments, it rattles windows and reflects the turmoil that Michael feels, and threatens him physically as well. The last significant symbol is water. Sometimes the water is in the form of rain, sometimes it’s the ocean, and there are other uses as well. Water is an emotional connection for Michael, reflecting his feelings, tying him to his father, and signifying the importance of place in his life.
So why incorporate symbols? Well, for one thing, I think it’s fun! It’s an aspect of writing that appeals to me at a deep level. Another reason is that I respect the readers I’m writing for. They like the challenge that symbolic meaning represents, they like a deeper story. As a reader, I like this, too. There are wonderful stories out there that use symbolism, but that aspect isn’t one that is often given much attention.
The book I’m working on now also has symbolic elements to it, and I’m enjoying the process of giving deeper meaning to the story as I find new ways to incorporate these symbols. Of course, my greater hope is that my readers enjoy it just as much as I do.