This blog post was inspired by a meme and several conversations I’ve had with my best friend about symbolism in writing. Most of the time, these conversations happen when we’re watching something in which a character references poetry or classic literature.
Most recently, it happened when we were watching The Prince and Me. The prince reads a passage of Shakespeare and the main girl complains that it makes no sense because of the flowery language. The conversation that resulted between the characters was similar that the one I had with my roommate, which I’ve roughly recreated:
Her: “Okay, but why does it have to be so complicated? Why can’t they just say it simply and everyone understands everything?”
Me: “Because it’s symbolic.”
Her: “But then there are so many interpretations and how do you know what the author really means?”
Me: “You don’t. Once it’s written, the interpretations are for the reader.”
Her: “But then how do you know you got it right? What if I say it’s this and you say that it means something else?”
Me: “Then we could both be correct.”
Her: “But then anyone can say it means anything and no one knows!”
Me: “Okay no, there are right and wrong interpretations. There are some things it just can’t be and some people who are just wrong.”
Her: “Then how do you know if you’re right?! Why can’t it just be simpler and then no one ever has to guess? Just say ‘I love you’ instead of making it so complicated!”
Me: “Because it sounds better than just saying ‘I love you.'”
Her: “But it’s so unnecessarily complicated!”
And the thing is – she has a point.
I’ve had my own qualms with symbolism. As a writing device, I think the effectiveness is entirely dependent on the writer’s skill. From the writer’s standpoint, I’m not the biggest fan of using it in my own work. And from the reader’s standpoint, there are times when symbolism goes entirely over my head because I just don’t get it or it’s not well done.
But we’ve also fallen into a hole of trying to find symbolism in everything we read because that’s how we were taught to do it in school.
the purpose of symbolism
We’re gonna get nerdy for a moment as I break out my notes from Communication Theory (aka the best class I ever took in college) and talk about semiotics and symbolism. Bear with me.
Semiotics is the study of signs and their meanings. These signs come out of historical and cultural contexts. It can be as broad as the world recognizing green as go and red as stop, or as specific as the TARDIS being recognized as the transportation of The Doctor. It’s concrete and doesn’t change depending on context (well, it can, but that requires a lot of work and time).
Symbolism is subjective, changing depending on the recipient. It’s usually a word or phrase that can take on a wide variety of meanings depending on the context in which it’s used. The eggplant emoji is innocent when you’re talking about groceries or a salad, but it means something else entirely when you send it with some heart eyes and drool. Different people and contexts make it mean different things.
Why do I make the distinction? Because they’re usually related and confused for each other. Even I have a hard time separating them.
In the simplest way, symbolism is the way of saying or doing something without saying or doing the thing. You might sooner send the heart emoji than say “I love you.” Telling someone “your eyes are the color of the ocean” really just means they’re blue. Refusing to change the toilet roll for your lazy housemate is a passive aggressive move to get them to spend 20 more seconds changing the roll themselves.
But the symbolism is only effective when it gets the right message across and is interpreted correctly. Someone with no idea what the ocean is might be confused as to why you’re comparing their eyes to it. And a really lazy, clueless housemate might not see the ever-empty toilet roll as a prompt to change it.
So how do we measure accurate and successful interpretations of symbolism and why don’t we just say it simply?
symbolism in school literature
If you’ve taken a high school literature class, you’ll know that this inevitably happens. One person reads a passage and thinks it means Thing A. Someone else reads the same thing and they think it means Thing B. The teacher says it really means Thing C, but then another person makes a compelling point for Thing D.
It’s hard to figure out what something really means when no one seems to agree and when the passage itself can be read in a multitude of ways. And yet, schools teach that there has to be one correct version. One thing that the author means and no one can argue with that because it’s the way things have been interpreted for generations. Sure, you might be able to make a good argument for what you got out of it, but in the end, there’s a “right” version that is incredibly deep and thoughtful and meaningful.
Or is there really?
Not all literature is filled with symbolism that needs to be interpreted. Many classics are filled with it because that’s characteristic to the times. People were far more concerned with the way words sounded and how that reflected on their status within society. An educated person would have more flowery language that set them apart from the less educated, and the ability to understand that was the marker of class distinction.
Also, some writers just aren’t a fan of making things simple. In a time when people were getting paid per word to be published, you can bet that unnecessary symbolism, metaphors, sentences, and random things get thrown in so a bigger paycheck shows up. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a sentence means something deep and significant.
There are many ways to interpret things you read, and the beauty of symbolism is that different people can get different things out of the same passage. Of course, there are some wrong answers. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” isn’t about gardening, no matter how you argue it. The context of the passage does a lot to clue you in to what the author is trying to get at. And if it’s written well, you’ll understand it.
The Hunger Games
One of my favorite examples of symbolism is in this trilogy. Within the story, we get to see two small things become major symbols that result in a revolution.
The first is a mockingjay pin. Katniss is given the pin by a girl her age, the rich daughter of District 12’s mayor. It’s a small and surprising gesture, but already significant since mockingjay birds were accidentally created by the Capitol. To Katniss, the bird is a reminder of the time she spent learning to hunt with her father and a reminder of home. To the Capitol, it was a reminder that they lost control over their own creation and were capable of making mistakes. The fact that Katniss wears the pin during the Games is an open “f-you” to the Capitol, flaunting their mistake in their face. And when the rebellion begins, people choose to use the mockingjay as a sign that they’re defying the Capitol, following in Katniss’ footsteps to push back against an oppressive government. Katniss became The Mockingjay and the bird became associated with the hope of a different future.
Then we have the Three-Finger Salute. In District 12, it’s a simple way of telling someone that you respect them or to show thanks. There’s nothing really remarkable or special about it until Rue dies and Katniss buries her young friend, making the salute to the cameras as a defiant remembrance of yet another child who died too young. Immediately, the basic gesture creates an uproar as people empathize with the loss of a young life and the way Katniss doesn’t care what the Capitol thinks or does to punish her.
It’s used again in Catching Fire to respect and acknowledge what Katniss did for Rue. For Katniss, it was a reception of thanks from the people Rue grew up with. But for the Capitol, it was a reminder that Rue’s death started Katniss’ ploy to change the end results of the Games.
Both of these are incredibly small and simple things, but they’ve become a way for us to say something without saying it. Whether in seriousness or in jest, the Three-Finger Salute is used to acknowledge someone else. And for many young people, the mockingjay pin has become a symbol of belief that young people have the power to change the world.
I think the main downfall and frustration with symbolism is in literature. Some writers use it heavily throughout their work, which forces the reader to dig through each sentence to make figure out if it has a deeper meaning or not. Other writers barely use it because they don’t feel the need to.
The deep analysis of symbolism stems is partly a result of classic literature being written for the sake of challenging, discussing, or commenting on an aspect of society. Stories weren’t written with a focus on entertainment like they tend to be now. The issue being tackled would result in varying amounts of symbolism – disguising one thing as another so that only the one group would understand it. And since we don’t live in the same societal culture as the people who wrote classic literature, it’s up to a lot of interpretation as to what different things mean.
What becomes a problem is when we start seeing everything as symbolism. Using a personal example, I was writing a short story for class and it was my week to be critiqued. One scene in the story featured a mother and daughter having a disagreement while the mother was preparing dinner. As the writer, I had intended it to be the background because the characters needed to eat and the daughter had just come back from school. My professor, however, interpreted the chopping of vegetables as the mother slicing into her daughter for making bad life decisions.
Sure, I can see how that might be the case. If I had focused on the motion of the blade cutting down on tough vegetables, if I had talked about the force it took to slice through, if I had made the daughter pity the vegetables, I can see all of that making sense. But really, the mother was just making dinner because everyone needed to eat. Symbolism was created out of nothing because there was an assumption that everything has to mean something more.
There’s nothing inherently wrong about seeing symbolism in something minor or unintended. Sometimes, the author doesn’t even know they’re creating the moment for something symbolic to the readers.
It only becomes a problem when we teach children that they can’t enjoy books and reading if they’re not looking for the symbolism. That there’s always something deeper no matter what. That literature isn’t worth reading if there isn’t a multitude of underlying symbolism within.
my take on symbolism
In all my years as a reader and a writer, I can tell you that symbolism is usually more obvious than you think. It’s something repeated throughout the story because it shows the evolution of representation. Symbolism is thematic to the plot because it has to be. Focusing on the color of curtains we see once in a fluffy romance doesn’t mean one of the characters struggles with depression – they could simply like blue.
Yes, there is a beauty to the flowery language when it’s done well. Some things sound prettier when they aren’t simple. One of my favorite “I love you” scenes between two characters on TV doesn’t even involve those three words. By talking about viewing the world first in black and white, then growing to see the world in color, he effectively relays his feelings without ever needing to say “I love you.” What was said was enough to imply a deep love and made the moment even more bittersweet. It’s symbolic and to someone who hasn’t seen the show, probably just sounds really sweet. But to me, having watched the progression of the relationship, it was a clear declaration of his feelings without him needing to say those three words.
And before you go asking why the author would make it so hard to figure out what’s symbolic and what isn’t, let me tell you – once something is written and published, its meaning no longer belongs to the author. That’s right, even though the author wrote it, they have no control over how you do or don’t interpret something. They’ve done their work and written the things they hope people will recognize, but they can’t tell you want is and isn’t symbolic. Short of giving you an exact guide of how to read and understand everything, it’s out of their hands. And being told how to enjoy, read, or interpret something isn’t truly giving someone the chance to experience it for themselves or letting them make the story their own.
The mark of symbolism is where it adds meaning. It’s where the writer makes things more complicated because simple words aren’t enough to express something. It’s the careful choice of repeating or focusing on something because it makes a difference. It’s a meaning the character holds onto because it has shaped or changed them.
Because of literature classes, we’ve placed such high value in seeking symbolism in everything. Curtains can’t be blue just because the author chose that color at random, it has to reflect the character’s state of mind and hint at something deeper about an inability to cope with emotions. A thunderstorm can’t be a natural weather event, it has to be a comment on the sadness a character is feeling and the hopeless sense that things are being washed away. Everything has to have a deeper meaning because it can’t be that simple. If it’s simple, it’s too easy.
Sometimes, we make symbolism out of nothing. Sometimes, we use pretty words because the simple ones don’t feel like enough.
But sometimes, blue curtains really are just blue.