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Jan's Master Class--SYMBOLISM

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 12:53 pm
by glorybee
In literature, symbolism is the use of something real and tangible to represent a feeling or an abstract concept.

There can be many degrees and various uses of symbolism. In an allegory, for example, the characters and even the settings may all represent concepts. The most well-known example of this is John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progess, in which the symbolism is hardly subtle; there are characters named Christian and Mr. Worldly Wiseman, and such locations as the Hill of Difficulty, the Slough of Despond, and the House Beautiful. It’s not difficult to determine what these symbolize. In other allegories, the characters and settings may not be so obviously named, but they also represent abstractions.

In short stories and poetry, a writer may choose to use a familiar symbol with a meaning well-known to her audience. If the Stars and Stripes are flying in a poem—if there’s a dove descending—if there’s a rainbow shining or a dark cloud on the horizon—a writer can be fairly sure that the readers will get it: she’s writing about patriotism, peace, hope, foreboding.

There are both advantages and disadvantages to using readily-recognized symbols. The advantage is as I’ve just stated: readers grasp them instantly, and it therefore adds to their understanding of the meaning and mood of your piece. However, the reason they’re readily-recognized is that they have been used countless thousands of times, and therefore have become clichés.

Another way to use symbolism, then, is to come up with your own symbols and to insert them into your poem or story. Why would you want to do this?

1. symbols can provide imagery
2. they can contribute greatly to the mood or atmosphere of your writing
3. they can provide a bit of foreshadowing
4. when a reader “gets” the symbol, there’s a great aha! moment
5. they can help you to “show, not tell”

What other reasons can you come up with for adding symbolism to your stories or poems?

Here are a few examples of symbolism from literature. See if you can determine a) what the symbol is, and b) what concept it represents. Keep in mind that since writing is an art, not a science, there may be more than one valid interpretation.

1. From Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

2. From The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne:

When the young woman -- the mother of this child -- stood fully revealed before the crowd, it seemed to be her first impulse to clasp the infant closely to her bosom; not so much by an impulse of motherly affection, as that she might thereby conceal a certain token, which was wrought or fastened into her dress…On the breast of her gown, in fine red cloth, surrounded with an elaborate embroidery and fantastic flourishes of gold thread, appeared the letter A.

3. From Psalm 23

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

4. From Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.

I’ll give you two examples from the Writing Challenge. Both are from my entries—not because they’re in any way superior, but because I knew where to find them.

5. From Stolen

The man pulled my wrist, and I bit him, so he jerked me away, away from my mother who was on her knees, crying. Her lip was bleeding. A wagoora cackled—caw! caw!--and as the men yanked me outside, I saw it flapping overhead.

6. From Megan’s Hands

In the yard, the sunlight streaming,
Megan’s digging in the dirt.
My daughter—fair and freckled—only three:
Now she looks—is Papa watching?
Does he know I’m being good?
I ache with love, blow kisses playfully.

She is blithely humming, wandering
Toward the borders of the lawn
Where lurks a poison oak, enticing, red.
It calls her name, this temptress:
See how shiny—pretty—bright?
Put down your spoon, and grasp my leaves instead!

How I hasten to her side, and
Cry, “Oh sweetie, let it go!”
Her fists behind her back, a stubborn chin--
“Papa, no,” she whispers, pouting
As I open up each hand:
Six crumpled leaves—and tender, blistered skin.

Though I bathe her hands with water,
Still the damage has been done;
Her toddler’s hands by toxins are defiled.
Oh, I wish she would have listened
To her papa’s warning words!

Forgive me, Lord, forgive—I am my child.

Note: though there is some overlap, symbolism differs from metaphor. In a metaphor, the reader is told what the object stands for, and what two objects are being compared. Consider the common Christian phrase Jesus is the rock of my salvation. While the rock might be considered a symbol for Jesus, from a literary standpoint the term metaphor is more accurate. But if a writer’s piece featured a person taking shelter in a rock—and the connection to Jesus is not explicitly stated, but formed in the reader’s mind—then it’s a symbol.

Homework: Answer the bolded question that follows my list of reasons for using symbolism. OR find the symbols and what they represent in at least 3 of the examples I chose.

IF you do one of the above choices, you may give us an excerpt from one of your challenge entries that includes symbolism. Please tell us why you chose to use it there. No need to give a link—just a cut-and-paste segment that contains symbolism would be fine.

If you have any questions about symbolism, now is the time to raise your hand!

This is a good time to mention how much I appreciate everyone’s input into these “classes.” I’m not an expert on any of these topics by any means--just a literature lover sharing what I've observed--and it’s wonderful to have so many talented writers adding their own insights every week.

Next week: Tense

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 1:09 pm
by Tally
Ok. I will give it a try.

I can only come up with two.

In Stolen

A wagoora cackled—caw! caw!--and as the men yanked me outside, I saw it flapping overhead. - is a symbol of foreboding or doom?

And in Meagan's Hands

It is a picture of how we go and do our own thing against our Father God's loving commands and will that are truly for our good and protection.

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 1:41 pm
by glorybee
Woo hoo, Tally gets this week's gold star for being the first to jump in with some answers.

Yes, Tally, the cawing bird is indeed a symbol for foreboding or doom.

And you've definitely captured the theme or lesson of "Megan's Hands"--the symbol is the poison oak, and it stands for both the temptation to sin and the consequences of sin.

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 1:54 pm
by itsjoanne
Here I go :)

2. The Scarlet Letter: By the way, one of my favorite literary works (but I say that a lot LOL). The book is FULL of symbolism. I won't go on with this, but in this passage, the letter "A" is symbolic of her sin of adultery. The fact that she tried to cover it with the product of that sin (the child) is absolutely ironic as well. (Never caught that before reading this just now.) Wow.

3. Psalm 23: There are several symbols in this portion of the psalm. I'll pick one. The overflowing cup symbolizes abundant blessings from the Lord.

4. Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming (which I've never heard of or read before seeing it here!); The Rose is a very rich symbol here of Christ: beauty that comes from the dark, weak world we are in. (and that's a simplistic explanation)

As far as other reasons to use symbolism, this one just came to me. A common symbol in a longer work can help unite seemingly unrelated scenes. I don't know if that makes sense, but I know what I'm saying!

May add a snippet later. Just doing my homework! :)

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 2:01 pm
by Tally
glorybee wrote: And you've definitely captured the theme or lesson of "Megan's Hands"--the symbol is the poison oak, and it stands for both the temptation to sin and the consequences of sin.
Ok. So I got the theme and symbol mixed up. :roll:

I get it. Thanks. :)

Joanne- I have never read the Scarlet Letter. :oops:

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 2:28 pm
by Verna
In "Meagan's Hands"
Poison Oak=Satan
Poison Oak leaves and their toxins=sin
Blistered skin=effects of sin
Refusal to turn leaves loose=disobedience to God

My challenge entry this week is an extended metaphor with symbolism throughout. It's a little early to post a hint. :)

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 2:49 pm
by glorybee
Joanne, you have great insights into the symbols I chose; thanks for playing!

"Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming" is a beautiful, beautiful German Christmas carol with a haunting melody and irregular meter. A very pretty version of it can be heard here.

Love your idea of a recurring symbol being a unifying factor in a written work. See, this is why I love it when the "class" discusses the topic!

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 2:50 pm
by glorybee
Verna, you got "Megan's Hands" absolutely right.

Be sure to post a link to your poem as soon as you're able to do so!

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 2:50 pm
by GShuler
What other reasons can you come up with for adding symbolism to your stories or poems?

If I understand the subtle differences between symbolism and metaphor, symbolism can give a deeper meaning to your story through metaphors. For example (and this only applies IF I understand the terms), here is a short take that has never had a story to go with it because I just now made it up... BUT, because of a combination of symbolism and metaphor, a story really isn't needed to understand what is happening. Is this correct usage?

"It's over." He said it so simply, almost like he was talking about the weather.

She looked out the window to at least focus on the beauty of their garden but saw only deep fog. The flowers were still there. The tree they had planted together when they first got married was still there. Even the fountain of Cupid shooting an arrow was there. They were just hidden by the fog. She turned from what was hidden in the garden to what she really wanted to see. Oh, how she hated the fog.

"I don't understand" she said.

In this I was trying to attach everything outside the window (Metaphores) to what she identified as having been done in love. Since he said his line 'almost like he was talking about the weather' I used a weather condition (the fog) to show that he really was talking about their love. She can't see what is in the garden, but she KNOWS what is suppose to be there. The flowers are the tender part of love that needs constant attention. The tree is the long lasting, deep rooted part of love that endures no matter how bad the stormy weather. The statue is the love itself. The fog is the symbolism for what had hidden that love in her own life... the fact that something was wrong with her marriage and she didn't even see that the love was no longer there.

Now, I need to know, is that symbolism and metaphor done correctly or do I go back one grade?

I won't quote one from my entries until I am sure the concept has lodged in my thinking correctly.[/b]

Posted: Sun Mar 22, 2009 3:22 pm
by glorybee
Gerald--YES! You nailed it, brother...the fog is symbolic of their troubled marriage, or more specifically, of the 'something' that has obscured their view of their once-good marriage...and the flowers, the tree, the fountain that are still there are the good aspects of their marriage. They haven't gone anywhere, and the readers are left with the hope that the fog may lift, revealing the marriage, intact, not having gone anywhere after all.

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2009 9:08 am
by Symphonic
Symbolism... another great topic! I could discuss how literary critics sometimes read too much symbolism into works of literature... but I’ll try to follow the assignment, like a good little girl.

1) In the excerpt from “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” what do the woods symbolize? The obvious interpretation is the temptation to stray from one’s duties and obligations. The woods are described as “lovely, dark and deep.” Is the speaker, perhaps, being tempted to infidelity? To a different career path? Or just to indolence? Interesting question.

A more drastic interpretation (which I think I’ve heard from another source) is that the speaker is actually contemplating suicide, as Hamlet did in his “to be, or not to be” soliloquy. I can sort of see this, but I think it’s a stretch.

2) As Joanne pointed out, Hester’s child (Pearl) is a visible symbol of her adultery, just like the “scarlet letter” that she wears. This scene may foreshadow how Pearl will become part of the consolation and redemption that Hester achieves by bearing her shame openly.

3) As I read this very familiar Psalm, I think of Mordecai, who was honored by the King in the presence of his enemy, Haman. The table, the anointing, the cup... all seem to symbolize what one would provide for an honored guest, or even a child. In the context of the poem, they also symbolize the Lord supplying all our needs.

4) I love this hymn, which is so rich and meaningful! (You can find additional verses, by the way, at There are many symbols here, but the image of Christ as the Rose--blooming in winter in the dead of night--emphasizes the miraculous circumstances of His birth.

(Sorry, but I just have to digress for a moment and add... do follow the link to the recording of “Lo, How a Rose” in Jan’s post–it’s beautiful. And be sure and listen to “The Blessed Son of God,” which follows it. It’s from Hodie, an extraordinarily beautiful Christmas choral work by Ralph Vaughan Williams. Now back to our regularly scheduled class...)

5) Tally already identified the wagoora as a symbol of foreboding. That would have been my guess, too! Could the wagoora (cawing, flapping its wings) also symbolize of the helpless, crying mother? Or would that be reading something into the text that the author didn’t intend? :)

6) Verna did such a great job identifying the symbols in your beautiful poem, Jan, that I really can’t add very much. Just one more detail. I noticed that Megan wanders near “the borders of the lawn.” This seems to symbolize how human beings often like to flirt with temptation, getting as close as possible to “the border” of wrongdoing without actually crossing it.

Thanks for another interesting discussion!
Carol S.

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2009 10:04 am
by glorybee
Carol, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the overly enthusiastic finding of symbolism in literature!

As for the Frost poem--I've heard the 'suicide' theory, and also the theory that 'sleep' symbolizes his natural death. Like I said--it's not a science.

The bird's flapping wings--they certainly could mirror the helplessness of the mother. I hadn't intended that when I wrote, but once a story is published, it no longer belongs to the author, but to the reader. I like that you found something in there that was deeper than I had intended!

Do you have any symbolism in any of your entries that you'd care to direct us to?

Thanks again for all that you add to the lessons, every week!

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2009 11:20 am
by Symphonic
glorybee wrote:Do you have any symbolism in any of your entries that you'd care to direct us to?
I think the best example would be in one of my early Challenge entries, Lights Out.

When I wrote this, I was thinking of Matthew 5:16: "Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven." But there's a bit of irony here, because in this case, the Christian couple allow their light to shine by turning out their lights.

Carol S.

P.S. I know you asked us not to link to the entries this time... but this one is a little hard to explain out of context!

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2009 12:30 pm
by swfdoc1
I'm with Carol on the over finding of symbolism. Two famous examples are To Kill a Mocking Bird and The Lord of the Rings. Both authors denied symbolism (or in Tolkein's case allegorical symbolism) often ascribed to them.

I am also a strict anit-deconstructionist and don't believe it's OK to think the author's intent doesn't matter. I think the author's intent controls. But this is not the place for deep discussions of communication theory.

Those who know the histroy of interpretation of Jesus' parables will know what a mess the Church got into by seeing allegories in those parables that are non-allegorical.

As time permits, I may post something lighter.

Posted: Mon Mar 23, 2009 1:22 pm
by Soren2007
In Frost's poem, he uses snow to symbolize a cleansing... there are three locations for the setting, the village (where the one owning the woods lives), the woods (where the author is stopped to watch the cleansing snow), and the frozen lake (which is a symbol for something and I can't place where it works within the setting)...I get the sense that Frost is saying that he is journeying to a place beyond return.


Other uses of symbols - in screenplay writing, they come in very handy because the form relies on what one can see and because the time is short and again one can show vs. tell, which is very important in this form of literature. Having an object that portrays something for the viewers reduces the need to dialogue and the symbol can be placed in several areas of the play (directly on screen or referenced without it being on the screen) to tie things together thematically. The paragraph from Scarlet Letter can be done in film with great mood and dram added to it and in very few lines. It can be spread out, if the writer wished, into several scenes to build on the symbolism of the letter and the viewer can be pulled and pushed to add tension to the piece and control the pace of the work.

Think of the child being walked and the woman's wordrobe showing hints of red as the child bounces with her walk. You see something, but don't know what it is...the shots can be close up, far away, can keep changing and a scene can be used to have her let down her guard and in doing so she lets the child droop and the letter is revealed, and she quickly recovers and uses the child to cover her letter the symbol is used in more and more ways (let's down guard, covers it up...)