Symbolism in Literature


Commentary by Karen Bernardo


Just as characterization and dialogue and plot work on the surface to move the story along, symbolism works under the surface to tie the story’s external action to the theme. Early in the development of the fictional narrative, symbolism was often produced through allegory, giving the literal event and its allegorical counterpart a one-to-one correspondence.


In John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, everything and everyone stands for something else. The protagonist Christian, to no one’s surprise, stands for every Christian reader; his goal, the Celestial City, stands for Heaven; the places through which he passes on his way—Lucre Hill, Vanity Fair, and the like—stand for the temptations Bunyan felt that Christian readers were likely to encounter on their journey to salvation. Even the names of Christian’s fellow travelers—Mr. Feeble-mind, Great-heart, and the like—represent not individual characters but states of being.


Allegory is undoubtedly the simplest way of fleshing out a theme, but it is also the least emotionally satisfying because it makes things a little too easy on the reader. We feel that we are being lectured to; it’s almost as if the author is stopping every sentence or two to say, “Now pay special attention to this, because if you don’t remember it, you won’t get the point.” Essentially, allegory insults our intelligence.


Allegory also, however, limits our perceptions. The best works of literature are those in which an element of mystery remains—those which lend themselves to a variety of interpretations. Strict allegory seldom does this, which is why religious allegory is generally less satisfying than the scriptural story on which it was based.


To take allegory to the next higher level, we arrive at something that for want of a better term can be called symbolism. At this level, there is still a form of correspondence, and yet it is not so one-to-one, and certainly not so blatant. Whereas allegory operates very consciously, symbolism operates on the level of the unconscious. This does not mean that the author himself is unconscious of the process of creating symbolism—merely that we, as readers, accept its input without really understanding how it works.


In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for example, we discover that Hamlet is fascinated with actors and acting. Upon reflection, an astute reader realizes that this is because Hamlet’s whole life has become unreal; he is being haunted by the ghost of his father, his father turns out to have been murdered by his uncle, his mother has married his father’s murderer. The motif of the actors is a symbol for the unreality of Hamlet’s life.


Similarly, near the beginning of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, there is the famous scene of the Valley of Ashes where Tom Buchanan’s mistress Myrtle lives. Although Fitzgerald never says so, it is clear that the Valley of Ashes represents the real state of Tom’s soul; although to the outside world his residence is in a mansion on the beautiful bay at East Egg, where everything is opulent and expensive and tasteful, the inwardly rotten, spiritually desiccated Tom really “lives” where his “heart” does, in a grim ashen valley presided over by a billboard decorated with a huge pair of bespectacled eyes. The eyes represent God, who sees Tom’s actions and knows the interior of his heart, but ominously seems powerless to intervene.


Other famous symbols are Melville’s great white whale in Moby Dick; Dante’s journey into the underworld in The Inferno; and Coleridge’s albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” All these concrete objects or places carry within them a wide range of associations that stand for something so ineffable it would spoil the magic to explain it. Symbolism, therefore, is an integral component of fiction, because it enriches the narrative by pulling its message down to the level of our unconscious and anchoring it there.



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