Symbolism in Life and Literature
Updated: Apr 9
On the first day of class this year, I placed a rock on a desk in the middle of my classroom. Students sometimes complain that English teachers overinterpret literature. What they mean is that we think too symbolically. We overanalyze and overthink everything. I, of course, overthought this, and decided that a rock from my backyard might save me and them. Alix Spiegel on NPR’s All Things Considered takes a look at this idea in When Did We Become Mentally Modern? and argues that when humans create real things from their imagination, they create symbols. The first example occurred 75,000 years ago when man decided to make a necklace out of tiny seashells. This necklace represented something. It meant something. Humans make meaning out of objects that otherwise have no meaning. After necklaces, we created many things, many symbols, that hold a meaning that we take for granted. We see a couch and we sit on it. We see letter combinations and read a word. We see a donkey and an elephant and think of political parties. If I wear red and green to school in October, people might think I’m celebrating Christmas too early. Think for a second about the incredible symbolic power of color in our world.
I explain symbolism by telling students: don’t be afraid, it’s a symbol only if you want it to be a symbol. If you decide to give something meaning, then it has that meaning. Most of the time we create meaning unconsciously. Get fries with that burger. Stop on red. Predetermined symbols control our actions, but all objects, if we linger on them long enough, contain a magical quality called symbolism. We think, and they are.
Consider how complicated it gets when we stop thinking about symbolic objects and think instead about human behavior. What do certain behaviors represent? What do certain behaviors mean? If you buy someone an expensive gift, does that mean you love them? If you hold a door open for someone, does that mean you are courteous? That you think of other people before yourself? What about body language? What external gestures represent internal feelings? So yes, unfortunately or fortunately, everything is symbolic. Thomas Hardy in Tess of the D’Urbervilles puts symbolism this way: “Beauty lay not in the thing, but what the thing symbolized”.
Let’s return to my rock. What rock do you imagine? How close is your image to the rock I placed on a desk in my classroom? I only gave you the word rock, and nothing else. Before talking about the rock, I told my students to look at the rock and write something. Anything. I told them to respond to the rock. What’s the rock’s deal? After about a minute, I asked them to share what they wrote. Some created narratives, full stories about the life of the rock. Some wrote poems. Some apostrophized the rock, talking to the rock as if it were human. Some asked the rock questions. But why, I asked, did you not all write the same thing? Even the students who described the rock, described it using much different terms. Even though we’re all sitting in Princeton High School, at 10:30 AM, in room 165, we couldn’t get the reality of the rock just right. If, I asked, in 5 years from now, I asked all of you to tell me about this rock, would you say the same thing? Would you tell the same story? It’s a pretty simple task: tell me about the rock Mr. Cameron brought in from his backyard. But it’s not that easy. You’re all looking at the rock from different angles. You all watched different movies, read different books, had different experiences and conversations, and that make you understand the rock differently. A simple task suddenly becomes an impossible task. There’s no way to recreate the rock. No two memories will be the same. A scientist might do a better job. They know what’s going on inside the rock. What the molecules are doing. Where they are going. They might predict the future of the rock. The rock becomes a fact. When we really look at the rock, when we really look at each other, we give the image meaning, we love it. We want to be a part of it by understanding its essence. We want to be the rock. We google it. We get really overwhelmed. Someone else has given us the image. We did no work to imagine the rock. I write rock, and we both think of something different. But we tried to think of the same thing. We tried to connect. We came together with words.
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