1. Honorius
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    Honorius Active Member

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    Symbolism!

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Honorius, Nov 7, 2010.

    I see a ton of stuff on the forum about writing, which is quite good. But I haven't seen a single thread about Symbolism. I'm sure there's been one at some point, but I clearly missed it.

    So! Let's see what we can do with Symbols! Lists of symbols you've seen used, questions about what some symbols mean, questions on how to make a symbol for a specific idea.

    Symbolism is an incredibly important part of Literature, and a little symbolism is sure to make any poem, novel, or short story better.
     
  2. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    For me working with symbols often is done on only a half conscious or unconscious level. I write and carefully linking things together.

    And an important truth for me isn't any universal symbol language, but all must be seen in the context of the text and reader. You might write the book with any symbolic intension on your own but the symbols that matter will the ones the reader finds and creates in the reading.

    Last time I work with symbol was a short story named "Sisterly", with two girls, in their late teens and one of the girls puppy. The two girls is obviously very close but their relationship is undefined throughout the story. It was written for the reader to pick up that their was some underlying tension, and slowly perhaps piece together that it was a story of two best friends, one in love with the other but the love unrequited in a romantic way, but returned as a sisterly love. A bittersweet little story.

    The symbolism used is hidden in how the POW character (the one in love) observes the other girl playing with the puppy. How the other girl is holding it tightly, caressing it and kissing its brow. Its a very subtle thing, adding to the tension, but hard, really hard to pick put when first reading that passage unless pointed out.

    I prefer my symbolism that way. Subtle as hell, and highly dependent on the context. I couldn't gone to a symbolism lexicon look up "Unrequited lesbian love=Petting the puppy"
     
  3. Noya Desherbanté
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    Noya Desherbanté Senior Member

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    Ohh, I haven't actually used any symbolism in my stories yet, they're all to simplistic and to the point! But I am a HUGE fan of symbolism in music videos, popular culture, etc. Once you know what to look out for, watching any Lady Gaga video is a truly frightening experience (if it wasn't already... and I'm saying that as one of her particularly fervent fans!)... the eye in the pyramid, horned beasts, Christian symbolism and Pagan idols... I would love to know how to effectively put those in my writing though... 0_o
     
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  4. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh. Noya. You just provides me with a perfect example of how I think symbolism is used often very badly.

    Take the eye in the pyramid for example. It is in my opinion a symbol that has suffer from pop culture overuse. Loads of bad action flicks, thrillers, horror movies and anything with occult angle the last 40 years has more often then not used the symbol clumsily with often no more depth then "Look! Secret Illuminati organisation, probably doing something baaaaad!". Hence my first reaction when I that symbol in fiction is "Bad action flick." rather then any awe, mystery, fear, religious meaning, or anything else that symbol once could be meant to convey.

    What feel overused or not is individual of course, and depends on what fiction you consumed and what other cultural background you have as well. In my teens I had an interest in the occult etc and thats probably one of the reason i roll my eyes and badly used occult symbolism.

    But I agree with you, Lady Gaga uses her symbolism really well for the effect she wants in the context she uses them.
     
  5. Cecil
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    Cecil Member

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    I agree with this, but I might go a step further. I think that deliberately adding symbolism to your story is usually (not always) a bad idea. Done very subtly it can be fine, but often times it comes across as pretentious. And just because a symbol means something to you, doesn't mean it means the same thing, or even a similar thing, to the reader. On the other hand, if you just write your story and the reader happens to see symbols, they will be meaningful to the reader.

    I think the best stories are, in fact, "straightforward and to the point." Symbols done well can (at best) add a level of enjoyment to readers who happen to figure them out or are otherwise "in the know."

    But anytime you use symbolism to obscure the "real meaning" of your story, all it does is isolate potential readers and (if you're lucky) give English teachers something to praise after you die. The question I would ask anyone who goes out of there way to write a story knee deep in symbolism is "why?" So your readers will think you're smart?
     
  6. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Couldn't disagree more. It's impossible to write a story and not use some form of symbolism. On a very basic level, words are symbols for objects after all.

    It's possible to write Rich, textured works that are loaded with symbolism - every time you associate a character with one particular item or symbol youre creating a symbolic link to that character. Well used it can be incredibly effective in giving a story a layer of richness that you could not otherwise achieve.

    Not all symbols or images have to be pretentious. They can be used to reinforce the mundanity of a situation. Symbols are basically images to convey information without spelling the information out - information substitutes.

    It's more obvious in films - but for example the rattle of the policemans keys in ET - associating him with that jangle sound and reinforcing the threat of capture.

    I think you'll find the novels usually regarded as the best are those which are ripe with symbolism. Ulysees - often regarded as the best novel written (of the 21st Century) - is deeply layered with symbols.

    Symbols can be used to show rather than tell information about a character. The way he dresses is symbolic, for example.

    Symbolism does not have to obscure. It can illuminate. Remember that there are universal symbols and there are esoteric symbols.

    There is a case for using an esoteric symbol - in the case of repressed societies for example. Often information is passed between individuals symbolically because it cannot be said out loud.

    Symbols are part of human life - as Literature reflects that life it's impossible not to use them!
     
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  7. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    It seems like Cecil is talking about symbols which supposedly convey a deep hidden meaning, like religious symbols, while cmcpress is talking about symbolism in a more general sense. Perhaps we can give a few more examples of symbols?

    Here are some:

    The main character arrives in a society which is unknown to him and the reader/viewer. He sees two people wearing uniforms, badges and carrying their weapons visibly. This tells the reader/viewer they're some kind of law enforcement. Does that count as symbolism?

    An example of really bad symbolism: In the movie End of Days, Arnold Schwarzenegger's character is hung up on a wall by the devil's minions in a crucifixion-like position. There's no special reason for this; it's not like Schwarzenegger's character is supposed to symbolise Jesus, or the act of hanging him up there is supposed to symbolises the lowest moment of the character, where evil seems to triumph over good. It's just a random Christian reference.

    In US-American visual media, a person wearing glasses and acting or looking funny usually symbolises he's a nerd, which means he's smart but not popular.
     
  8. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    Well in the essence that they instantly symbolise enforcement - and depending on the characters POV threat, salvation or menace.

    Well arguably by comparing Arnie to Christ they're reinforcing that he is mankind's saviour.

    As for whether Religious symbolism is appropriate - it depends on the subject matter of the story. If you're chucking in religious symbols for no apparent reason or making overblown statements about religion within the confines of, say, a police procedural these aren't really appropriate.

    But within a story about someone's "dark night of the soul" then these could be entirely appropriate.

    Religious symbols are really just culturally encoded iconography to describe a level of experience that everyday language cannot - Cathexis, for example.

    Another way you can talk about Religious symbols is to create your own. For example an Atheist might encode Religion as an unpleasant object - such as a the famous "Piss Christ" - that beautiful (real life) photo of a crucifix suspended in urine.
     
  9. Peregrin
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    Peregrin Member

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    I usually think of symbolism as the very subtle ways the writer conveys his views & thoughts without going on a rant about them. Used intentionally, I find it far too easy to become cliche and repetitive.

    One of my favorite symbols is Dr. T.J. Eckleberg's billboard in The Great Gatsby. It's somewhat subtle and not preachy even though it's used repeatedly and it fits directly into the story.

    It was that very book that made me believe that Symbols in literature are either 1. drivel purposefully added into a story that detracts heavily from it, almost turning it into a sounding-board. 2. a good way to highlight characters and foreshadow important events. Again, this is done purposefully. Or, 3. entirely organic and grown from the writing itself out of necessity. The writer can be completely unaware of the third way.

    I've looked back over my work and found symbol upon symbol without ever knowing they were there. They were there because I was looking for them. Anyone critiquing your work for symbols will find them whether you intend for them to be there or not.
     
  10. Honorius
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    Honorius Active Member

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    There are indeed symbols that seem to appear spontaneously, out of no where. But many of those novels considered great works of fiction are absolutely filled with symbolism that is definitely intentional.

    I'm not talking about the cross is a symbol of christ, or a badge a symbol of the police. I'm talking about T.J. Eckleberg level stuff. There's a reason the great gatsby took years and years to write. Because it is considered a king of color symbolism.

    Some examples. Daisy is the love interest of the story. What color is a daisy? White with a yellow center. White normally symbolises purity, holiness, virginity. Yellow, while often associated with the sun and happiness, is also commonly an evil, devlish color due to its association with Sulphur which is heavily associated with the devil. The smell of hell, fire and brimstone, etc. So, we have a pure exterior and evil center. Guess what? Daisy appears to be pure and sweet, and always wears white. Of course, she's cheating on her husband to be with Gatsby, and then goes back to her husband after Gatsby takes the blame for vehicular manslaughter on her part. He even is killed for it, and she doesn't attend the funeral. More? Gatsby's car is described as being cream colored. A nice, white color. After it runs someone over, killing them, it's described as yellow.

    Is this symbolism over bearing? Not at all. Fitzgerald doesn't go explaining all this, telling us how evil yellow is, or how much like a daisy Daisy is. At most, he describes Daisy much liking the color white because it looks so clean. And even then, only once or twice. And he does nothing more with the car than tell what color it is. This is good, literary symbolism, its not too heavy, not over bearing, but it gives insight and new meaning to scenes that otherwise might just be things that happen.

    What I had hoped to do, was create a compendium of sorts of different symbols, though I now believe that their context is something that must be added to the symbol. But some symbols are nearly constant. Yellow is often evil, as is crimson. People who are about 23, fish, are carpenters, have disciples, and make sacrifices are often Christ figures (Note not christ, only resembling him). Water often symbolizes cleansing even baptism.

    But none of these are always true of course.

    As for the keys and Schwarzenegger, the keys could be a symbol, but I feel its really just more the show not tell principle. And Schwarzenegger, I can't say for sure, but it seems that since the show has something to do with devils, putting him on a cross seems only natural plot wise.
     
  11. cmcpress
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    cmcpress Senior Member

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    I think it would be hard to compile a compendium as not all symbols are universal (depending on if you are Jungian or not)... For example White is thought of as a funereal colour in some cultures.

    Actually in ET, Spielberg conciously wanted the keys to symbolise incarceration from the get go. Peter Coyote's character is also referred to as "keys" in the script.
     
  12. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh. There are loads of symbolical lexicons. Every thing for pop cultural color theory to books on classical heraldic symbolism. Fun and inspirational, but not bearers on any absolute truth.

    But to Honorius I feel the need to reply this.

    One simple argument is that even if we in a international world more and more come to share a common symbol language, if we look at history it easy to see that why and how differnt cultures developed different symbol langauges.

    The view om colors and there mening for example will of course be whidly diffrent in the artic then in the desert or jungle or taiga, in a places with four season rather places with two distinct seasons. In a hunter gather society compared to a herding or farming society. Symbolism has varied greatly thoughout the globe and history, and the idea that there are universal symbols was a nice idea but has little to do with reality.

    The Greate Gatsby was brilliant not in the use of universal symbols but the use of symbols in a westen educational tradition.
     
  13. Honorius
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    Honorius Active Member

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    But of course.... w176.... You need a better name... (Sorry, tanget. Used to having nicknames or easy usernames, not numbers....)

    Anyway, since we clearly cannot create a compendium/archive/anything of symbols, how about everyone's favorite symbols?
     
  14. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Usually I don't really bother with symbols. The ones in my writing were unintentional.

    However Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon contains my favourite use of symbols the constant dragging of everything back to the land of Scotland etc
     
  15. w176
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    w176 Contributing Member Contributor

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    The Ouroboros, the snake biting its own tale devouring itself.

    Because as a symbol no matter who you are, your age our cultural background the concept of a living being devouring itself will make you react. Its out of the normal human experience, no matter who you are. It makes you feel and makes you think.

    It a symbol that have been used in a many ways with many meanings. Self destruction, the structure of storytelling, eternity, alchemy, Norse religion, western mysticism, eastern yoga...

    :love: Ouroboros. If I'm ever going to get a tattoo this is it.



    OT: My nickname is a fossil from the age when their was no girls on the internet. I was chatting in Quakenet on IRC, and needed to chose the most androgynous nickname whatsoever to avoid harassment. And I kept it for more then 10 years now, i cant go changing it. It's me.
     
  16. MissPomegranate
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    MissPomegranate Member

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    I've always thought authors usually don't purposely add in symbolism. I mean, sometimes a tree if just a tree and not some symbol of rebirth or of change or of growth. It's just a tree, in a novel, serving it's role...of a tree.

    I guess some authors add in parts to have a double-meaning, but for the most part I think it's just chance that someone picked up on something they thought was significant. I suppose is someone tried hard enough, they could find some way to get a motif from some of my writing, though I've never put any symbolism in.
     
  17. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    The logic goes that everything in your novel is there for a reason. Everything you say has some significance. So if you're talking about, for instance, a tree, there must be a reason for it. Maybe it is just plot related, for instance, maybe some kids are playing in it, climbing it, whatever. But already, even without necessarily intending it, you've made that tree symbolic. Rather than just an inanimate object dropped in your book, your reader has reconstructed it in their mind and animated it with all their knowledge of trees, their memories of childhood, cultural and personal imagery, etc, etc. So your tree, which for you is just a tree, is now a symbol of childood, or youth, or nature, however the reader interprets it.

    As has been said, language functions in a symbolic way. Words are never precise one-to-one stand-ins for the objects they index. This is why reading is fundamentally different from other media. The word 'tree' doesn't refer to the one specific tree in your novel that you think has no significance. It refers to the reader's entire understanding of the idea of a tree, both personal and cultural. This is how symbolism works. It isn't something rigid or boring, it isn't something contrived or pretentious, it's something every writer, simply by the act of writing, is engaged in. And being aware of it will only make you a better writer.
     
  18. Cecil
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    Cecil Member

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    Cmcpress, in as far as it is literally impossible to not use symbols at all, I agree with you. As you write your story, your own experiences and opinions will filter literally everything that goes into it, and when the reader starts reading it, their own life experiences will add to the mix, creating a totally unique experience thick with deep, personal, and meaningful symbols.

    But to use the Great Gatsby example, that story would be of (IMO) exactly the same quality if Daisy's name were any other functional female name. The only thing you get out of the whole "white outside yellow inside" thing is something for English teachers to shove down their students throats years later. It gives the illusion of depth because you can say "see, look at this symbolism, see how much thought the author put into every choice!" when in fact, the aspects of the story that actually matter (who the character is as a person, the plot, character development, etc.) are exactly the same.

    Now, Daisy's name doesn't detract from the quality of the story at all, it's fine. But if Fitzgerald actually spent years and years on that kind of symbol, I think he wasted his time.

    Symbols can turn an otherwise good story into a puzzle game. It's something to be picked apart and analyzed and the actual experience is lost because the reader spends more time thinking (or worrying) about how clever and sneaky the author must be to hide all these little easter eggs, and the reader stops caring about whether or not the author actually wrote something relevant to the human experience.

    The fact that Daisy's personality loosely corresponds to our cultural interpretation of the colors of a daisy is not important, the fact that she appears good and is actually cheating on her husband is.

    In simple terms, symbols aren't always bad. Invoking imagery associated with fear to put the reader in the right state of mind to read something scary is fine (but you should recognize that that same fear symbol won't work equally well for everyone). But when you (or your reader) actually thinks one of the most important things about your work is something so convoluted you have to be a scholar of English literature to understand it, you've missed the point entirely.

    I mean, how many people reading the Great Gatsby would ever think about or care about the "significance" of Daisy's name before their professor told them, and how many professors would know about it if there wasn't constant pressure to keep publishing "stuff" in that field to force some professor to try and sound smart by research symbolism enough to say "Hey, Daisy's name isn't just a coincidence!"
     
  19. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Then there's the classic "train goes into a tunnel".

    The question is, was it a symbol the first time someone used it, or did it only become one when it started to have a well-known meaning?
     
  20. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    @Cecil: That view only makes sense if you value the story over other parts of writing. It falls apart, for instance, if you consider something like James Joyce's Ulysses or Nabokov' Lolia, novels which are formally, structurally and symbolically experimental. Part of the joy of reading these kinds of novels is unraveling the intricate linguistic and symbolic puzzles and games the authors create. It isn't simply a matter of picking a symbol at random and finding the meaning, but of descending down the rabbit hole, to borrow an overused symbol, and exploring the ways the intertextuality of the devices opens the novel up. The whole point of symbolism is that it denies any singular interpretation, instead opening the writing up to cultural and personal subjectivity through creating links to other writing, and other art in general.

    I think with the Daisy example, you're going about it the wrong way. The fact that he named her Daisy doesn't necessarily change her character; you're right. But he chose to name her Daisy, it isn't arbitrary. So, knowing her character, you can start thinking about why he made that choice, about what Daisy means, about other instances in which it has been used, about what these intertextual links add to your understanding. Symbols are entry points into texts, meant to extend your understanding, not to make the author look clever. So if people don't think about symbols, they would probably like the book just fine. But if they start to think in terms of intertextuality, and symbolism, then I bet they'd enjoy it even more.

    And I can assure you that professors have better things to research than whether naming her Daisy is significant...
     
  21. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Doesn't that force you to stop and contemplate? For me, it it sounds like it would disrupt the reading.
     
  22. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    You say that like it's a bad thing.
     
  23. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    or maybe he named her Daisy because the book was written in the 1920s when the name was still fairly popular and also used as a nickname for Margaret. My Aunty Edna born about that time had a best friend called Daisy and there were two others in her class at school.
     
  24. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    Or after Henry James' Daisy Miller, or the Daisies of his other work. Either way, it's irrelevant, since symbolism isn't a question of either-or. Both ideas are brought to bear on the meaning on the symbol and influence how you read the text. This is precisely the point.
     
  25. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    But it often is.

    Often the symbols the author deploys are intended to be read in a particular way. And that reading augments the beauty, underpins the broader message..whatever. And to miss the symbol (its intended symbolism), is to miss out on some of the beauty, some of the message. And, sometimes, the missing of it renders the piece a hollow shell.

    Now, this may bother the author, it may not.
    And, we might normally say to the reader: tough.

    But the reader who is happy to accept that he sometimes misses out because he is stupid, because he lacks emotional depth, because he wants psychological perspicacity, is likely less accepting if he misses out because
    he has slight knowledge of Catholic rituals or Aborignal customs..whatever.

    Which is to say that if an author wishes to communicate he should understand thay some of his symbols may have an especial ability to engender alienation and vexation.
     

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