Why Your English Teacher Was Right

People in our modern culture have rejected the meaning of symbolism in their lives. For millennia, art and literature have carried the resonance of archetypes that mattered, that held people together with the collectivity of meaning. A simple study of art history would demonstrate the symbolic nature of color, of objects, of states of being. For example, gaze for a while at the Jan van Eyck painting above and play a game of find-the-symbols. Your study will place you in the realm of scholars, who have been scrutinizing the significance of this painting for a very long time now–not because they desire to read more into the image than already exists, but because the artist intentionally painted meaningful objects in specific places and in specific colors so that his viewing audience would understand his themes.

In the early days of novel-writing, symbolism was de rigueur to the genre, in the same way that archetypes have helped us tell stories from ancient times. These archetypes meant something to peoples who lived their lives in cycles and pronounced stages that were ordered by seasons. For example, a woman didn’t remain a maiden forever; she would begin her adulthood as a maiden, and then progress toward the independent and strong woman of the world, which would then lead her into the autumnal years of a woman who has been tempered by motherhood, which would eventually bring her to the final, peaceful state of wise old crone. These female archetypes were instantly recognizable to the receivers of stories, and they aided struggling souls with necessary life transitions. In a broader sense, these symbols contained greater significance that connected civilizations to cosmic battles. Life was–and is–greater than base necessities. It was–and is–a spiritual battle. These ancient archetypes, in fact, created a collective consciousness that made Christ and his sacrifice, rebirth and transfiguration the ultimate hero story–the fulfilment of all hero stories that preceded his.

As novel writing matured, writers learned to craft archetypes so they weren’t quite so blatant. In other words, as our modern humanism brought with it a lack of meaning and a letting go of ancient symbolism, so also artists became more and more subtle in their craft. They needed to delve into a deeper level of consciousness in order to reach their jaded modern audiences. What does the maiden mean to modern women who reject the beauty of the subsequent phases of life? In a materialistic world, if a selfish woman is to be sexual*, yet rendered infertile by artificial means, and available to a selfish man until well past age forty, how will she understand the beauty of a Helen of Troy, a Mary, a Sophia? And so, after enough time has passed, the subtlety of storytelling has become ubiquitous, and nearly synonymous with great writing to the point that writers, themselves, no longer understand the significance of archetypes except on the purely subconscious level that archetypes have been fed to them in numerous subtle works of literature.

But this modern jadedness and emphasis on cryptology haven’t eradicated symbols from our lives or our stories. Even if authors aren’t aware of they way they’re decorating their landscapes, they are still weaving relevant objects and colors and states of being into the fabric of their stories. How could they avoid it? Words, themselves, as frail as they are, are on a very basic level just phonemes that represent objects and ideas. Writers can’t help themselves. When they insist that they’re only writing stories to entertain, that contain no deep themes, no obscured meanings, they’re either lying to you, or they’re lying to themselves.

Here’s my suggestion to you, modern readers and writers: next time you’re in an English class or reading an interpretive essay, pay attention. Your English teacher was right. When she bored you to tears over the significance of snow in To Build a Fire, she was performing a profound role in your life. She was doing nothing less than lending you a hand to pull you gently through your life transitions. She may have even been trying to save your soul as you began to recognize the cosmic connections in the stack of pulp fiction resting on your bedside table.

*It occurred to me that this could be misunderstood. I believe modern people are selfish when they want to remain young and sexual their entire lives. It isn’t necessarily selfish to avoid having children.

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8 comments

  1. This is really good. And I like how you’ve differentiated authors of the past and present. Symbolism may have been–and I believe it was–much more purposeful in the past than it is now. Not that there aren’t plenty of authors now who are very purposeful with it and use symbolism plentifully. But more and more the focus is on story.

    When I posted that meme on FB, my intent was hyperbole. I use symbolism a lot–but it’s not necessarily what some English teacher would find in it. I think sometimes reading into writing goes too far.

    I agree with what you say here: “Words, themselves, as frail as they are, are on a very basic level just phonemes that represent objects and ideas.” Yes, words have connotations and all sorts of meanings attached far deeper than the strict definition. And by that course, authors use symbolism all the time, whether they intend to or not, whether they’re thinking symbolically or not. Something as simple as the fact that blue is a calming color, that it’s the color of the sky and the ocean–those things can add meaning if an author chooses to make the curtains in a particular room blue.

    Or, maybe, the author just thinks blue is pretty :).

    Anyway, I think it is all dependent on the author. And I think there is no way to truly know what an author intended without asking them. But yes, they will at times choose elements on a subconscious level, having been influenced by culture and literature and art. (And so sometimes even asking them won’t get the answer because even they don’t know…)

    This whole thing has me pondering a blog post in which I may reveal some of the symbolism in my own writing…

    1. “but it’s not necessarily what some English teacher would find in it.” Well, yeah, some reading of texts is just absurd. I was sort of glossing over that to make a larger point (perhaps disingenuous of me, but I make no apologies). I’d love to read a blog post where you reveal your symbolism. It would be interesting for comparison’s sake.

      Almost every object I place in my books is symbolic on one level or another, with some being of greater importance to the intent of the story. And I’m sure English teachers might interpret things in a different way than I intended (yes, duh, I’m going to be read in English classes someday, ha ha), and their interpretations would become teaching tools for me, the author, in becoming more aware of how symbols resonate with a modern day audience.

      1. Well, then, I’ll have at least one person reading my post :).

        And maybe someday we WILL be read in English classes…*stares wistfully*…

        This whole discussion, of course, reminds me of the Kurt Vonnegut thing in “Back to School” :).

  2. Very thought provoking.

    I have to say that it sheds a new light on the novels I read. I will have to ponder the archetype significance of Mitch Rapp, being the archetype hero, pulls his archetype 9 mm from his holsters, and shoots the archetype terrorist between the archetype eyes and kills him. Hhm? 🙂

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