Symbolic? Or Not?

Booking Through Thursday

It does seem like modern fiction just “tells the story” without much symbolism. Is symbolism an older literary device, like excessive description, that is not used much any more? Do you think there was as much symbolism as English teachers seemed to think? What are some examples of symbolism from your reading?

I’m of two minds about this question.  Sometimes, I think that the symbolism is there.  Sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes, too, I think symbolism is misused.  Back in high school, we had to read “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James.  For those of you unfamiliar with the story, it’s about a young governess who moves to a creepy country house to care for two creepy children who starts seeing ghosts.  Is the house really haunted, or is she crazy?  When our teacher told us that her visions were a result of her sexual repression, we all started laughing because none of us saw it (the name of the story aside).  Then she started pointing out certain symbolic things about the…ahem…spiritual visitations, and it started to make sense.

That same year, we studied T.S. Eliot, and we read “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  Both of these poems have passages that make absolutely no sense when read literally, so they must be symbolic, right?  From what I know about T.S. Eliot, though, I think he might have been jerking everyone’s chain.  I can see him sitting down at his typewriter, softly chuckling to himself about generations of English literature majors struggling and failing to find any meaning to his poems and ultimately having to go on anti-psychotic medication.

I think that in modern fiction, symbolism is used less effectively because not many people are familiar with symbolic language or symbolism in general anymore.  I think sometimes symbolism is misused.  For example, I like vampire fiction partly because vampires are the perfect symbol for the dark impulses, emotions, and desires in all of us.  They’re monsters that look just like us, and we can become them if we’re not careful.  So, I’m not a fan of the current “vampires are people, too” movement made popular by a certain author in a certain series of books.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m all for taking symbols and subverting them to make a larger point.  Several writers have done just that with vampires rather successfully, using them to explore themes such as redemption and the ennui of modern life.  This author didn’t do that.  She broke the symbolism.

Her main vampire protagonist has all of the strengths of a vampire, but none of the weaknesses.  He has super strength and super speed.  He’s immortal.  And he’s really, really pretty.  He can go outside during the day without being burned to a crisp.  He can walk into a church.  He can walk into an Italian restaurant and order the garlic shrimp.  He can walk into your house without being invited first (all the better to stalk you while you sleep).  He can cross running water.  He doesn’t have an aversion to shiny things.  (Sometimes, he’s shiny, too!)  And best of all, he doesn’t make a habit of snacking on people.  So basically, he’s Superman with fangs, except, you know, he doesn’t have fangs either.

So while these books were a huge commercial success, they ultimately don’t work, because she’s taken away everything that makes vampires compelling or useful as a symbol for anything.  You could take the vampires out completely, and the story wouldn’t change much.  Even she seems to know on some level that it doesn’t work.  If you disagree, ask yourself, why, in a universe where being a vampire is so awesome that people should be lining up to take it in the jugular does it take four books for everyone to be okay with the main female protagonist becoming one?

5 thoughts on “Symbolic? Or Not?

  1. Library Diva April 23, 2009 / 10:33 am

    I may just have to break down and read these damn books. Everyone seems to have an opinion on them, love or hate. I already suspect which side I’ll lean towards and think you make an excellent point about them. Nonthreatening vampires are kind of silly, after all. Happy BTT!

  2. JLS Hall April 23, 2009 / 10:37 am

    Interesting – I enjoyed your post. I haven’t read any of this current crop of vampire fiction, so I don’t know what I’d think about any of the symbolism. I do tend to like a protagonist to have at least a few weaknesses, though, just to keep things from getting boring.

  3. Popin April 23, 2009 / 11:11 am

    I was thinking about vampires too and while I like when an author changes up vampire lore to suit their books, it does make sad seeing vampires are people too when there is so much more to them. Vampires are dark, sensual, and scary. It’s nice seeing that aspect still being played out.

    ~ Popin

  4. Matthew April 23, 2009 / 11:37 am

    I think only careful, meticulous readers could read into these symbols. In most cases, readers would understand the story without fully grabbing the symbols, but the level of appreciation would be compromised. Toni Morrison would be the prime example. Not all books are endowed with layers of meaning and implications, but symbolism can be a great device to describe things that are very intangible, like death. Symbols can also be very subjective entities. Sometimes I cannot read into any symbols in a book just simply because I lack the personal experience that would put me in tune to the author’s meaning.

  5. Rebecca May 29, 2009 / 12:33 pm

    I know which series of books you speak of, but just from what you wrote, I would not be a fan. I am a symbolism type of gal. I like to read a good book that represents the human condition/non-human condition and shows its strengths as well as weaknesses, its good and bad, its fight between right and wrong. Without a counterbalance, without weaknesses or emotions/things that take you out of your comfort zone or makes you question or makes you want to go insane, where is the growth? And without growth, I would find the story to be too anemic for my taste. I guess these type of books are popular because it is mainly read by the teenybopper crowd, no? And, sweet souls, they just want a good looking boy, a love story, and a happy ending. It’s what’s important at their age and that’s okay too. =)

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