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?